Yesterday TechCrunch broke the news that "crowd powered media" site NowPublic.com had raised $10.6 million in financing. This isn't a lot of money if you are, say, a fledgling airline company. It's a boatload of cash for a company in the still largely theoretical crowdsourced journalism space. OhMyNews.com, the Daddy of all citizen journalism sites, came up with $11 million at one point, but as Globe and Mail columnist Mathew Ingram notes, that was Series B financing. (This makes it less meaningful for reasons that are beyond my business acumen. Here's a Crowdsourcing Assignment: Someone explain the difference between Series A and Series B financing in the comment section below.)
TechCrunch and Ingram rightly place the news in the context of the recent failure of other high-profile citizen journalism efforts, such as Backfence. But I was hardly shocked to read about NowPublic's successful financing. NP's CEO Leonard Brody is a veteran entrepreneur, and has given VCs a satisfactory return on their investments before. Besides, NowPublic has, according to NowPublic, already built a sizeable user base, with 20,000 hardcore users helping draw over 1 million unique visitors a month. But God Damn I'm long-winded. This isn't even what I wanted to post about.
I wasn't planning on commenting on the news until I read a provocative post by Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0. In the title Karp declares: "It's not citizen journalism or crowdsourcing—It's just journalism." Like hell, I thought, having recently decompressed from my own sometimes rocky foray into "crowdsourced journalism." I knew it hadn't resembled anything else in my nearly two decades of journalism. But Karp won me over.
I think there is a battle going on over control of the word “journalism.”
Many people in the news business seem to have a vested interest in separating journalism as it has traditionally been practiced, by employees of news organizations that controlled monopoly distribution channels, from “citizen journalism” or “crowdsourcing” or anything else that represents the evolution of journalism in a networked media world.
So we have “serious, traditional” journalism over HERE, and all this experimenting with “citizens” and “crowds” and whatnot over THERE.
Well, it’s time to call foul on this. NowPublic and other sites like it are doing JOURNALISM — the practice of journalism hasn’t been fundamentally changed so much as it has been extended. Journalism used to be linear. Now it’s networked. It used to be in the hands of a few. Now it’s in the hands of many more.
I'd call this pretty unassailable logic. I've been practicing journalism since I was about 20 years old. Here's what my job entails. Most days I wake up, make coffee and start making phone calls. As the person on the other end of the line talks, I take notes. In between calls I see what other publications have written about the subject and, increasingly, what other bloggers and people on forum boards are saying as well. Generally I read the most recent, as well as the most seminal books on same. After many days of doing this, I begin to figure out a thing or two. After two or three months, I've actually learned quite a bit. Then I start writing.
These are really two different jobs, reporting and writing. The first job isn't rocket science, which is why until recent years few reporters bothered to go to college. You just have to be a particular type of person—nosy, sociable and truly, insatiably curious (if you're not, most assignments will just bore you). The second job is a bitch, and generally you're either good at it or you're not. And if you don't, journalism school won't help you much. All of which is to say—damn I'm long-winded—journalism isn't a job, it's an activity.
Karp notes that while NowPublic's Brody hates the "citizen journalism" label, even the term "crowd-powered" creates false distinctions (he also says there's a negative connotation to crowd, which I would assert is no longer true):
The “crowd-powered” terminology again puts up a barrier between journalism being practiced at NowPublic and journalism being practiced on mainstream news sites, when in fact they exist on a continuum.
The future of journalism depends on collaboration, not silos and fiefdoms. Journalism with a capital J needs to maintain standards but it also, desperately, needs to evolve in order to thrive as in a networked media age.
I'm all for a continuum. As much hay as I've made out of my own little neologism, my gut instinct is to be deeply suspicious of labels and the use of categories to organize knowledge. I developed this aversion while working for an art dealer, when I finally figured out, after years of assiduously studying art history, that most "schools" of art making (from symbolism to op-art to minimalism) were just linguistic confections used to sell art to simple-minded rich people. The artists themselves couldn't care less, so long as they could sell their work.
This doesn't mean crowdsourcing isn't a relevant practice within journalism. When a newspaper uses an open call to solicit editorial content from its readers—that's crowdsourcing. And when it asks readers to pore over thousands of pages of documents to help ferret out malfeasance, that's crowdsourcing too. We need these labels, however inexact and simplistic they may be, in order to discuss the rapid change sweeping across our world.
But crowdsourcing is a process, a means to an end. The product is the same, whether it's "good" or "bad" journalism. We can't put the process on a pedestal, and neglect the product. Because I liked Karp's post that much, I'll give him the final word:
We need to recognize the larger sphere that journalism now occupies and the larger group of people who are now acting as journalists — and we need to help them all succeed for the greater good that journalism, in its ideal, has always been about.