Corporations Co-opt Citizen Journalism

Advertising forecasters predict double-digit growth for online media outlets in the new year. Traditional media, including television and newspapers, are slated for flat growth, at best, during 2007.

We all know what this means. The big media companies are migrating to the Internet as fast as possible, simultaneously laying off workers and cutting budgets in their traditional broadcast and print operations.

None of this comes as a surprise in the continuing transition from analog to digital technologies. However, human reaction to this sea change in media technology is continuously fascinating. It gets especially ludicrous watching these fearful media companies connive to save a buck as their old business models diminish.

A perfect example is the phenomenon tagged "citizen journalism." It certainly started out as a noble concept--the idea that ordinary people participate in the reporting, analyzing and dissemination of news and information.

It was idealized that having this "man on the street" participation in the news reporting process would serve to democratize an elitist system controlled by the few.

Aided by the Internet and low-cost digital media acquisition tools, there is no doubt that a handful of talented, dedicated independent media creators have and continue to innovatively challenge the world's largest corporate media organizations.

However, as with most good things, the big guys eventually tried to co-opt it for their own benefit. The first attempts to use ordinary people as news reporters started with local TV stations and news organizations including CNN and the BBC. They actively sought amateur video of newsworthy events made by their own viewers.


But the idea didn't stay small for long. Now, Yahoo and Reuters have begun an initiative that they hope will turn digital camera and mobile phone users into a national corps of voluntary photojournalists.

This changes the game, since Yahoo, rated by comScore Media Metrix as the most popular news Web site in the United States, is teaming with Reuters, one of the world's largest distributors of news.

Newsworthy photos and videos that pass muster are placed throughout and Yahoo News. Then, in 2007, Reuters plans to distribute some of the better submissions to the thousands of print, online, and broadcast media outlets that subscribe to its news service.

Eventually, Reuters told The New York Times that it hopes to develop a service devoted entirely to user-submitted photographs and video.

What's wrong with this picture? A lot, but let's start with two things. One is quality. (Have you looked closely at most citizen-made photos and video lately?) And the second, money. Or lack thereof.

According to a report in The New York Times, photographers (and let's assume their stills or video are good enough for use) are not paid one dime for images displayed on the Yahoo and Reuters sites.

That fact is not easy to determine by users when signing up for "You Witness," which requires Yahoo users also have a Flickr account for photo access. We found that a user had to give his consent to give Yahoo access to his Flickr images before the online fine print could even be accessed.

Flickr users are told that when they click an access button that they also agree to allow Yahoo to use their public photos. Period. No further explanation other than the comment: "You might even become famous!"

The idea, it appears, is to pay citizen journalists with 15 minutes of fame rather than actual money.

However, photos or videos selected for distribution to Reuters news organization clients will receive a "relatively small" undetermined cash payment, Chris Ahearn, president of the Reuters media group, told The New York Times. Reuters was likely to pay more to people offering exclusive rights to images of major events, he said.

Oh please! It's a good thing that Abraham Zapruder, the pioneering citizen journalist who aimed his 8mm movie camera toward the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, was not dealing with Reuters. It's doubtful he would have gotten the $150,000 payment--about half a million in today's currency--when he sold the footage to Life magazine.

Who do these media companies think they are fooling? They are making a blatant attempt to build news organizations based on free user- provided content.

To scammers, this is a wide open invitation for fraud. To professional photographers and videographers, it's an insult and a monumental act of disrespect for their craft.

Of course, there's a place for amateur footage in professional news reporting, especially in an era of ubiquitous video imaging tools. But that doesn't mean these amateur-made images will meet the standards of competent journalistic storytelling.

Earlier in my career, I was privileged to be directed as a video cameraman by the great photographer Gordon Parks. Parks was not only a film director ("Shaft," 1971), but a master of the photo essay.

Park's photojournalism at Life magazine beginning in the 1940s set the gold standard for visual storytelling. His work was no accident. He saw the world through his viewfinder in a unique way. It was a combination of skill and talent, honed over the making of thousands of images.

One wonders if the suits at these new organizations even understand the differences in quality. Perhaps they do and simply don't care, that is if they can save a few dollars.

Dan Gillmor, a proponent of citizen journalism, recently predicted in an online blog that professional photographers and videographers will soon see their ranks dwindle as the "the ability to make a living at it will crumble soon."

The pros who deal in breaking news have a problem, he said. "They can't possibly compete in the mediasphere of the future. We're entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access. When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, and when updated business models connect the best creators with potential customers, many if not most of the pros will fight a losing battle to save their careers."

Gillmor predicts that in a world of ubiquitous media tools, which is almost here, someone will be on the spot every time to report the story.

Granted, there might be eyewitnesses with cameras nearly everywhere. But most will have limited picture-making skills. What about the trained storytellers who know how to interpret the event for millions of viewers around the globe?

I predict that in a world overflowing with dreadful citizen-made images, talented photographers and videographers will survive. Perhaps they will not be on the payroll of the traditional news organizations. Yet, they will always be in demand by a group of discriminating consumers who will pay for their services.

News dominated by citizen journalists will be just like the neighbor who makes you sit through a viewing of his 300 vacation snapshots or baby pictures from Costco. Your eyes will begin to glaze over, followed by an urge to scream.

Beware of news organizations that think they can replace professionals with citizen-made free content. It will stink. Always has, always will.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.