Citizen foreign correspondence

26Jul08

Nicholas Kristof mentions a new Web site that aims to do “citizen foreign correspondence.” It’s called Demotix and it proclaims itself to be the “citizen wire.”

So I took a look. The site says it was founded because only four U.S. newspapers have foreign desks, which I suppose indicates that they have actual foreign correspondents based abroad.

They go on to say that most media rely on wire services like AP and Reuters for news. But the site asserts that the agencies don’t have offices in 80 countries, which it measures as 40 percent of the world (in number terms apparently, not geographical size or population). Actually, I question whether that is true. It may be the agencies don’t have formal bureaus, but the number sounds quite high and I would venture to guess that it doesn’t count local freelancers that agencies often use. Also, there’s a lot of tiny countries out there that may not have have correspondents based there but are easy enough to cover from nearby. The postage stamp nations of Europe come to mind.

The site seems mainly focused on distributing photos and video and gives rates that appear reasonable. The site keeps 50 percent of the fee to its citizen reporters, which sounds a bit high but perhaps is fair for those who would not have any other way to show their work. A few professional news organizations have signed on to be part of the experiment.

Looking around the site, the quality of the photos doesn’t seem all that great. But more than that, it’s totally haphazard as to what is covered. The site is still in beta, but there would need to be many more contributors before they could really cover what’s going on in the world on a daily basis. Also, there’s no guarantee a reporter would be on the scene of a major news event, unless the site would start an assignment system to make sure they are covered.

So while this could be a way to pick up the odd photo or video snippet caught by a regular citizen (something that major news agencies already do, without taking an extra cut of the fee), I do not see this coming close to replacing foreign news coverage by dedicated journalists anytime soon. And by dedicated journalists, that means both staff and freelancers making their living entirely from news coverage.

It’s not that I’m saying a regular person can’t do what a journalist does. The point is having people paid to go out and do it every day, a mission that is essential to a functioning democratic society. Maybe the public service aspect is me being sentimental. Newspapers are a business, and having shareholders forces a focus on short-term profits. A better solution could be having private owners who feel a dedication to the public mission. Sadly, they are a disappearning breed. And even private ownership isn’t a panacea — note the problems at my hometown newspaper, the Santa Barbara News-Press. Guess I’m just the latest to join this circular argument that sadly seems to have no ideal solution.

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