CyberSpacers: New-Age News Reporters

CYBERSPACE, 2007 (D.O.T.) - As picture-taking mobile telephones and digital movie camera usage grows, cyberspacers are being recruited as citizen news reporters.

Recently, Yahoo launched YouWitnessNews, a website that posts offerings from users after the submissions pass muster with professional editors.

Founded almost two years ago, news website taps into legions of people that post pictures, videos, or commentary online.

NowPublic boasts more than 60,000 contributing "reporters" in more than 140 countries and promises to quickly locate potential witnesses or news gatherers close to breaking events from natural disasters to terrorist attacks.

"We have become the largest participatory news network in the world," says NowPublic chief executive Leonard Brody. "We have everything from complete amateurs to complete professionals."

"News in the future is going to be crowd-source and we are building that army."

NowPublic and YouWitnessNews have formed alliances with traditional international news wire services and provide them photos or other worthy content.

NowPublic takes the deal a step further, promising to swiftly pinpoint for wire service reporters potential witnesses or contributors close to the scenes of breaking news.

"If a bomb went off in Budapest and you wanted to connect with someone within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of the scene, we find them for you," says Brody.

Vancouver-based NowPublic has been doubling in size every three months.

"I think that the whole citizen journalism phenomenon is a nascent trend," says Scott Moore, head of Yahoo News. "It is really technology that has created the opportunity."

"You have tens of millions of people around the world with cell phones with cameras connected to providers. It's like having an army of stringers out."

Inspiration for YouWitnessNews came as Yahoo News editors were searching for pictures in the wake of deadly bomb blasts on London trains in 2005, according to Moore.

Within thirty minutes of the tragic explosions Yahoo editors found amateur images from the scene posted on websites. Within days of the bombings, there were thousands of images on the Internet.

"That brought home to us the potential," Moore says.

NowPublic named former news website chief editor Merrill Brown as chairman of the board.

"My partners and I know the Internet well," Brody says.

"Merrill brings news business experience to the table. We need to have credible news people in here."

NowPublic intended to be a resource, not a substitute, for professional news reporters, according to Brody.

"Our job is to provide an army of people who are eyes and ears that journalists can build around," says Brody.

"Telling someone they are going to be a citizen journalist is like telling them they are going to be a citizen dentist; it requires training and the average person just can't do it."

Potential for participatory news was deemed strongest at major events and in aspects of community life that major news organizations neglect, like school sports.

"I don't think it is going to replace journalists any more than television replaced radio or the Internet replaced television," Moore explains.

Participatory journalism is expected to influence traditional news operations as reporters get tips or ideas from people online or respond to news broken by people in the right places at the right times.

"This could really snowball," Moore adds. "The only thing holding it back is making enough people aware of it and making it easy to plug into it."

Content at the NowPublic website is completely user-provided, with about half of it being original and the rest links to other online news stories.

Volunteer "deputy editors" filter inappropriate material and let contributors know when stories are incomplete, inaccurate, or unauthentic, according to NowPublic.

"For so long we've been a generation of people who have been spoken to," says Brody. "Now, they can speak and they get a kick out of seeing their content published."

NowPublic added a "tip jar" feature that enables contributors to be given gratuities via PayPal online financial transaction accounts, because NowPublic does not pay people for news stories, images or video.


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