Friday, January 21, 2005

A very busy news-quilting bee

Heard the one about the woman charged with driving under the influence of alcohol after downing three glasses of Listerine?

That's not the straight line for a joke, though it could be. It's actually a breaking story at TakeBacktheNews.Com (TBTN), a do-it-yourself news site that formally launched this week.

Apart from oddities like the Listerine lady and a Christian group concerned about SpongeBob's unspecified "gay" tendencies, TBTN is attempting to present a serious tour of world news identified by a growing corps of citizen correspondents. Accordingly, you can click to view continuously refreshed sections covering international, political, entertainment, business, cultural and sporting news.

Since the site opened officially on Jan. 17, founder John W. Little reports that membership has grown to 500 correspondents and page views are running 8,000 per day -- or, a rate of 250k per month. The site ranks 3,698,333 on Alexa.Com (vs. Yahoo at No. 1), but everybody's got to start someplace.

Although the name of the site suggests it is a maverick, grassroots news operation, every article is sourced forthrightly to a name-brand news medium. Self-assigned citizen correspondents, who must register to contribute to the site, scour the web for fresh stories and send the links to TBTN. John and a few good buddies work 18-hour days to confirm the link and slot the contribution into the appropriate place on the web site.

TBTN calls itself a "news-sharing community" and is not to be confused with a citizen's journalism collective, says John. "We are not into grassroots reporting, because there is no way to ensure the credibility of most of that kind of material," he explains, "We value the product more than we value the participation," although the site in designated areas welcomes comments and home-grown editorials.

Still, John says there is a psychic payoff for TBTN news scouts. "Just submitting a story in a sense is participatory journalism," he says. "You submit a story and a link and help to determine what other people see. People are identifying with that."

TBTN is off to a good start as an over-flowing, almost overwhelming, "in" box filled by a growing cadre of information kleptomaniacs. But it may be too much of a good thing. With eager correspondents competing to contribute every scrap they can to the news-quilting bee, TBTN would benefit from further intervention from its overworked editors.

John likes to compare TBTN with the Drudge Report, a highly-trafficked news-tip service with a nasty, right-leaning edge. Drudge's success stems from, first, the need of the powerful and famous to assure themselves he hasn't written about them that day and, second, the fact that it is a short screenful of carefully selected, decidedly provocative items.

Drudge is a quick scan, not a lifestyle. TBTN does not have to ape Drudge by shoehorning all the news onto one screen, but it does have to become faster, easier and more convenient to digest. That will require focus on certain topics, certain articles and certain events.

If John wants to Take Back the News, he needs to Take Back the Site.


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