Citizen(s) Can

In Citizen Kane filmmaker Orson Wells captured the capriciousness of a one media baron from an era past. The face of journalism to come may be symbolized by the emerging citizen journalist — a phenomenon known in business circles by a different name, user-generated content. These are two ways of looking at the same act. Invite viewers to post words, pictures, video, audio, cartoons, data, tags or whatever. Ideally that material will reflect a freshness and spontaneity not found in traditional media. That material should also attract more viewers to post more material, building an audience around which one might create a business model. Online Journalism Review recently took a look at the journalistic side of this equation in an article on “How to succeed as a citizen media editor.”
Author Mark Glaser focused on a handful of prominent examples from traditional media testing this new notion (as opposed to Web-grown efforts) such as,, and
The article offers many lessons for anyone contemplating a user-centric content model. I will excerpt two issues — the role of what Glaser calls the citizen media editor (CME) and the question of libel.
“The CME wants to keep typical spelling and grammar errors out of copy, while also giving citizen reporters the freedom to tell their story and the motivation to continue to do the work for little or no pay,” he writes, describing a position that seems part copy editor, part recruiter, part ombudsman (and I’m doubtless leaving things out).
But editing copy puts the site owner in what Glaser describes as a Catch 22. “If any editing is done, then the news organization could be held accountable for any libelous statements made or any copyrighted material that was lifted from another source. But if no editing is done, the liability might go away (as it has in libel cases against Internet service providers), but the quality would plummet as well.”
I think this balancing act must tilt toward editing. Media should provide content, not merely catharsis. We create no value — either journalistically or financially — by posting screeds. And I think the libel fear is overblown. Most people are not libelous. If someone offers to post questionable material, edit the words. Most people will be thankful. They do not wish to look foolish in print.If a libelous assertion is missed and the site gets a valid complaint, take down the offensive post and write a sincere apology and explanation. That should handle most cases and create an acceptable environment for libel risk.
Glaser’s article had drawn one comment by the time I printed out a hard copy to read on the train. A writer complained when traditional media invite participation by citizen journalists, it is a form of “union busting.” The same writer also noted that animated cartoons are one of the livelier aspects of volunteer content creators and sites have been slow to accept these. I heartily agree on the last point. The whole point of new media is media-mixing. If you don’t encourage that, it ain’t new media. It’s just cheaper media (by not requiring printing and distribution). As to the first complaint, let’s just call citizen journalism a form of outsourcing and acknowledged that media, like every other industry, will take that option to the degree feasible. And some citizen sites will pay. Paid Content recently pointed to a citizen journalism site called GetLocalNews that has created a payment scheme. I didn’t have time to drill down for details. I am not a citizen journalist. I am the other kind and it’s time to quit blogging and get to work.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media