Since YouTube caught the public's imagination in 2005, news organizations have attempted to duplicate that same style of user-generated, on-the-spot coverage that gained prominence during the July 2005 London terrorist attacks and the 2006 mid-term election campaign.
CBS News recently launched a beta version of a citizen journalism Web site (http://www.cbseyemobile/. com) for consumers who choose to upload photos and videos from their mobile phones. CNN, which launched iReport as a part of CNN.com in August 2006, launched a beta version of a standalone consumer-generated Web site earlier this year.
The site (http://www.ireport.com/) has shown decision makers at CNN, which was receiving more than 10,000 submissions a month, that user-generated content can cover breaking news events before reporters and photographers can get to the scene, explains Jennifer Martin, CNN director of PR.
"What iReport has done for us, is that it has provided an added dimension to our newsgathering. We're not doing less reporting because of iReport, but it is enriching the stories that we are doing," she says. "Take [the April 2007 shooting massacre at] Virginia Tech, for example. That was a horrific breaking news tragedy, and that cell-phone video of shots being fired, that was an iReport. Those [types of videos] provided an extra dimension, but it's not like we didn't send journalists there because we had that."
CBS launched iMobile in beta format, but has not set a date for a formal launch, says Shannon Jacobs, VP of communications.
News organizations have long recognized that no matter how many reporters they have, people who are not trained journalists sometimes gather the best content because of their proximity to breaking news. Before YouTube, photographers who were not professional journalists won Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news coverage, says Staci D. Kramer, co-editor of PaidContent.org, who adds that consumer-generated sites formalize the contribution process.
"This is not new. This has been going on for several years," she says. "After 9/11, Web sites posted ways for people to put up information and photos, but it wasn't a systematic thing where you could come in and offer something. It was on an event-driven basis."
Beyond breaking news coverage, consumer-generated content also gives news organizations greater access to the subjects they're covering, adding detail to a feature that is more natural than if it was filmed by a reporter, Martin adds.
"We did a lot of coverage of World Autism Day, and we received a lot of iReports, and the quality of those first-person reports [stood out]," she says. "[They showed] what it's like to live with autism, and what it's like to be a parent of an autistic child. That's something that we... wouldn't have been able to provide."
Consumer-created content also benefits news organizations by creating a unique relationship with viewers and helping the bottom line, says Barry Hollander, journalism professor at the University of Georgia, who points out that the Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination, now nearly 45 years old, is the most famous example of citizen journalism.
"For one, [news organizations creating these sites] is PR; they're saying, 'We're interested in what other people are doing, and we acknowledge that we can't be everywhere you are, so we want you to be part of our team,'" he says. "They can't be everywhere, so [consumers] can come up with content that they can use. There's a financial gain to that, as well. You don't have to fund a reporter on every street corner."