You Witness, where any person can be a journalist

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December 17, 2006|By Troy McCullough | Troy McCullough,Sun Columnist

With the launch of the new You Witness News site, Yahoo is the latest major Internet player to enter the "citizen journalism" fray.

You Witness News ( is an attempt to harness the news-gathering power of millions of Yahoo users from around the globe, turning them into an international band of roving citizen journalists with a near infinite amount of news-gathering potential. Photographers and videographers who witness an event are encouraged to upload items to the site for the world to see.

"Citizen journalism" projects like this have traditional journalism types quaking in their old-media boots, and for good reason. It's an ingenious idea, in theory at least.

At little cost to online giants like Yahoo, contributors could provide coveted news content that traditional media outlets would find impossible to match. Yahoo, for example, received 130 million unique visitors in November - that's more than 4.3 million unique visitors each day. And if even 1 percent of those visitors chose to enlist themselves in the You Witness News effort, they would constitute a news gathering force larger than the newsrooms of the 20 biggest papers in the country combined.

This is one of the premises behind most "citizen journalism" projects: Cut out the media middle man - or, at least, augment the middle man with citizen journalism in areas where the middle man might be lacking. Yahoo is but the latest organization attempting to tap into the wealth of bloggers and social networkers eager to play the role of journalist and gain a wider audience for their work.

Other projects include WikiNews (, the Center for Citizen Media (, and the Pew-related Institute for Interactive Journalism (

And one of the more interesting of these projects now in its early phase is being created by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. His project,, is a hybrid effort, combining professional editors with citizen journalists. Or, as Rosen says on his site, it's an attempt "to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust."

With a potential news staff of thousands, all guided by editors adhering to journalistic standards, the project could very well be a harbinger of the 21st-century media landscape.

One thing to note is that many of these citizen-journalism projects were founded by traditional journalists or journalism academics. And many newspapers and old-media institutions are themselves starting to invest in citizen journalism to one degree or another.

For many tradition-bound journalists, this only adds to the sense of dread that the trade they practice is sinking fast and everyone who can is jumping ship. But for all the hand-wringing, the current reality is quite a bit more modest.

The You Witness News project, which launched -this month, has had the same featured videos on its site for a few weeks: a sinkhole on a California highway, an argument between kayakers and a veteran near a beachfront war memorial, and a documentation of warm weather in December. There's little news value in any of it - even by cable news standards.

The potential here is undeniable. But for now, it's just that: potential.

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