Citizen Craig on "citizen journalism"

To hear him tell it, Craig Newmark has had only the most trifling effect on the American newspaper business. "Somebody invented recently a myth that we're hurting newspapers," he complained to Philip Weiss in a recent New York magazine profile. "That appears to be an invention . . . We're a minor factor." He'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of publishers to agree. All told, Newmark and his craigslist website may have singlehandedly cost the newspaper industry more money than any one adversary in its history. The palpitations started all over again last year, when Newmark started speaking publicly about something called, alternately, "citizen journalism" or "community journalism"--the premise being that free community sites like craiglist might grow up organically to supplant newspapers on the news side as well as the advertising side.

Newmark is emphatic that he doesn't espouse this view himself--professional newsgatherers are irreplaceable, he says--but the specter of further hemorrhaging readers to free sites like craigslist has left the industry plenty interested in the details of Newmark's web intuition. Last month he spoke to a west coast gathering of Association of Alternative Newsweeklies members (transcript here), and last week I phoned him up to talk about his notions concerning online news.

City Pages: You've talked a lot about "citizen journalism." But I've yet to come across a definition of what you think that means, exactly. What is it, in your view? Can you give a thumbnail definition?

Craig Newmark: I try not to define it, because it means too many things to too many people. You could say it's anything relating to journalism, done by a person who's not paid to do it. But that doesn't really capture it. There's a spectrum of professionalism spanning everything from full-time professional writers and fact-checkers to people who are really good at it but don't get paid for it.

So it may not be the right question.

CP: You've discussed a news project that would involve identifying the most authoritative or trustworthy versions of the major news stories of the day. How would you arrive at that? Would it be a matter of software algorithms, editorial judgments, reader votes--how?

Newmark: A combination of all three of those. The guy to talk to, though, would be Jeff Jarvis. I don't mean to jerk you around, it's just that I don't know how to articulate it any better.

CP: Can you build a viable model of citizen journalism that includes original reporting without capitalizing the effort to some extent? Don't people have to be paid to be able to gather and report news?

Newmark: Just to be clear, this is my own personal interest. This is not Craigslist. We have no interest in being a publisher. We're strictly a carrier, not a publisher.

If you've read my blog lately, you'll notice I've been emphasizing recently a balance and merging of professional and citizen journalism. The deal is, there's no substitute for professional-level writing and fact-checking and editing. One of the tenets of the effort I'm involved with is to drive more traffic to professional news sites. People have gotten too excited about citizen journalism, and they're not addressing the balance well.

CP: A lot of people have suggested that the growth of pure portal sites like Google and Yahoo at the expense of traditional newspapers is just going to decapitalize the collection of news, and make us all poorer despite our enhanced access to a variety of "news" outlets on the web.

Newmark: I do have a different vision, but I'm an amateur at this, and I defer to professionals who are basically telling me that all this is doing is accelerating the move from paper to electronic delivery. Paper's a great medium, but it's expensive to buy, print, and deliver. In the future we're going to see more electronics and less paper. That's going to take a big chunk out of the expense of newspapers.

Again, I'm just repeating what other people are saying. Me, I'm focusing on--one of the main thrusts of what I'm doing is to try to promote investigative journalism. I've been working with people at the Center for Public Integrity. And I had a meeting a couple of hours ago with a guy from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The deal is, how do we promote it better in an environment where people need to know why they're hearing about things. I have some ideas along those lines. The idea is that--there's this Oscar Wilde quote, If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you. That's why, frankly, I get a chunk of my news from--I use CNN and NPR and I read the Chron pretty religiously, but the best source of commentary and unpublished news I have is The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They will often use stuff that reporters have told me they're afraid to print.

CP: Do you think newspapers have done a good job moving what they do to the web?

Newmark: My sense is--the Chronicle does a pretty good job, for example, and so does the Times. That's what I read, one way or the other. We're in a transitional period, and by historic standards the newspapers are moving really fast. Let's give people a break. This kind of transition, in the past, might have taken a century. The current transition, I think, is more a five-year thing, depending on the pace of a number of things, including technology. A big part of things will be how fast some of the portal technologies move, like the scrollable displays coming from Philips and HP. There's an HP subsidiary that has already shown prototypes, and they're talking about delivering this stuff three years from now. What happens when your cellphone can reproduce most of the experience of a newspaper? That affects things. I don't want to predict how. I'm not feeling real qualified, and frankly I don't want to bullshit you. But my gut tells me that between those technologies and some others, things will change.

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