"Networked Journalism" Site Claims to Supplement, Not Compete, With Mainstream News There's a lot of hand wringing these days in media management circles about how to fund journalism, as broadcast news audiences decline, newspapers lose revenues, and advertisers move to digital media where the aggregate dollars can't fund today's large news organizations. NowPublic.com thinks it has a solution to fill some of the gaps.
Launched about two years ago in Vancouver, the site got $10.6 million in first-round financing over the summer from U.S. and Canadian arms of venture capital firm Rho Ventures and two other firms. It claims to be the world's largest site for "citizen journalism," with more than 130,000 people in more than 140 countries contributing text, images and audio, and just under one million unique visitors per month. While there's high-interest news like the latest doings of Britney Spears or the Virginia Tech massacre, NowPublic's bread-and-butter seems to be mid-tier stories that don't get as much attention but can be captured on a cellphone camera; anything from a European street demonstration to a smaller disaster in New Jersey. "There's little evidence that traditional news organizations are able to do this with the attention to detail and care that's required," NowPublic chairman Merrill Brown said in an exclusive interview with Jack Myers Media Business Report.
Brown and other participants at a summit earlier this month on "Networked Journalism" (another term for "citizen journalism") hosted by the City University of New York argued about whether traditional business requirements should even be applied to journalism. Other major efforts to support coverage, such as the News21 consortium, New York University-based Assignment Zero and the recently announced Pro Publica headed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger have been foundation- and grant-funded. BackFence.com co-founder Mark Potts lamented that he had been unable to make enough money to sustain his site, a network of local contributors, mostly in the Washington, D.C. area. Brown, though, emphatically says NowPublic intends to turn a profit. There will be at least three revenue streams: one is advertising on the site. A second is deals with news distributors, such as one concluded with The Associated Press, which has already used some NowPublic material. Brown told <i>Jack Myers Media Business Report</i> that new deals were in the offing. Finally, NowPublic will charge to provide content to anyone who wants - be it a PR or advertising agency looking for information on a local market or perhaps a shot of a local model, or an individual who, say, spends $25 for a photo of his ancestral home. "It's networking a vast network of content creators around the world," Brown said. "That's the secret sauce we need to create to make NowPublic a viable business."
Equally emphatically, he says companies like his will not put mainstream news companies out of business, suggesting they see NowPublic as an opportunity. "We're another component in somebody's daily news experience," Brown says. "News diets over time will include people's favorite conventional news sites, a blog or two of people they respect or are ideologically in a place they are, something local and the citizen view of the news worldwide." The site has grown through typical viral means, allowing tagging and bookmarking, letting people put a NowPublic button on other sites, sending out conventional email PR, and helping users let others know of contributions through an "email this" function and RSS feeds.
Yet, while the site has proved it can attract big news organizations and users' attention, it also suffers from the kinds of opinion or hearsay one might expect from a site with myriad non-professional contributors. One headline read "US Boosts Arms For Gulf Tyrannies." Another talked of "Bill Clinton's Racist Postcard." Much of the site's "news" is pickups of mainstream reports. NowPublic, while not encouraging unbalanced opinion, is trying to make sure people who aren't journalists feel comfortable contributing. "We're not a bunch of elite reporters and you don't have to be either," chimes a promo video for the site. Brown acknowledges that while they believe anyone can be a reporter, not anyone "can be a reporter for The New York Times."
And to anyone who scoffs at the idea that a site made up of amateur journalists contributing at their whim from around the world can succeed, Brown points to the early days at MSNBC.com, where he was founding Editor-in-Chief. "Nobody thought that MSNBC was part of the traditional news world in 1996 either," he says. "They said: 'A newsroom on the Microsoft campus? What?' And 'The Internet? Hunh?" If the site can achieve its goal of providing material to the likes of AP and supplementing its revenues with advertising and PR, it might just have a new for-profit journalism model that can sustain itself over time.