You create a web site that not only invites, but encourages, readers to contribute their own articles, pictures, audio and video. The content either is or isn't edited by a gatekeeper. And everyone who visits the the site is encouraged to add, subtract or detract from the posted info.
Two up-and-runnning -- actually, more like up-and-crawling -- DIY sites illustrate the concept:
The first is Wikinews.com, the beta version of a do-it-yourself online newspaper that is an offshoot of the well-trafficked Wikipedia, a rather ambitious online encyclopedia written entirely by volunteers who take the time to author articles and/or amend those written by others. Even though there are no editors to police the content, the few listings I sampled seemed to be surprisingly accurate, objective and well written.
Visiting WikiNews for the first time, I cribbed from the New York Times to refresh an outdated article on the Ukraine election, ethically attributing the new stuff to the Gray Lady. When I clicked the button, the article published instantly, remaining on the site for a couple of days until it was overtaken by events. As an inveterate editor and busybody, I was tickled by the ease with which I could hijack the story. But I get chills over the obvious potential for abuse.
MyMissourian has a more modest mandate than covering all the world's news all the time. It publishes "News of Mid-Missourians by Mid-Missourians." The lead story today is about Rita Preckshot being named citizen of the year, accompanied by a classic grip-and-grin photo. Although MyMissourian depends on reader-submitted articles and pictures, the content is screened, and presumably edited, prior to publication. This is a journalistically superior model that won't scale if the idea catches on in a big way. Even if the flow of in-bound content is less than torrential, a responsible adult will have to be engaged to mind it.
Speaking of large-scale grassroots news projects, a new site called Backfence is planning to launch early next year in the Washington (D.C.) market. Backfence hopes to become the authoritative source for chicken-dinner news in the affluent D.C. suburbs. Revenues would come from selling ads to local merchants, who can't afford to advertise in the big media and would be insane to do so if they could.
If the Backfence pilot is successful, the idea will be exported to "16 other metropolitan areas over three years, with 10 town-size sites in each market," says CEO Mark Potts, a feisty former Chicago newsman who went on to run new media ops at the Washington Post, Cahners and elsewhere. (Although WashPost won't cover the news that Backfence will, they did cover Mark. Click here to read all about it.)
If Mark has his way, big-time media execs eventually will be forced to choose between joining the grassroots movement or staying lost in the weeds.