By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The fatal attraction of free

Frank Beacham, in an essay at, identifies the biggest challenge facing citizen journalism: the relentless attempts by corporate media companies to co-opt well-meaning amateur reporters, photographers and videographers into giving away their work in order to fatten someone else’s bottom line.

Beacham is especially upset with Yahoo and Reuters, which are teaming up to add citizen contributions to their mix while paying little or nothing for them. Beacham writes:

It’s a good thing that Abraham Zapruder, the pioneering citizen journalist who aimed his 8mm movie camera toward the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, was not dealing with Reuters. It’s doubtful he would have gotten the $150,000 payment — about half a million in today’s currency — when he sold the footage to Life magazine.

Who do these media companies think they are fooling? They are making a blatant attempt to build news organizations based on free user- provided content.

There is, however, a significant flaw in the corporate-defined citizen-journalism model. Good journalism may be hard, but technology is easy. And rather than giving it away to Yahoo, Reuters et al., most citizen journalists are doing it themselves.

Earlier this week the Knight Citizen News Network released an important new report titled “Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News?” Unlike Beacham’s essay, the Knight report focuses on so-called hyperlocal journalism — blogs dedicated to one community, or even to just a neighborhood.

And, here, the DIY ethic is alive and well. I haven’t had a chance to do more than skim the report, but I can tell you that the focus is on independent sites. Many of these are being run by professional journalists with an eye toward making a profit, such as the New Haven Independent and Baristanet — a new opportunity for journalists trying to survive in a shrinking business. Some corporate media experiments, such as GateHouse’s Wicked Local sites in Eastern Massachusetts, are given a look as well.

I think it’s likely — or at least I hope — that the very real problem identified by Beacham will turn out to be self-correcting. Corporate media executives who genuinely want to use citizen-media tools to build community and experiment with new business models will be rewarded for their efforts.

But those who think they can profit by suckering amateurs into giving away their content will soon discover that what they’ve created a host of new competitors.

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  1. another face at zanzibar

    Dan, did you spot this about the Times and the internet? Found it on digg.

  2. Peter Porcupine

    The Glob began linking to my individual blog about last June, as part of their political bloggers page.No permission was ever asked, and no payment for content was ever mentioned.Mybe I should send them a bill as a subcontractor at the end of the Fiscal Year?

  3. Wes

    Seems to me that radio and newspapers always had “tip lines.” This was prior to the video camera phone and other toys made to harvest coin.The hoi polloi does love to think they’re in on events.

  4. Stella

    It has become apparent that the populace is voyeuristic by nature and confuses ogling with involvement.

  5. Anonymous

    Peter,Maybe you and the should be paying them for the leads? Does their linking to a Republican sockpuppet site constitute “contribution in kind?”

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