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Devices shine light on world events

Sure, cellphones have drastically changed the way people communicate, but what of the other powers mobile devices bring to the table?
In this round-the-clock information age, cellphones are more than a one-to-one device; time after time they’ve served as an agent of information, a conduit to the world stage.
Anyone with a basic camera phone can capture breaking news. Sometimes these “citizen journalists” capture an event of such magnitude, such as the hanging of Saddam Hussein, they simply outwit the traditional channels of journalism.
If it weren’t for the anonymous witness who captured Hussein’s hanging on a camera phone, his final moments would’ve been witnessed only by those in the room at the time. Whether this marks an advancement or decline is up for debate, but you can be certain any news organization on the planet would’ve been more than eager to be a fly on the wall during the execution of Hussein.
Some argue that the citizen journalist or newsmaker has become the biggest disruption in the news-gathering business since the newspaper was invented. That may be an overstatement, but some news organizations aren’t waiting to find out.
In August launched CNN Exchange, a new online platform for user-generated content. The Web site asks users to send their stories, whether they are told in text, photo or video, and share their views on current events. CNN Exchange recently had a photo gallery of a fire burning near the famous Hollywood sign in hills above Hollywood, Calif. The photos were taken by people working in their high-rise offices or enjoying the day on their balconies, not seasoned photojournalists.
Last month, Getty Images bought Scoopt, a startup agency that was among the first to collect and represent the sale of camera phone pictures taken by citizens. Scoopt describes itself as “an aggregator and distributor of photographs and videos captured by eyewitnesses who have an accidental front row seat to headline-making moments.” Getty Images plans to license some of the images it gets from Scoopt after vetting the photos for editorial quality standards. Other players that have entered the game of citizen photojournalism include Spy Media and Cell Journalist.
NowPublic CEO Leonard Brody said much of the criticism of citizen journalism as manufactured, un-vetted and doctored is unfounded. These are all issues plaguing traditional media right now, he said, citing the recent admission from Reuters that one of its photographers doctored photos taken after an Israeli Air Force attack in Beirut last summer.
“There is an element of buyer beware,” he said. “Bias exists in every media form whatsoever.”
While news organizations are hemorrhaging, his site is growing by 30 percent a year, he said. “The monopoly that news companies had on first-on-scene reporting is gone,” Brody said. “More and more news collection is going to be driven by people like us.”
Brody’s opinions are only further validated by NowPublic’s recent deal with The Associated Press. The major news organization is starting to receive data from NowPublic and may re-run some of the stories it gleans from that user-generated content.
This is the first time since the invention of the printing press that an entire demographic has revised how it gets its news and taken it out of the hands of established news organizations, he said. “Your children will never read the newspaper,” he said. “It’s done; that market is dead.” Internet Editor Bambi Francisco said media companies like Dow Jones & Co. Inc. that have earned and established credibility over the past century find it very difficult to gamble that credibility by allowing user-generated content to get mixed in.
“They hold their content very dearly. They don’t like to let go of it,” she said. The quick upside is that user-generated content has increased some page views by 20 to 30 percent, she added.
Francisco, who at least seems open to the idea of more citizen journalism, said she likes the idea of more people contributing to a topic, a sort of “wiki-journalism” that packages content in a useable form.
She said there is a lot of infighting among editors on this topic. “All I can say is we thought Pluto was a planet for how many years?”
Dan Loeb, vice president of business development at Feedburner, said most of the “news” people read is not news. “It’s opinion layered on top of media,” he said. “They’re using a blogger to filter what they read on the New York Times.”
For media companies to stay relevant they need to welcome other channels on which their content can live; they can’t rely on people coming to their Web site, Loeb said. News organizations must push their content everywhere it can go, whether or not it gets re-packaged, he said.


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