Quality control in citizen journalism

Frank Patalong (Spiegel) wrote a great article (German) about how more and more traditional dead tree newspapers are embracing the methods of citizen journalism which gives a good overview about where we stand.

As newspaper ad revenues (not to speak of sales and numbers of readers!) have been plummeting for quite a while, hardly anyone disputes that it’s time for a few changes. It’s quite interesting to see which ways the different newspapers choose. The big player of German tabloids, publishing house Springer, announced a new web first strategy around mid of last year. His distinction (newspaper = horizontal, i.e. has to cover a wide range of topics; internet = vertical, i.e. provides in-depth information) isn’t bad! Other organizations choose to go more local, for example by presenting regional information more prominently, by sending out their own reporters, or by relying on citizen journalists. Either way, the goal is to reach more relevance through geographical proximity. Online news should provide links to background information to enhance transparency, plus, of course, everybody agrees that online news have to be more up-to-date.

Now citizen journalism has a bunch of strong points: It’s fast, it’s close (both in terms of geography and of local culture, i.e. citizen journalists ought to know their neighborhood). It’s mostly cheap, too, although that shouldn’t be over-estimated: If taken seriously, publishers will have to pay their citizen journalists in a fair way, too, or they won’t get any good talent.

But mostly it ain’t professionals. So with citizen journalism there’s one big problem: Quality control. Even if it can be established that the information is trustworthy (which might be easy or might be complicated, depending on such factors as redundancy, available visual proof, witnesses and many others), publishing information quickly means less time to copy-edit and fact-check. You could send out your own professional reporters, but without time for fact-checking, quality will suffer. If you rely on non-trained citizen journalists, copy-editing would mostly be necessary. (Not to mention, it’s appropriate for fairness reasons – you don’t want to embarrass your contributor or yourself, do you?)

So what can you do about that?

  • Stick to your volunteers, as Netzeitung’s Readers Edition does. Volunteer editors do the copy-editing and at least basic fact-checking.
  • Or hire pro copy-editors to clean up your contributors’ articles.

The latter is basically what Jay Rosen of New York University and Press Think proposes. His project NewAssignment.net (which looks great so far, by the way!) will try to “pay professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards; they work closely with users who have something to contribute.” That way, pros and amateurs can work together over the internet and produce high-quality reporting to both sides’ advantage. (NewAssignment also experiments with funding: micro-payments, sponsorship, syndication, ads?) It’s planned to launch in April ’07.

Now, we’ll have to go on experimenting with different ways of combining pros and amateurs, of topical width and depth, of speed and quality. But putting together pro fact-checkers and copy-editors with citizen journalists sounds like a very promising idea: You should get the news out quickly while still providing decent quality.

But how about the pay? Maybe $ for strongly localized push news, or for quicker access? Maybe $ for more depth, i.e. by providing more links and thereby more transparency to premium readers. Maybe allow citizen journalists to participate in the revenues their articles generate – that should be a good incentive to get report both quickly and high-quality, ’cause who’d pay for non-trusted news?

Disclaimer: I’ve been involved briefly with Readers Edition as a volunteer editor during its launch phase.