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3/24/2008
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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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CNN Creates Citizen Journalism Channels On Web, In Second Life

Budding Wolf Blitzers can bring their news reporting talents to the Web and Second Life using a citizen journalism program run by CNN. Reporters post video, photos, audio, and text reports to the beta iReport site, and have the news appear on the site unfiltered. The best contributions appear on CNN itself.

Budding Wolf Blitzers can bring their news reporting talents to the Web and Second Life using a citizen journalism program run by CNN. Reporters post video, photos, audio, and text reports to the beta iReport site, and have the news appear on the site unfiltered. The best contributions appear on CNN itself.Citizen journalists provide perspective that professional reporters often can't, said Lila King, senior producer for interactive storytelling for CNN. "We're getting the first-person perspective on events, intimate stories about how a tornado blew through town and this is how it was," King said. Similarly, citizen journalism allowed for intimate reporting of the California wildfires. "You get an amazing integration of what's actually happening on a hyperlocal level, block by block, by individuals living the experience," she said.

The first phase of iReport launched in August of 2006. iReport got 13 stories on the first day. The very first report was a photo shading itself on a branch. It was just a whimsical little photo, but it made a nice image for a news report on the network about the heat-wave then sweeping the South.

In April 2007, citizen journalism proved itself on a more serious story: The Virginia Tech mass murders. A student named Jamal Albarghouti shot video on his cell phone camera of the shootings in progress and sent them to iReport.

Since then, iReport has grown, fueled by big stories like the Minnesota bridge collapse and wildfires in California. "With every one of these events, we got an uptick in the quality and number of iReport stories coming in," King said. About 10% of the stories end up on the air on CNN, after being vetted for accuracy and fairness and overall quality by CNN producers.

The beta version of the iReport site went live in February. Stories on the iReport site are rated by users, in a fashion similar to Digg, and the top-rated stories get on the front page of the site.

Rhonda Lowry, VP of emerging technologies for Turner Broadcasting, who works with King on iReport, has been active in Second Life for three years, and sees strong parallels between iReport and Second Life. They're very different in many ways, of course, but they have something very basic at their core: They're built on user-generated content. Linden Lab, the inventors and operators of Second Life, have years of experience dealing with a fundamental question that CNN, and any other company that solicits user-generated content, needs to wrestle with: How much control should the parent company exert?

A company can say it wants to be completely hands-off -- turn over the keys to the users and let them drive the car. But in fact, that's impossible, as Linden Lab found last year when it banned simulated child pornography, gambling, and in-world banking. The parent company of a user-generated content site exerts control over the community and content, even when it would rather not.

Lowry was interested in learning about how Linden Lab managed the balancing act between corporate and user control. "It struck me hard, realizing that the burden on Linden was enormous and they couldn't possibly keep up with the pace with which the world was growing," Lowry said. "CNN getting into user-generated content would be facing the same task and the same thing."

And Lowry was interested in learning how the user community in Second Life evolved its own culture.

CNN launched SL I-Reports for citizen journalism inside Second Life in November. They hold weekly meetings to discuss journalism issues in-world, and members of the group report on events, news, and features that happen in Second Life. Lowry appears in-world with the Second Life name Rhonda iReport. (She also has another avatar which she's used much longer and more widely than Rhonda iReport, but we agreed to withhold that identity from publication.)

King is in Second Life as Lila iReport.

Some of the reporters have really thrown themselves into the role, creating CNN-branded mock microphones and cameras for their avatars to carry while reporting on stories, Lowry said.

I asked why the citizen journalists on iReport don't just set up their own Web sites -- which is easy to do with tools like TypePad, Blogger, and YouTube -- and bypass the middleman at CNN entirely. Lowry said the CNN program provides structure for participants, and structure helps people achieve goals. That works in weight loss and working out. "Both of those work better for me if I have someone to work out with and if I have the structure of a gym or program," she said.

King added that many iReport users do cross-post their stories to their own blogs and YouTube. But iReport gets them more exposure. "Unlike other social media sites, iReport gets your material in front of CNN producers who use the megaphone of CNN to share your story with CNN's global audience," she said. Citizen journalists want to get their stories out to the widest number of people, and iReport lets them do that.

I asked what will keep citizen journalists from putting professional journalists -- like me! -- out of a job. King said that journalists who fail to pay attention to quality will find it harder to get work. But good journalists will continue to be employable. Moreover, professional journalists make more of a priority out of their work than amateurs ever will, because for professional journalists it's their job, they're financially dependent on it, and they shape their lives around it.

"And if you allow yourself, you can actually learn from these other influences," she said. "You can better yourself as a professional if you open yourself up to those other inputs."

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