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News By the People, For the People

Marcia Barton does not consider herself a journalist by any stretch of the definition.

The retired Seattle community college instructor "publishes" an environment and politics newsletter featuring commentary and links to stories around the Web -- especially those that highlight the follies of the Bush administration. She sends it out almost daily to about a dozen friends.

"I don't think of it as journalism as much as nagging them with alternative points of view," says Barton, who draws from BBC, The Guardian, The Nation, Democrats.com and Commondreams.org, among others.

Rusty Foster has no idea how he wound up in the information business. A physics and film studies major at William & Mary, Foster turned a programming hobby into an experimental online community site called Kuro5in (pronounced "cur-OH-shin," a homonym for "corrosion" and thus a play on Foster's first name. The Japanese translation -- "black heart" -- is "cool" but irrelevant, Foster says).

Kuro5hin offers the ultimate democratic editorial process: Impromptu discussion groups form around thoughtful postings mostly spun off the news. Regulars rate postings for quality, accuracy and depth. The site draws 100,000 regular readers.

"At its best, the site ends up being really good journalism," says Foster, who runs things from an island 2.5 miles off the coast of Maine. "At its worst, it's just bad op-ed."

Barton and Foster both operate in a journalistic gray zone corporate media can't quite figure out. They are self-made publishers who create more than content: They're building interactive communities that "meet" online to share their thoughts on the news, often writing polished commentary and connect-the-dot essays that pull together news on a topic from various sources.

Stories that are the end result of the news process in traditional media are just the starting point for online communities, which spin off discussions full of context, historical background, conjecture and related links.

Web entrepreneur Jacob Schwirtz dubs the process a "digital campfire." His site, GAZM.org, is "all about giving people a platform to share whatever creative, artistic, intellectual pursuits they're interested in." Swarms of Web users at GAZM alight on a topic du jour, then move on to something new the next day.

Once dominated by anonymous flamers and yahoos, many community news sites now boast contributors with obvious expertise and writing talent. Kuro5hin's process of authentication, modeled after the techie site Slashdot.org, ensures a certain credibility and enhances the original report or analysis through its intensive feedback loop. A posting will gain dozens, even hundreds, of commentaries, each enhancing, clarifying and amplifying the original content.

"The end result is an understanding and depth that just is not possible in traditional one-direction journalism," Kuro5hin's Foster notes.

As their identity, audience, credibility and influence grow, online communities also are breaking news on their own, seeding traditional media reporting.

"I'm about two weeks ahead of The New York Times," says Ur-blogger Dave Winer, CEO of UserLand Software and proprietor of one of the Web's earliest and most popular blogs, Scripting News.

The longtime Silicon Valley programmer turned Web evangelist can cite numerous instances where his Weblog, Scripting News, has beaten and/or seeded major news media on technology trends and breakthroughs.

For years Winer has criticized major media as "BigPubs" and "BigCos," unable to "get" the emerging open-software technological trends and viewpoints he champions. But a funny thing happened in April: The New York Times, the Cadillac of BigPubs, partnered with Winer to provide content feeds to users of UserLand's Radio blogging software. The deal "was just the tip of the iceberg," Winer says. "Things are really going to explode."

While he won't discuss details, he hints that other, bigger pacts are in the offing -- though not necessarily with traditional news publications.

Something is happening here, Mr. Jones, even if we aren't sure what it is.

Aided by the Internet and personal-computer software, online communities with their own publishing tools and networks are redefining news in the 21st Century.

Winer and Foster both call what they do journalism -- Barton's not quite ready to make that claim about her informal newsletter.

Until 9/11, most mainstream journalists would have laughed at the suggestion that blog sites might be doing journalism. Now they're not so sure.

While TV stations replayed ad nauseum footage of the plane colliding with the tower -- and while most newspapers were still running sketchy wire reports -- Weblogs throughout Manhattan provided raw feeds from street level.

Able to post text, photos and video almost immediately, blogs easily outshone anything major media could provide. "For the first 48 hours after the bombing, Weblogs were the best source of news available, hands-down," said Foster.

September 11 earned the "amateurs" some respect. Today, journalists -- the mainstream ones -- find themselves asking questions they rarely contemplated before 9/11: Are bloggers journalists? Are these guys competition?

