News and media organizations have always played an essential role in free and democratic societies by connecting individuals to vital information about events and decisions that shape their worlds. These organizations are quickly losing relevance in an increasingly interconnected society where almost anyone can access and create free news. Through news-based social networking, Pau Llop Franch is providing an alternative media model that empowers citizens to become full participants in creating and sharing news. By engaging professional journalists as editors and coaches to the site’s users, Pau’s model also provides the quality control characteristic of traditional news institutions that open-source initiatives often lack.
The New Idea
Pau has created a new media model, fully adapted to today’s highly connected, informed and socially-minded individuals. His news-based social network, Bottup, connects citizens while enabling them to create and share reliable news. By involving ordinary individuals in the news creation process, Pau reduces production costs and extends the coverage of news to encompass local and international events that traditional media institutions are not able to cover. Moreover, the way the network is built ensures that as the number of participants increases, Bottup also grows in content, quality and relevance.
Pau’s model is empowering citizens to exercise their right to inform and be informed accurately about the world around them. With the belief that citizen participation should extend beyond opinions and commentaries in reaction to professionally produced news, Pau is giving people the tools to be fully involved in the news creation process. Bottup users are taught how to collect information from different sources, contrast the facts, and publish news that follows journalistic principles such as accuracy, fairness and quality writing. As citizens share about specific affairs that concern them, they begin to establish the public news agenda, not through opinions but through direct participation. Through the process of writing and publishing, citizens are also equipped to understand and relate news at a deeper, more accurate level.
Maintaining high quality information is also a key aspect in Pau’s model. In order to ensure Bottup’s standards, Pau involves professional journalists as editors and coaches for citizen journalists. Instead of serving corporate controlled media interests as news-creators, Bottup’s professional journalists serve citizens as news brokers, forming an editorial team that works with the users to assure information is verified and contrasted as well as assuring a good final presentation. The result is a quality news piece that follows strict journalistic principles.
The business model of traditional media and news publication is failing. Readership is quickly decreasing as people turn to free newspapers and digital editions for their daily news. Advertising companies are also abandoning printed news publications as attention and money are being increasingly drawn towards internet commerce and social networks. As these factors reduce traditional media’s financial power, newspapers are forced to reduce journalist staff and travel which generally implies a serious reduction in the depth and breadth of news coverage and the ability to contrast sources. This endangers the quality and accuracy of news information, putting citizens’ ability to receive accurate, vital information about events and decisions that shape their world at risk.
Another contributing factor in the reduction of readership is the increasing lack of trust people feel towards traditional news institutions due to the political and corporate interests that often lie behind the main news companies. The news industry is composed of large corporations that are directly implicated in providing income to hire journalists and print publications. From the citizens’ perspective, this often results in biased news coverage, influenced by political and corporate groups sponsoring the newspaper. In a recent Carnegie Corporation survey on citizen preferred news sources, traditional newspapers were considered the least trustworthy, up-to-date and useful source of news compared to local TV news and Internet-based news, among others (Carnegie Corporation, 2003).
Although digital news sources are abundant, they rarely provide in-depth and unbiased information. Most internet-based news sources are divided into two categories: digital editions of traditional newspapers and blogs or individual, and generally quite partisan, information websites. The first suffer from far worse under-sourcing problems than their counterpart paper-based editions and a patent inability to build a faithful reader base, partly due to their rigid top-down structures as well as to an understandable resistance to yield power to digitalized citizens. Blogs, on the other hand, lack significant quality control methods that ensure the veracity and fairness of their content. Even when these citizen writers attempt to apply journalistic principles to their research, they often do not have direct access to key information that a press pass might offer and other tools, like editors and proof readers, which professional journalists depend upon.
With each passing day, the way people connect with media is shifting. The mass that once consumed mass media is fragmenting into ever more narrow audiences as individuals increasingly seek out only the information that interests them. This is proving to be an extra challenge for current media models that focus on information geared towards large audiences, and also signifies a reduction in citizens’ tendency to seek out views very different from their own. Effective and independent journalism as a pillar of information for democratic participation could disappear if an alternative and reliable news source is not made available to citizens.
