You Are the News! Five Reasons Why Citizen Journalism Is a Concept Whose Time Has Come
Tired of feeling unrepresented by the media machine? The solution is citizen journalism, which allows writers and viewers alike to decide for themselves what is timely, relevant, and newsworthy. Paul Sullivan, editor in chief of Orato.com, offers his insights.
New York, NY (November 2007)—A few short years ago when a big story broke, the nation would anxiously wait for reporters to share the scoop with the folks at home. Today, the image of families crowded around the TV has a slightly anachronistic feel, almost as though the flat screen set is the glowing radio of WW II lore. The ubiquitousness of the Internet has changed everything. Not only does news travel faster, it may be accessed via any Web site, blog, or virtual community of your choosing. No surprise, then, that "we the people" are not only shaping how we get the scoop, we're demanding a hand in dishing it out as well.
"Journalism is changing right alongside the technology that brings it to us, and a whole new style of reporting has emerged," says Paul Sullivan, a veteran newspaper editor and editor in chief of citizen journalism site Orato.com. "Listen closely. That sound you detect is nothing less than the powerful voice of the people demanding to be heard."
What is citizen journalism? As the name suggests, it's the act of untrained everyday citizens assuming the role of reporter and sharing their stories in the first person. And it's not just some "fringe" movement; it's becoming downright mainstream. This month, as massive wildfires ripped across Malibu, San Diego, and other parts of the California countryside, CNN begged for eyewitness accounts of the live destruction for their "I-View" news segments—showing that even big networks acknowledge the growing need to involve the masses in history-making newscasts.
Sullivan says Orato.com, founded byentrepreneur Sam Yehia, was born from this desire to give average people with extraordinary (and ordinary) stories an outlet for sharing what they know. This interactive Web site is a grassroots platform from which citizen journalists can tell it like it is and have their stories acknowledged by hundreds of thousands of visitors a month. And what's more exciting is if the audience likes a story, they can tip the author online!
"'Orato' comes from the Latin word meaning 'I speak,'" says Sullivan. "It's hard for today's news machine to do justice to current issues and the real experiences of people involved in them. We showcase vivid, first-person stories from individuals involved in current events or living amazing lives. Whether it is politics, sports, entertainment, science, love, or war, Orato.com captures news and stories in their rawest form. We are a celebration of every person's right to be heard in his or her own words."
Whereas most news stations tend to lean a little (or perhaps a lot) to the left or right, Orato.com covers all kinds of stories and opinions. For example, recent entries include a compelling argument on gun control alongside a first-person account from a minuteman. Anyone can post a story, and if you don't fancy yourself a writer, you can share your viewpoint via audio, video, or photo essay.
The key difference between Orato.com and traditional media? On Orato.com, the subject owns the story. Everyone who shares his or her story gets the final editorial cut. "It's their story," says Sullivan. "Why shouldn't they get to tell it the way they want to tell it?"
Orato.com divides its stories into several categories. For instance:
*Current Events *E-Buzz *Mysteries
*Love & Sex *Sports *Travel & Adventure
*Health & Science *Lifestyles *Arts & Entertainment
In addition, readers will find a newsletter to which they can subscribe, along with the option to join Orato Village, an interactive writer's community. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Since its inception in 2006, Orato.com has steadily picked up steam. Currently, the site receives dozens of submissions each week, and the numbers are only increasing. Sullivan says Orato.com's growing popularity is a gauge that measures the burgeoning acceptance of this exciting new trend known as citizen journalism.
Read on to discover five reasons why citizen journalism is here to stay:
The Internet rules the roost. Who knows how people managed to survive before life online? It's changed the way we work, shop, communicate, and—yes—stay on top of current events. Even the majority of those who grew up in an un-wired age now find it impossible to imagine society functioning without the Net. Because of the Internet's unprecedented speed and the scope of information available, more and more people "sign on" to get their news before (or often instead of) opening the paper or turning on the TV or radio.
Sites like Orato.com fit in with the blogger's agenda. "People are no longer closet narcissists," laughs Sullivan. "They are proud to let the world know what's going on in their own lives." Web sites such as MySpace and FaceBook, not to mention YouTube and countless blogging sites, are thriving because people want to be seen and heard. Orato.com is simply the next step to empowering the average citizen and giving him or her a voice. People are no longer hesitant to share what they know with the rest of the world—and more importantly, they are empowered by finding validation in that choice to be the ones telling the story.
People want to tell their own stories—in their own words. They are tired of being the fodder for some journalist's ambition. They are tired of being edited and excluded. Now, with Orato.com, they have a chance to say what they mean. Perhaps surprisingly, they are no less candid when they control the agenda. They're working with a reporter they trust—themselves! "Quite often we get in touch with people who have been worked over in other media," says Sullivan. "Once they find out they can own their story on Orato.com, they are amazed and wonder why no one thought to do it this way a long time ago."