The question gets top billing this month as one of the main stories in May's issue of Quill, an industry magazine produced by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Big Media might just ignore these independent publishers if it weren't for one thing: They're attracting eyeballs -- getting clicks and page views that newspapers and other media companies are looking to claim for themselves.

Kuro5hin generates 6.5 million page views a month. Winer -- whose wide-ranging site mixes tech, politics, culture and Winer's personal musings -- draws around 10,000 consistent readers.

There are an estimated 500,000 Weblogs; most attract a few dozen to a few thousand regular readers. These news sites are playing to a vast and growing Internet audience -- 150 million in the U.S. and 500 million worldwide.

Even as the Web news audience is growing, newspaper circulation is on the depressing end of a 30-year decline: The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations survey showed circulation was down by .6 percent over six months ending March 31.

Many of those lost readers are going to the flashy new competitor: The Internet. Surveys show that as many as 20 percent of online users turn to the Internet as their primary news source.

Mainstream media take some comfort in the fact that most people go to newspaper sites for local news, but that could change: Software is getting better at creating personalized news feeds that reflect readers' needs -- giving readers a way to get the news they want without visiting newspaper Web sites.

And search engines like Google are making it easier to find breaking news at alternative blog sites -- drawing referrals away from the mainstream news sites.

With an eye on the potential threat -- and the potential to increase audience online -- many in the $55 billion newspaper industry are hustling to improve their Web sites; some are opening the door to more interaction with readers online.

Winer says his deal with The New York Times -- which does not even publish e-mail addresses of its reporters -- is a "major breakthrough."

The Gray Lady also put her toe in the water of online discussions, albeit "moderated," with the Enron scandal. Other newspapers, notably the Washington Post, are offering online chats with leading columnists in a sort of talk-radio online format.

MSNBC.com -- the Web's most popular news site -- added two blogs to its content lineup this week: Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log (science and technology) and Michael Moran's foreign affairs blog. A handful of other professional journalists have added Weblogs to their reporting duties, although the number is still tiny.

Other online news mechanisms, from mailing lists to discussion groups to hybrids like Kuro5hin and GAZM, have found little traction among traditional media.

Bloggers and interactive news communities may eventually further infiltrate the mainstream media; as yet, no one's suggesting they will ever replace it.

As veteran journalist Murray Fromson put it at the University of Southern California's online journalism conference in March, "without newspapers and networks, who will cover a war in Afghanistan?"

Fromson, the former head of USC's journalism department, has a point: Online communities, no matter what their size and reach, rely on traditional news outlets for their core information.

As for covering the war in Afghanistan with Weblogs -- well, not yet, perhaps. But they are becoming an important check and balance to an industry that previously had very little oversight.

I was reminded of Fromson's comment recently after the assassination of Dutch prime minister candidate Pim Fortuyn. American newspapers, locked into the binary way of casting domestic politics, referred to Fortuyn as a right-wing candidate. But he was openly gay and a former Marxist and who espoused a number of progressive causes. The right-wing label came from his advocacy of immigration restrictions -- a not unreasonable stance in Europe's most overcrowded country.

I looked through several newspapers for an explanation of Fortuyn's politics that confronted such obvious contradictions. I finally found the answer in a Weblog authored by Adam Curry, the former MTV "VJ" who lives in Amsterdam.

Full of knowledgeable asides, links to other blogs and commentaries on published reports, Curry put the tragedy in subtle and intelligent perspective, far outstripping anything conventional U.S. media reported.

In the long run, online communities and pundits like Curry may help strengthen journalism by adding this kind of nuance to the black-and-white reports the BigCos routinely produce.

Ultimately, the mainstream media will likely continue to cover enfranchised sources, and online media will continue to empower the disenfranchised while keeping the pros accountable by dinging them for every instance of superficial or careless reporting.

The end result -- until the first blogger or Kuro5hin contributor shows up in a White House briefing or Afghanistan reporter pool, at least -- will be an uneasy symbiosis of the two organisms, where host and parasite feed off each other interchangeably.

Intermittent Weblogger Paul Andrews writes a weekly column for The Seattle Times and reports on technology for US News & World Report.

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