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What Will Be the Model for a More Participatory News?
Netizens explore online journalism alternatives
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-04 17:09 (KST)   
Recognizing the deep dissatisfaction with the mainstream news media, especially in the U.S., a number of news reading companies have started Web sites. Some are dotcom startups. A few are reported to have substantial venture capital funding.(1) The goal of these startups is to provide a new way for users to read the news.

One such startup is Newsvine, Inc.(2) Newsvine is currently in a beta version, which is being tested by invited users. One has to sign up on its Web site in order to get an invitation to join or get an invitation from someone who already has access. It will be open to the general public once the beta testing phase is finished.

Newsvine offers a number of features. The site carries Associated Press (AP) articles. It also includes ESPN.com articles for sports news that it carries on its Top News page and sports page. Users can comment on the articles. Other functions are available. One of these is a "write a post" function that enables users to write an article (called a "column") to be posted on Newsvine. It is possible to link to an article from some other web site and write a short introduction (called "seeding"). There is also a chat function.

A user who spends time and effort writing an article, however, finds that it has to compete for space and placement on Newsvine with the many articles from AP. Hence, many of the user-generated articles or seeds are likely to be relegated to a hard-to-find area on the web site.

There are a few exceptions that make it possible for the article to be placed in one of the few prominent spots available for user-generated material. One way is to be selected as a Featured Writer by one of the Newsvine staff. A second is if the article has received a lot of reader comments or clicks on its icon, it may be posted more prominently on the Newsvine site.

In describing his goal for Newsvine, CEO Mike Davidson explains that he wants to provide an inviting environment for users to read news and to be able to form a community. In response to a question about what problem Newsvine is trying to solve, Davidson responded, "the current crop of major news sites simply lacks the feature set and social interaction capabilities that users have been requesting for the last few years." He believes that the startup news company that succeeds in attracting users to form a community will be the winner.

Newsvine currently has a five-person staff. It has drawn venture capital from Second Avenue Partners, which, like Newsvine, is physically located in Seattle, Washington. The venture capital firm includes directors who have worked at Microsoft, ESPN, and one who was an early investor in Amazon.com.(3)

Newsvine's experiment of sharing ad revenue with writers

One of the aspects of Newsvine drawing the most comments is the area where users discuss Newsvine itself. Some posts point out problems that have been identified already or questions that have been raised by users. Many of the posts express appreciation by users to the staff for creating a functional site. Some of the posts also ask what the aim of Newsvine is. Newsvine is but one effort among many to apply the concept of citizen journalist, or citizen reporter, which has been pioneered by the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews.

An important difference between Newsvine and OhmyNews is that the former relies on AP or ESPN for 80 percent of its content, whereas OhmyNews, created in February 2000, was begun as a challenge to the mainstream conservative media that had dominated politics in South Korea. It is an online newspaper whose content is contributed by citizen reporters and its paid staff.

OhmyNews began as and continues to be part of the movement for greater democracy in South Korea. This movement strives to challenge the concentration of power and wealth in South Korea and to expose political corruption. A progressive online media that welcomes participation and articles from netizens is critical for such a movement.

OhmyNews pays its citizen reporters a small set fee for their articles, depending on where they are placed on the OhmyNews Web site. This decision is made by the editors. OhmyNews is a commercial entity. It has ads on its web site. A primary objective, however, is to create a significant 21st century news media that will help to extend the development of democracy in South Korea.

Newsvine, and several other startup news sites, also have a commercial objective, hoping to become the Amazon.com or Ebay of news-reading sites. Newsvine says that it will offer contributors a portion of the advertising revenue that comes from where their articles are placed. This risks focusing its writers on the ad sales process rather than treating them as journalists. Writers need to be paid, but tying what they are paid to the proximity of their articles to ads could jeopardize the writing process.

Describing this problem in an article about another startup which employs this practice, Stephen Bryant writes, "I'm all for making easy money, but I certainly don't want to feel like a wage slave every time I post to a forum. And I don't want to feel like revenue shares are my main economic incentive for being online."(4)

While OhmyNews has worked out a number of ways of welcoming netizens to participate in the news process of its Korean edition, only some of these have been transferred to its English edition, which was created to enable non-Koreans to learn about OhmyNews. Writing as a citizen reporter for the English edition, or spending some time reading it provides an introduction. But it takes additional effort to learn about the Korean language edition and the role it has played in the struggle to extend democracy in South Korea.

For example, OhmyNews played an important role in the election of 2002, when netizens made it possible for a politician from outside the political mainstream to be elected as the president of South Korea.(5) Roh Moo Hyun is commonly called "the President Elected by Netizens." Then in 2004 OhmyNews was again instrumental in helping to overturn the impeachment of Roh Moo Hyun.

A user commenting on Newsvine has suggested that it is an effort to integrate the citizen-journalist aspect of OhmyNews with a site 80 percent of whose articles are from wire services, but this is a contradiction in terms. The whole point of contributions by citizen reporters is that their articles are featured, and, when possible, commented on. If they are relegated where few can find them to read or where they will get few if any comments, the incentive for writing disappears. Whereas AP articles are widely available elsewhere, the articles contributed by users to Newsvine are a unique resource.

