As more newspapers and startups experiment with the notion of citizen journalism, feedback has been consistent on at least one thing: a lot of the stuff ordinary citizens write is trash.
Stories that come in to citizen news sites are usually poorly conceived, badly organized and/or horribly written, editors report. That’s not surprising; few people are schooled in inverted pyramid style or taught how to write a lead.
Sites like Digg and Wikinews approach this problem by applying human volunteers to the effort. However, neither has emerged as a major source of credible news. Digg specializes in the snarky and offbeat while Wikinews has failed to gain the critical mass of contributors to establish it as a principal destination.
Now a new venture has come along that’s attempting to apply technology to the problem. Allvoices, which formally launched last week, is a notable citizen journalism effort in that it employs no editors. Its executive team is composed of computer scientists, engineers and software developers. The company is led by Amra Tareen (left), a former venture capitalist whose background is in telecommunications.
Tareen said her venture is motivated by altruism: she believes the world would be a better place if everyone could share stories openly with each other. She was also moved by a visit to the remote area of Pakistan that was ravaged by an earthquake in 2005. There she saw stories of suffering, resilience and courage that she knew would never be shared with the world because there was no one there to report them.
Taking the Editors Out
The Allvoices team has conceived of an approach to citizen news that lets anyone publish a story immediately. Its technology takes editors entirely out of the picture. If successful, it could be a valuable proof of concept for news organizations that are struggling to manage a crush of questionable information.
Here’s how Allvoices works: Anyone can register to submit a story. Submissions aren’t edited, but they first pass through a filter that mines them for topic and context and then attempts to find similar information on the Internet. The story contributed by the citizen is posted along with links to that other information, which can range from blog posts to video on mainstream news sites.
The location of the contributor is pinpointed via geolocation using IP addresses and cell phone numbers. Anyone can comment on anyone else’s contribution, but they can’t edit each other’s work. “I want people’s emotions to come through; I want it to be raw,” Tareen said. As third-party reports and comments grow, the story gains more importance and credibility on Allvoices, sending it higher in the stack.
In theory, Allvoices can work entirely without human intervention. This is important because it greatly speeds up the process of publishing news while also wrapping stories in useful context and background.
In Imperfect Solution
However, there are significant limitations to this approach, most notably how to guarantee accuracy and credibility without sacrificing exclusivity. Because it is an open network, Allvoices could be a magnet for spammers, mischief-makers and people with an agenda. The algorithmic approach to news filtering provides some protection by searching for other streams of information that validate stories submitted by its members.
The weakness of this approach is that it undermines exclusivity. For example, if a citizen reporter is the sole witness to report abuses at a refugee camp, her story could be buried for lack of corroboration. Allvoices deals with this issue by assigning credibility points to frequent contributors, which passes their stories through more quickly. This helps, but hierarchy works against the goal of a completely open network. Geolocation provides somewhat of a safety net, but IP addresses are easy to spoof or hide.
Tareen has raised $4.5 million for AllVoices and is now transitioning the content model from paid contributors to a network of registered members. At this point, however, most of the news is still syndicated from mainstream media sites. Tareen cheerfully dodged repeated questions about how many contributors Allvoices has, other than to say it’s “not many.” Her goal is six billion, so there’s a lot of room for growth.
Tareen said the decision to launch without any journalists on staff was intentional. “We want the community and algorithms to help build this thing,” she said. “We may hire journalists at some point, but at this point, we don’t feel we need them.”
If Allvoices is to become an important news destination, it will probably need editorial oversight at some point. The complexity of mining unstructured text for useful information has vexed some of the best minds in computing for decades. Variations in language, culture and personal style only make this problem harder.
However, Allvoices’ contribution to journalism may ultimately be its technology, not its news service. If the company’s language processing engine can automate tasks that now require human editors, it could become a staple of newsrooms around the world. At the moment, it’s an innovative experiment that deserves attention and funding.
This entry was posted on Monday, July 14th, 2008 at 8:07 am and is filed under Citizen Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.