People are ready to decide for themselves. Many people no longer feel the need to turn on the news to hear an anchorperson interpreting stories for them. Some people perceive traditional newscasts to be overly "PC," steered by sponsors, and watered down into sound bytes. They don't want to be hand-led, but rather have decided to draw their own conclusions. Society seeks the invested reporter. While news anchors and reporters consistently do a great job of telling the facts, they are still just doing their jobs. They are not personally invested in the story or in the lives of the people they report on—rather they are working for a paycheck. Citizen journalism, on the other hand, is usually reported in the first person. The speaker owns his or her story, so to speak, and with that story comes the passion and integrity that goes along with sharing something so personal.
"We live in a cynical world," notes Sullivan. "There are so many horror stories in the news that we've gotten numb. And when the news is reported by professionals who are taught how to 'sell' the story a certain way, well, people just don't buy it anymore. So when we see a story that's written from the heart, without compensation, we respond in a visceral way. It's powerful to hear a story from someone who deeply feels the words."
Citizen journalism sprinkles some surprising stories amid the expected ones. The traditional newscast consists of all the common stories people are used to hearing: the war in Iraq, local crime, weather, and politics. The same old stuff. We know what we will see and hear when we turn on CNN. That's not a bad thing, of course. Sometimes all we're seeking is tried and true coverage of a particular story. Other times, though, we crave the experience of looking behind Door #2 with no idea what might be lurking there. And while sites like Orato.com usually do feature citizen journalists' take on major stories, they also include a healthy sprinkling of completely unexpected treats.
"Readers never know what they're going to get when they visit us," says Sullivan. We allow the people of the world to inform us of what is relevant, interesting, and powerful—and we are never disappointed with the stories that come pouring in from citizens worldwide. From ghost sightings at Gettysburg to hard news stories like the San Diego fires to celebrity confessions, we have it all, and it's all deemed worthwhile."
Perhaps the main reason citizen journalism is finding such a foothold is the "do it yourself" spirit that has permeated Western culture, says Sullivan. Our collective suspicion of government, Corporate America, and authority figures in general is manifesting in an "If you want something done right, do it yourself" attitude.
"People have started making fiercely independent choices regarding researching their own health issues, seeking medical treatment overseas, growing and cultivating their own food, and providing for themselves as never before," he points out. "Entrepreneurship is the new American dream. People want to make their own choices and live life as they see fit. Why shouldn't their news also reflect this drastic change?"
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Orato.com is an entirely new kind of media organization, specializing in grassroots citizen journalism. Since its launch in June 2006, Orato.com has become a place for newsmakers and ordinary people to tell their stories in their own words—a global community where readers can interact with writers and respond to stories with their own comments. Orato.com's 3,000 registered correspondents tell stories in a first-person voice. Unlike in traditional journalism, where "I" is a dirty word and subjectivity is suspect, Orato.com actually encourages the "I" and the personal perspective behind the story, giving correspondents the final editorial authority on their byline stories. Orato.com is not trying to replace traditional media; instead it provides a voice that traditional media cannot.
Get a Taste of Orato.com with This Selection of Popular Stories
Curious about all that Orato.com has to offer?
Below are bite-size story samples to whet your journalistic appetite. Dig in and enjoy.
The Bridge: Looking into the Abyss
by Eric Steel
As those footsteps took place, I knew it must have been the darkest moments of a human life, but because it occurred in public, on some level I believed the act was meant to be seen and understood. Suicide is something we choose not to see. It's not that it's not there. It's there in staggering numbers.
In the wake of 9/11 and the discussion that ensued regarding the "jumpers"—those who chose to leap to their deaths rather than perish in the flaming inferno—Eric Steel spent a year creating a documentary on suicide. As his setting he chose San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge: one of the most sought-after locales for desperate souls seeking peace. The resulting film gives people—those contemplating suicide as well as victims' families and friends—an opportunity to face the emotions and issues that the final leap conjure up.
I Spent 18 Years on Death Row
by Juan Roberto Melendez
I went to say goodbye to my friend who lived in the cell next to mine, but when I stood in front of him, I was suddenly unable to speak. I was happy, but part of me was still sad because I was leaving him and the others behind. The men who had taught me how to read and write, I was leaving them there to die. With tears running down his cheeks, my friend looked at me and said, "Don't get in trouble out there. Take care of yourself and your momma, and don't forget about us."
Serving a jail sentence as an innocent man is one of the grimmest fates imaginable, but it pales in comparison to knowing that that sentence ends with a trip to the electric chair. Sentenced in 1984, Juan Roberto Melendez, a Puerto Rican migrant worker, lived 18 years in a rat-infested Florida prison cell with no one to hear his voice. The tale of his incarceration and eventual release is a testament to the human spirit's impenetrable strength and courage.
Owen Wilson: After the Laughter
by Scott Cooper
Persistent sadness is considered weakness and no one will tolerate a basket case for long. Being a basket case is un-American. It's not in the brochure.
