Is journalism a profession? Can anyone be a journalist? Those questions have long bothered both the academia and people working in the field. Today the discussions about the nature and future of journalism are more popular than ever. We live in a world where the means to make high quality photos and videos and distribute them online are easily accessible. Most of us have smartphones and internet. And we use them for telling our stories to wide audiences.
When unexpected events happen, first media reports are usually based on what the witnesses say, capture, or record with their cameras. The mainstream media often rely on footage and photos that bystanders send or post online, which was a practice unimaginable not so long ago. Boundaries between journalists and “ordinary” citizens are blurred. Some innovators are going one step ahead and building news platforms where anyone can participate in both producing and consuming news.
The Internet’s Newsroom
Grasswire is a news website from the United States that aims to become the Wikipedia of news, a platform that allows all its users to write news. In the beginning, it had a system similar to Reddit, where users could up vote or down vote different stories, but now it relies on an online tool for team collaboration called Slack. On this platform, the users can discuss news, do the fact-checking and write stories together. It’s like an online newsroom – and anyone can join!
Co-founder of Grasswire, Austen Allred, told me that they currently have only five employees, working mostly on design and software-building, and it’s the volunteer contributors who do the journalistic work. “The interesting thing about Grasswire is that it lets experts in very niche things – whether it’s Russian military weaponry or verifying the locations of photographs – come together the way no traditional newsroom could”, Allred said. “And because we’ve created a process that allows hundreds or thousands of people to come together and fact-check something as it’s happening, we can cover a lot more a lot more deeply than most journalistic institutions can”.
But why would anyone want to participate in the first place? One of the reasons is that the mainstream media are sometimes just too slow for the Internet users. The practicality of Grasswire became obvious to thousands of people after the Boston Marathon bombings, as Allred recalled in an interview for the American Journalism Review.
“CNN was a mile away from where everything was happening. They were cordoned off by police and saying, ‘Oh, we could see a police car just drove by.’ And like that’s all they [could] do,” Allred said in that interview. “Meanwhile, everyday people were taking pictures of bullet holes in their houses, and there were people on the street where the press couldn’t get to who had a lot more information.” The website wasn’t ready yet for the traffic it received, so Allred and his colleague Garrett Thornburg had to ask people to stop posting the link on websites like Reddit and Hacker News. But that’s when it became clear that this idea could actually work.
Curation and user-generated content
Other videos that appear on the platform aren’t only about curation, but include user-generated content. And that’s where the biggest strengths of crowdsourced journalism lie. When citizen reporters are on the right place at the right time, they can win “news races” with the mainstream media. This exclusive video was uploaded by one of the users after the Sacramento City College shooting in September this year.
Is this the future of journalism?
Allred told me that Grasswire had about 500,000 unique visitors last month. Many journalists follow them on Twitter, and publish a lot of news that Grasswire is breaking. But there are still many challenges ahead. “Scaling groups of volunteer reporters is hard. We don’t have people on staff so we can’t make demands, and at the same time there are a lot of people joining, and we have to figure out how to best organize all of that potential energy”, Allred said.
Grasswire is a venture-capital backed project. Last year, they raised $650,000 in seed funding. The burnout rate is relatively low, but they don’t have any advertising revenues yet. “Until then we have to show enough growth that VCs will continue to invest in us, which seems to be going well so far”, Allred said.
With dynamic changes that journalism is going through, the following question is open for debate: is crowdsourcing the future of journalism?