A few months ago I had a call from someone representing new citizen journalism startup AllVoices. “Oh great,” I thought. “Yet another cit-journo outfit scouting for student journalists to populate their pages with free content.”
The (cold) caller didn’t inspire me with confidence. They clearly knew nothing of me or the course; they spoke of content being ‘visible to the world’ – as if blogs hadn’t been invented. And the site made me spit feathers: “The first open media site where anyone can report from anywhere,” it boasted – the biggest piece of bullshit I’ve seen all year.
But I’m an open minded sort of cynic, and agreed to a visit from one of their “online media experts” to speak to students. Who were these experts? Employees of AllVoices.
Today that expert visited: Erik Sundelof, co-founder and VP of Social Media at AllVoices.
As he stood addressing 100 students I Googled him on my phone, and this page caught my eye: “Erik is behind inthefieldONLINE.net, a cellphone platform for in-the-field reporting solutions for especially emerging democracies/markets, but in principle the whole world.” Fair play to the guy, he’s done this already.
His presentation, far from the sales pitch I had dreaded (although there was some slight plugging towards the end), turned out to be well informed and pitched quite high.
AllVoices has some interesting technology at play. There are no human editors, but a very well thought out filtering process that decides which stories make the homepages. It has 3 parts:
- Community – that is, a Digg-style voting system that allows users to ‘voice up’ or ‘voice down’ a piece. Interestingly, Erik told me that a piece which has a lot of both is actually likely to have its ranking boosted, as this would suggest there’s something of interest and even truth in it. Those that are just voted down are likely to be false, propagandistic or just badly written – and these don’t place well on the site.
- Aggregation – the website looks at keywords in the article and sees if there are other recent articles on the web on the same subject. If there are, chances are that, again, there is something of interest and truth in it. These related articles, blog posts and videos are presented alongside the citizen journalist piece. Users can also add their own.
- Reputation – similar to Google PageRank, reporters have a reputation based on previous contributions and how they perform on the above two filters, plus readership, etc.
Interestingly, many students didn’t seem to ‘get’ this automated editing process and seemed unsettled by the lack of ‘editors’. Questions included: what if someone posted something false? What if a PR person planted some fluff complimentary to their client? Do you perform any identity checks? And my particular favourite: What if the person writing was a terrorist?
Payment or prize?
A second key selling point for the site is its promise of “cash rewards” for contributors “when they reach certain milestones which depends on the quality and viewership of their reports and contributions.”
Citizen journalism works best when the citizens don’t have a voice
These numbers have been particularly boosted in Pakistan, where the recent election and a recent car bomb explosion have inspired a lot of coverage.
Interestingly, while the rest of the world talks about hyperlocal, AllVoices’ generic ‘global’ strategy may have something in it.
Citizen journalism site OhMyNews was a massive success in South Korea, largely because of a homogenous press and a looming election; Pakistan appears to have similar conditions for ‘citizen media success’ – and AllVoices has been flexible enough to become a useful tool to that population at that time. Could it repeat the performance in other countries at similar periods? Possibly. But when OhMyNews hasn’t repeated its success internationally, this is clearly a tough nut to crack.
Erik has been here before with a blog he set up to allow local people in Lebanon to anonymously cover the ongoing Lebanon-Israel conflict – a blog which was receiving hundreds of thousands of visits after two weeks – and the clearest chance of success for AllVoices is to repeat this: find a local area where events are of international interest, help people to contribute their news and views via AllVoices, and build your audience. It’s a costly process: Erik is commuting between Silicon Valley, Sweden, and Pakistan.
In this respect, the most interesting element of the site for me is its mobile capabilities – you can send your video, images or text to your AllVoices account via an SMS number (the site has local numbers in the US, UK, Denmark and Australia). That’s something that not even Posterous can do.
Student journalists are not citizen journalists
But I think AllVoices are making a strategic mistake in pitching their site to journalism students, and it’s this: journalism students want to be journalists. They are not citizen journalists.
AllVoices seem to be persuading students that having a story on their site will impress potential employers. Perhaps some students will also think so.
But times have changed. News organisations increasingly want journalism graduates who can blog – AllVoices say themselves that they are not a blog. They want graduates who understand distribution, content packaging and filtering – AllVoices are the distributor, the packager and the filter.
In other words, AllVoices is doing most of the work that employers are now looking for journalists to do. By only using AllVoices, a student journalist will find it harder to persuade employers that they are the person for that multimedia journalist or community editor job. Not impossible, just harder.
Better to target the groups who are passionate enough about an issue to report on it, opine on it, and form an online community around it – oh, and who aren’t already doing so via blogs.
AllVoices have a decent product here, and they understand community, but their current UK tour is like YouTube visiting film schools to get people to upload their videos. I hope they figure that out soon, and focus on where they really do have an opportunity: providing a voice for the voiceless.