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The much-loved Web site is taking millions from Bay Area newspapers and causing layoffs that adversely affect coverage. And its founder's well-intentioned support of citizen journalism has a slim chance of fixing the problem.

Wednesday, Nov 30 2005

Page 5 of 7

Craigslist will soon charge real estate brokers to advertise in New York (where brokers posted more than 100,000 apartment ads last week), and Buckmaster says the company may shortly require payment for job postings in a few more cities. Even at low rates, this would add tens of millions to Craigslist's revenue. Buckmaster claims that a "small" fee is necessary to discourage the posting of spam and fraud on an already-crowded site, and to pay for overhead. Yet Craigslist was profitable with about the same number of employees when it made just $5 million annually. So where do all those extra millions go?

It's hard to reconcile Newmark's utopian vision with Craigslist's real-world revenues and the site's effect on the media. To his credit, Newmark is obviously struggling with the issue. He doesn't want to cause job losses, or contribute to journalism's decline, and he hopes to use his power and money to fix the problem, but he isn't sure exactly how: "I don't know much about what to do about it, except to accelerate change. The news industry is experiencing serious dislocation. It's happening. The faster it happens, the faster we get to new technologies, the more money and more opportunities journalists and editors will have."

For nearly a year, he's been talking up the use of new technologies, especially the potential of online citizen journalism. Now, he's finally ready to put his money where his mouth is by funding a new venture. "It needs noise, buzz, and some smartass like me getting people to talk," he says, animated as a preacher, so excited he nearly jumps out of his chair. "And I have to dwell on this, and this is big, and this may be the biggest contribution I ever make."

Citizen journalism may be a young movement, but it's already branched out into dozens of disparate formats. There are hyperlocal sites, such as, a self-described "fun news site" written and edited by and for residents of Watertown, Mass., population 32,603. There are multimedia sites, such as, which hosts everything from a podcast of news for Milwaukee's German community to a video of a Northern Irishman's ski trip to France. There are sites that turn readers into volunteer reporters for traditional newspapers, such as the YourNews section on the Web site of Greensboro, N.C.'s News & Record. There are sites staffed mostly by citizen reporters, such as Korea's OhMyNews, and sites staffed solely by users, such as Wikinews.

In short, citizen journalism is anything that looks like journalism but isn't written by a "professional." The nature of news gathering lends itself to help from laypeople, just as someone who pays for psychotherapy might also ask a friend for free advice. Visit the most highly touted citizen journalism sites, though, and it's easy to see why professional journalists attack it as an idealistic concept. This summer, Dan Gillmor, writer of last year's citizen journalism bible We the Media and one of Newmark's "advisers," launched Bayosphere. Ostensibly written "of, by and for the Bay Area," Bayosphere is largely blog posts by Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News columnist, with a few citizens' articles tossed in. At Bluffton Today, Morris Communications' South Carolina citizen journalism site and tabloid, the top post a few weeks ago was headlined: "Learning about volleyball from great teachers." The same day, the top story on the citizen-written, citizen-edited Wikinews, an offshoot of the user-edited Wikipedia online encyclopedia, was: "Farmers hunt for missing bull semen."

These sites can all be forgiven for their youth. Like much of the citizen journalism movement, they're still experiments, all less than a year old. But OhMyNews -- the 5-year-old Korean sensation that Newsweek says could be "the future of journalism" -- is still suffering from growing pains, despite more than 38,000 citizen reporters. Its professional editors recently chose as the top story a puff-piece Q&A with the economic adviser of the Korean Embassy in Chile, about the "excellent progress made between the two nations" since a free trade agreement signed back in 2002.

"If you think journalism is boring when written by professional writers,"'s McManus says, "wait until it's written by someone with time on their hands who happens to drop by the city council or school board. If you think journalism is biased now, wait until the 'neutral' journalist is replaced by the father of the quarterback of the high school football team, writing about how well his son did, and, oh, by the way, the team won."

Despite citizen journalism's current shortcomings, several bursts of power have signaled its potential. Last fall, Joshua Micah Marshall, Washington Monthly writer and proprietor of political blog "Talking Points Memo," asked readers to help find out which House Republicans voted to loosen ethics rules behind closed doors. "Not a journalist?" Marshall wrote. "Afraid you can't play? Fuggetaboutit...You can play too. Just pick a Republican member of Congress, call the number on their Web site and ask. Don't be rude or confrontational. Just a simple question: Did Congressperson such-and-such support the DeLay Rule in the GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday." Hundreds of readers called, and dozens of representatives answered.

Even in Marshall's successful case, though, the question remains: How many of the reader-reporters actually made those calls, and should Marshall have trusted what they told him? Aside from citizen journalists' skill limitations, the trust issue is the most important unsolved problem for the movement. New York Times readers, despite the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals, expect to find something resembling the truth in the paper. With citizen journalism, there's no good way of measuring how much faith to place in a given fact or observation.

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein


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