It requires time, effort, and commitment to encourage and support writers to contribute. It also helps if there is a formal payment to writers in recognition of the time and effort it takes to write a worthwhile article. Telepolis, in Germany, is an example of an online publication that, since it began publication in the mid-1990s, contains valuable original content and substantial online discussion.(6) Telepolis publishes mainly in German, but also includes occasional articles in English. Its payments for articles, called honoraria, are substantially more than the payments made by OhmyNews; and the articles it publishes often reflect considerable time and effort on the part of its writers.

Another issue of concern to users is what will happen to the rights for articles they contribute. Newsvine claims that writers will be able to do anything they want with their own articles, but that Newsvine in turn will have the right to do whatever they want with the articles.(7) A recent article in OhmyNews notes that this means that any portion of an article can be published by Newsvine or anyone else they choose without any credits for the author or recognition of any intellectual property rights pertaining to the author.

Concerns raised on some blogs point to the problem that such a broad statement of rights would entail, effectively nullifying the value of and rights that go with authorship. Davidson's response to these concerns is, "We don't intend on doing anything with user-generated content that isn't specifically decided upon by the user. It's all very benevolent, I assure you, but you are right to dig into things and ask questions."(8) The copyright of articles submitted to OhmyNews, on the other hand, remains with the writer.

One German Newsvine user, Martin Roesgen, commenting on the role he feels Newsvine can play in meeting the needs of users, writes:

"I think that blogs and forums have become a considerable force.

"Also, many people (like me) do not want to rely on single sources of news, because we're all too aware how easily information is manipulated these days. So I think Newsvine comes in very handy here, although I hope there will be more news agencies in the future that feed the Vine directly (not only AP).

But it's great to browse the articles users seed from all over the web. You become aware of much more going on in the world (given the time), and you get more details on issues you are interested in, including sources outside the mainstream media.(9)

"But to be honest, I don't know of any other sites which promote the average-web-user-writes/links-articles and combines that with agency-news on such a scale....

"As for telepolis.de, I like that site very much. The articles are critical and often take a different approach from the mainstream. Here, also, comments are directly under the articles they pertain to — you don't have to go to a forum and look for the appropriate thread.

"I'd say all of these sites (though Newsvine the most) encourage communication, which results in making the web tighter."

Users who access Newsvine generally show, through the comments they make on posts about Newsvine, that they are trying to help it succeed. This is an encouraging sign. If there is online discussion about Newsvine, OhmyNews, Telepolis, and other online news alternatives, there is the basis for a vision to emerge. Such a vision needs to articulate the problems with mainstream news. There is also a need to grasp how a new news source will have both a new form and new content that will contribute to creating a more democratic society.(10) A process of both welcoming the contributions of citizen reporters and of providing a broader and more socially oriented form of news has begun, though it is still in its infancy.
(1)"Wow the News startup space sure has heated up", Topix.net weblog, January 19, 2006.

Topix lists Internet news sites:

Newsvine, TailRank, Gather.com, Memorandum, Digg.com, Findory, Associated Content, Jeff Jarvis/Upendra Shandanand/Craig Newmark news startup, Backfence, Pegasus News, Tinfinger, Inform, topix.net

Topix reports that five of these sites have funding from venture capitalist firms, including Gather.com with $9M and Newsvine with close to $5M in funding.

There are a number of other sites not in the list, such as
http://www.commonmedia.org


For a comparison of some of the different sites, see
Tinfinger, Monday, January 23, 2006:
Feature Lists for News 2.0

(2) John Cook,Seattle startup Looking to Transform News, Seattle Post-Intelligence, posted on Media Channel, Nov. 11, 2005
The newsvine web site is http://www.newsvine.com

(3) Stephen Bryant, Is Ad Revenue Sharing the Future of Publishing?
Publish, January 20, 2006.

(4) Ronda Hauben, Advancing "News guerrillas" , 08.09.2005, Telepolis.
The web site for the international edition of OhmyNews is
http://english.ohmynews.com

(5) Telepolis, http://www.heise.de/tp

(6) The Newsvine user agreement says in part: "you hereby (a) grant Newsvine a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, perpetual and fully sublicensable and transferable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such User Content throughout the universe in any media, now known or hereafter devised; (b) grant Newsvine, its affiliates and sublicensees the right to use the name, identifier, or any portion thereof, submitted in connection with such User Content, if they so choose."

(7) Gregory Daigle, Citizen Journalist Content - Who Owns It? Citizen journalists, media, or public?, OhmyNews, 1/20/2006

(8) Mike Davidson,
The Proof is in the People, January 18, 2006.

(9) About the dissatisfaction with the mainstream news media in the U.S., see Michael Hauben,
The Effect of the Net on the Professional News Media
, in
Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet


(10) For example, writing in the 1820s, almost 200 years ago, the philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized that unless there is active and adequate oversight of government officials and the processes of government, they would not be able to resist the pressures of corruption. The Internet and the new news sites that it makes possible provide a means to shine a searchlight on government officials and government processes, which helps expose and prevent corruption. See Michael Hauben, The Computer as a Democratizer

A German version of this article appears in Sonntagsblick This article is reprinted with permission.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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