Out in Colorado, New West writer Howard Rothman is critizicing YourHub.com for allowing shills for local politicians to "post whatever they like in 'news stories' and 'columns' which carry no costs like a traditional advertisement and have a degree of implied authenticity that elevates them beyond anything a paid ad could dream to achieve."
Is he right?
In 1994, when I was interviewed for the job as founding editor of Star Tribune Online, part of the process was to answer questions posed by a Newspaper Guild group. I remember being asked about the ethical challenges posed by allowing members of the public to directly post their own information online. After all, the process is ripe for abuse by political and other special-interest groups.
My answer stands today: Be absolutely clear who is speaking.
If there is a problem in so-called citizen journalism it's this: As it plays out in some environments, that clarity just isn't there, and the label "citizen journalism" contributes to misunderstandings.
Rothman is right: YourHub has a problem in that regard. For example, this political story has an unlinked byline. Who is Joe Stengel? It looks like a traditional online news presentation. It comes across as a piece of traditional journalism when it's really a political plant.
I think asking members of the community to write traditionally structured news stories, and then presenting those stories unfiltered as if they are newspaper-style journalism, is a mistake.
That's why I have grown to prefer using the terms "participatory" and "conversational." A site that is built around strong community interaction will develop its own methods of fixing this problem -- quickly. An active community filters itself through a process of criticism and response.
But some of the high-profile "citizen journalism" projects don't have that kind of interactive participation -- or, for that matter, very much traffic. Instead, they function primarily as online upload ports for print publications.
That may be an economical way to generate content for print editions, and those print editions may contribute to building stronger communities. But it misses the community-building power of genuine online interaction, and as Rothman has pointed out, it opens the door to uncorrected abuse.
As for New West: It may use the tools of the blogosphere, but it's really conventional journalism powered by a network of freelancers. Each has an online bio, and it's quite clear who's speaking.
(Thanks to Romenesko for the citation.)