Citizen journalism returns, but is it making the same mistakes? AllVoices tours the UK

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. 

Filtering

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.” 

The milestones, however, are very high – 100,000 pageviews, even across all of your articles, over a specified six month period (which has already started), is a tall order. At the time of writing – two months in – 3 people have hit that mark on the leaderboard, and a fourth is on course to get his $1000 with 84,000 page views. But the numbers drop to 30,000 in 5th place, and 13,000 by 10th. Still, the site is not struggling – although Erik was cagey about figures on either users or visitors, he said his investors were happy, and they probably are, with an Alexa rank of 59,151 at the time of writing. 

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.

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10 thoughts on “Citizen journalism returns, but is it making the same mistakes? AllVoices tours the UK

  1. SpaceyG

    Love this line: "Student journalists are not citizen journalists." lol. At some point in their "careers," or what they perceive to be "careers," whatever those are nowadays, they WILL be citizen journalists. Otherwise, they're just that…. mere careerists. It's the inherent, artistic difference between, say, Neil Young and American Idol bullshit. (Don't know what your UK equivilant of American Idol would be, but I'm sure you have one.) A student's personal use of new and varied mediums, or not, will sniff 'em all out. Eventually. Same sentiment essentially as to why I would never hire someone who wasn't blogging. And you go into that some as well above. Could use some fleshing-out. I see another blog post on the matter in my future. Or can I just Twitter it. (Twitter is making me VERY lazy.)

    Reply
  2. Paul Bradshaw

    A good journalist is a citizen journalist, but most journalists are not good journalists. Likewise, even fewer student journalists are good journalists. After all, journalists write about most things not because they're passionate, but because they're paid. That has its advantages and disadvantages. Oh, and it's Pop Idol over here.

    Reply
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  5. Kathy Jacobs

    As the community guru over at allvoices, I would love to comment on what you have to said, Paul. While I agree that at first glance, student journalists may not appear to be part of our target audience, I feel they fit well with our site. We offer them a unique opportunity: Put your stuff on our site. Create a good profile. Post good content (text, images, videos, and comments). Learn to edit yourself via what you put on the site. Then, share your profile link with the "traditional" media as you apply for work. Citizen journalism gets us only halfway there. The other half of the equation is the community. We have specifically set things up to be content neutral. The members of our community decide what to post. They decide what gets to the front page – the more views and voices attached to an article, the more visible it is. To me, it doesn't matter who you are. Have something to say? We want to hear your voice. We want to share your news. We want to know what you think. We want YOU in the conversation.

    Reply
  6. Erik Sundelof

    I do believe that students will have a very good outcome of contributing to allvoices, yet I do understand your comments. Will they still have to be proficient in all other aspects of the media production? Of course, we just make their life a lot easier at first. I therefore do not think this would make it harder for the students to get a job. What students need is practice and allvoices fills a gap here and provides them with a possibility to explore and create a readership yet get the carrot of getting compensated for it. My take with some perspective from the questions they raised are in short that the students were unused to the concept of an open platform weaving multiple perspectives to each post via aggregation, community and reputation, but also that they were unaware of the issues faced with human editor-driven validation we have seen lately. These issues only accentuates when you go into the long-tail content market, which calls for another solution. I really believe allvoices with the three component validation is unique here as for simplicity of understanding it and also that is very easily scalable by machines. The key in the future of media is to understand we have to innovate in all parts of the process and to be open minded about we have to change the process as well as open in what way. We have to take it to a new level, a new more exciting level in my eyes. We have the tools, we just need the guts to take the leap. I really enjoyed your thoughts here in your blogs about the the news diamond. It really shows what needs to happen in more than one way.

    Reply
  7. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks for responding, Erik. I think a fundamental problem as well is that student journalists write like journalists, not like members of a community, and if the objective is to build a community, the typical closed-ended style of journalism students will not generate as much conversation as those who haven't been 'trained' to be objective, etc.

    Reply
  8. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks for responding, Kathy – as I said below, perhaps the biggest problem is that journalists aren't trained to be part of a community, so in that sense perhaps social work students or art students, who have strong communities, might be a better bet.

    Reply
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  10. Max Harrington

    I feel the idea fit well with the ideology of the site. They offer the possibility to create a good profile and permit to students to try themself. On the other hand, as Paul said, the problem is that journalists aren’t trained to be part of a community.
    http://www.tipao.com/ is another kind of citizen information not as famous as allvoices but with a good potential.

    Reply

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