Pau is using social networks as a model and an opportunity to reach people where they are and provide the skills they need to create, consume and share high quality news. By using technology that has already proven successful through companies like MySpace and Facebook, Pau is building a network with the capacity to grow quickly and exponentially, reaching citizens across Spain and Spanish speaking countries at a very fast pace.
The network revolves around an initial web-based platform which in appearance is much like a digital news portal. Interested readers become members by filling out a “citizen journalist card.” This card is an adaptation of a typical social network profile, which includes topic interests and geographical location. As members participate, their card lists the news articles they have written or collaborated on, ratings they have been given by others and comments posted by the user. Although individuals begin participating on a specific issue or subject, the tendency is for them to meet other citizens and connect with them on new issues which they have not previously given much thought to.
Citizens are placed at the center of this network as contributors, researchers and consumers. Believing in the power of many to verify and develop facts on a given news issue, Pau has developed simple tools for citizens to pre-publish, aggregate information and rate other user’s articles. Also, articles are not published and forgotten by the next day, but rather, are reviewed by an editing team and the original author can modify an article instantly. Issues that are important to citizens are kept alive for longer periods of time than in traditional newspapers. This way, citizens set the editorial line according to what is important to them.
Another key aspect to Pau’s initiative is how the participating community is organized. As the network grows, Pau groups citizens around topics and geographical areas. In order to identify key participants or experts in a topic or geographical area, and place them as news-leaders for a particular group, he is developing logarithms that consider factors such as fellow user ratings, number of articles published and quality of articles. These leaders become an important asset as they assist the editorial board to train citizens on how to verify the facts and organize information more clearly and effectively to the rest of the community. These expert groups will also serve to carry out group research to verify facts over an issue that interests the community as a whole.
To control the quality of the news published on Bottup, Pau is engaging professional journalists to become editors and contributors, as well as to train citizen participants to improve their research and writing through different partnerships with groups of University professors and professional journalists. Instead of simply accepting or declining user’s articles depending on quality, these professionals work with citizen journalists to assure principles such as source verification, contrasting information, accuracy, and fairness have all been applied. This process itself not only improves the quality standards of the final product, but also helps citizens to gain literacy both in consuming as well as producing news.
Although still in an early pilot phase, Bottup already hosts over 1,000 registered Citizen Journalist members and receives between 40,000-60,000 unique visits a month. Pau aims to increase these numbers significantly in the next two years through a three-prong strategy concerning technology, staff sourcing and revenue models. His goal is to reach a significant readership that will allow the model to become fully sustainable, leveraging citizens and professional journalists to create high quality news with farther reach than current media companies.
Although Pau still has to take important steps in the way of fully establishing his model, Bottup has already given birth to a number of local news-networks in Spain and Latin America that have used it as a working model.
For as long as he can remember, Pau has wanted to be a journalist. As a teenager, he was fascinated by how information is transmitted, and the power it had over the people around him. From news-casting playground soccer games from the classroom window to launching a newspaper during high school and working as head editor, he found countless ways to involve others in capturing current news and relaying it to a larger audience in a meaningful way. As he grew up, Pau began to understand journalism as a social service and also to feel an obligation as a journalist to help people understand what is happening around them.
In pursuing his dream to become a news professional at University, he found himself disappointed at the slow decay of the traditional media model. As citizens around the world were able to be informed through new technologies, he was surprised that many journalists and media opinion leaders received these ground-breaking innovations as a threat.
During the next few years, Pau’s jobs included working for local newspapers as well as managing web content and communication for a very successful job-search website. As he developed innovations for his employers, Pau discovered the amazing tools that technology could offer to produce more comprehensive and engaging news products much quickly.
When he was 25, Pau left his job to build a team of fellow professional journalists and launch Bottup.