The compelling subject of depression will always be topic for debate. For many, it is the ultimate truth behind a façade of contentedness. Most people living with depression disguise it well and live behind a mask that cloaks their despair. In the aftermath of Owen Wilson's shocking suicide attempt, Citizen Correspondent Scott Cooper faces his own battle with despair and the universal denial of the disease known as depression.
Fear and Cabin Fever in San Diego
by Mary Griffin
I feel like all I can do to help readers is to tell them to NOT wait for an emergency to think about being prepared.
A San Diego resident explains the complacency most of us face when we feel comfortable and safe in our environment. As the fires still rage across California, residents learn that disaster can strike anyone at anytime. One California resident learned the hard way. She shares the importance of preparing for the unexpected. By keeping a 72-hour kit with clothes, flashlights, and other supplies, people can be ready to escape to safety at a moment's notice.
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Orato.com Q&A: Some Common Questions about Citizen Journalism and the Web Site That Gives It a Voice Paul Sullivan, editor of Orato.com, takes a moment to tell us a little bit about this multi-faceted Web site and the future of citizen journalism.
Tell us a bit about who's running the show.
We at Orato.com are journalists, designers, and all-around news junkies. We've all worked in the media before and understand the demand for relevant, thought-provoking, and useful stories. At the same time, we want the news to be delivered in a new, more colorful way—by adding the voices of the people we traditionally think of as the audience.
Talk about why Orato.com is successful.
We feel that people today feel disenfranchised in the world. Most of us have something to say but too many people have no one to listen to them. There is a very real sense of helplessness because important issues are often overlooked by the traditional media. Orato.com makes the point to reveal stories people want to read about and give everyday citizens a chance to be heard.
How did citizen journalism become what it is today?
More and more people are blogging and making their lives accessible to the public online. They are becoming empowered to interpret the world for themselves and citizen journalism is simply the next step in the evolution. Major news networks are adding segments devoted to citizen journalism as long as it fits in with the theme of their broadcast. We are taking it a step further to allow the people to choose the theme and its interpretation! And to top it off, we hand over final editorial authority to the authors. It's their story, after all.
What kinds of stories do you receive?
We get all kinds of responses and try to use as much as we can. We have had some pretty fascinating personalities submit stories. Duane "Dog" Chapman. Hollywood actor Corey Haim. And most recently, Mildred Muhammad, the ex-wife of the DC Sniper. And countless other "unknowns" who are no less interesting for their lack of celebrity. And we also have many traditional submissions regarding current events. We try to find that delicate balance of news that is relevant, thought-provoking, and at times edgy. We encourage anyone to bring us a story. And we are very satisfied with our results so far.
Do you edit or have a fact checker?
We won't print libelous statements, nor will we accept stories we find to be fabricated or plagiarized. Accuracy is the key to Orato.com's credibility. We also encourage our correspondents and visitors to report stories they're concerned about.
So are there other platforms offered for the non-writing reporters out there?
Yes, we have a number of multi-media platforms to choose from in addition to text, including audio, video, and photo essay slideshows. There is a place for everyone!
What makes a great story for Orato.com?
We simply ask that the submitter uses his or her own words and keeps it simple. Even though the stories come from people not professionally affiliated with the media, we couldn't ask for better quality than what we receive. This suggests that a great story may have little to do with training in journalism. We forget that not so long ago, most reporters did not have journalism degrees. Anyone with a vision and a heart can tell a story—and do it justice.
So Orato.com gets to the heart of journalism?
Let me put it this way. Reporters do a great job passing on secondhand information, but they are simply a mouthpiece for the story's source. But our stories are straight from the horse's mouth. You can't get a better interpretation anywhere because we go right to the source and liberate the speaker, so to speak.
Does Orato.com support a specific political viewpoint or are you neutral?
Orato.com has one strong principle: we believe in freedom of speech for every man, woman, and child. There's too much censorship, even in America, where if you say something that's politically incorrect, you get pilloried. Human rights are important, but none of them work unless everyone has a right to say what they believe, even if what they believe is unpopular. If you don't break the law of the land, and if you respect our rules and guidelines, we'll post your story.
You have a few stories penned by celebrities or their families and friends. Please talk about this. Any interesting tidbits about these journalists?
Our editors have established some surprising relationships with celebrities. They think it's great that Orato.com gives them the final editorial authority over their own words—they're used to being put down or distorted by the media. And most of the ones we talk to seem pretty conflicted about fame—they crave the public eye, but there are days when they just want to be left alone. We're there for them in ways that other media aren't. We're just interested in their own story, in their own words. Orato.com is a sanctuary for celebrities!
So I hear word of a tip jar. Please elaborate on this feature of your Web site.
Budding writers, videographers, podcasters, and photographers can earn money for their pieces by the tips audience members offer, based on the popularity of their pieces. We keep looking for unique ways to put the power back into the hands of the people and this is one way to do it.
Where does most of your media come from?
The vast majority of our audience and our stories come from the US...more than 60 percent. Canada is the next biggest source and then, as you'd expect, other English-speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand. But we've had stories posted from more than 100 countries around the world, from Norway to Tasmania.
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