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Is 'CraigsNews' Coming Soon?

The movement known as “collaborative citizen journalism” is gaining sharper focus. What kinds of partnerships will make it thrive – and how will the mainstream media react?

While mainstream media outlets grapple with the role they will play in the 21st century, a new kind of media is on the rise, one that promises greater transparency in the creation of news.

It’s called collaborative citizen journalism (CCJ), where ordinary citizens band together on the Web to write original stories and critique mainstream media stories, using the Internet to connect with each other and to make sure their thoughts reach the public.

This new form of journalism differs from its more popular blogging cousin in that, unlike blogging, which eschews (in many cases) the more rigorous elements of journalism, collaborative media efforts tap into a particular community to make sure a story is as complete as possible.

In some cases, such as the Korean site OhMyNews, CCJ stories are reported by a team of volunteer journalists; in others, such as Wiki News, a group does serial fact-checking and vetting on an existing piece, calling attention to errors or omissions.

“Collaborative citizen journalism is a very, very nuanced thing, and it’s different than just one citizen blogging,” says Jason Calacanis, founder of Weblogs, Inc., a large blog publisher, in an email. “But CCJ is the best method for getting to the truth since you have many people and their perspectives involved in the process. Of course, CCJ it is harder to produce (at least right now since it is so new).”

One of the newest members of the CCJ scene is also one of the most intriguing.

This week saw the very-soft launch of Bayosphere, created by veteran technology journalist Dan Gillmor, who left the San Jose Mercury News last year and wrote a book We The Media, in which he espoused many of the tenets of this new form. Bayosphere joins a small community of sites, such as Wiki News, Backyard, and Newstrust, dedicated to getting people to work together to chase their own stories, comment on stories from the mainstream media, and track which news they think warrants their attention.

Collaborative journalism is so far falling into three distinct approaches.

There’s the local news approach, offered by such sites as Backfence.com and Gillmor’s new project, where the community focuses on stories happening in a specific geographical area. For privately owned Backfence.com, which launched on May 3, it’s two cities in Virginia. For Bayosphere, it will be the Bay Area in California.

There’s the broader-focus approach, practiced by South Korea-based Oh My News and WikiNews, which cover a wide array of topics, issues, and locales.

And, finally, there are the community-based media-vetting efforts, something sites such as Newstrust will offer when it officially launches. Newstrust will use specialized software that it’s building to help people “select the news they can trust,” says co-founder Fabrice Florin. Florin says his service will help individuals uncover the biases found in many media stories and discover the factual omissions, but he won’t specify exactly what Newstrust will offer, in part, because it’s still being built. He estimates the service will launch in anywhere from three to nine months.

Mainstream media leaders are well aware of these efforts and are keeping a close eye on how these sites take off, and how they might incorporate collaborative journalism within their own enterprises.

“Collaborative citizen journalism sites play a vital role” in the 21st century media landscape, says Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Like everything else, it could become competitive to what we’re doing. But, if we’re smart about it, it will be complimentary.”

New media, in other words, won’t displace traditional media. It will just play a role in transforming the process. That’s a view held by everyone contacted for this story.

“I think it’s more complementary now than competitive,” says Gillmor via email. “We can do different things. We can’t fully compete with some of what a big-city newspaper does best. But when a brigade of citizen journalists decides to tackle an issue, I’m betting they’ll do a good job.”

Notable community leader Craig Newmark, the founder of the uber-community network Craigslist, is eyeing the space, speaking with everyone from Gillmor to Paul Grabowicz, new media program director at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Bronstein, to figure out how to match his community success with his interest in collaborative journalism.

“What I see happening is community journalism will post news that the mainstream news hasn’t covered,” Newmark says. “But I don’t know at this point. It’s all a moving target. It looks like my biggest draw might be making noise and pointing people to good stuff.”

The CCJ sites are still very young and everyone is trying to figure out ways to differentiate themselves and partner. But whoever aligns with Craigslist would get a tremendous boost in visibility and influence and may get a decided advantage in the effort.

Craigslist started as a San Francisco-only service that quickly grew a devoted following and extended its ethos to 120 cities and communities around the world. The site now reportedly takes in around $10 million per year in revenues. Piggy-backing a community-oriented news service on Craigslist’s mighty community is a pretty compelling thought, something it seemed Newmark was at least interested in exploring. No one contacted for the article would discuss any partnerships, but Gillmor and Newmark have been talking.

“Our conversations have been mostly about the potential of this emergent medium and movement,” he says, adding, “Anyone who could partner with Craigslist, which is probably the preeminent example of how an organic community can form and grow, would be crazy not to do it.”

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