4) “The Numerati,” by which traditional media, entrepreneurs, and PR companies can “mine” the Web for data and use analytical tools to more effectively build “media properties.” Data on reader and audience interests is underutilized, Rubel said. But whether or not using such information results in “a better editorial product is a very big debate.”

5) “Collaboration,” by which the “Web is not just a platform for communication, but for action; it’s a place where stuff gets done.” There are many levels of engagement with audiences: from open to controlled, from
communicative to collaborative.

6) “Hacker Journalists,” by which there has been a rise of programmers in the newsroom who are familiar with Web site management and digital media operations. They are “cross-trained in programming and journalism,” Rubel
said and are well worth hiring.

Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at The Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.org and producer of their “No Fake News” campaign, delivered the next case study on “exposing the spin” online. The Web’s first problem is
anonymity, Farsetta said, because “it makes it easier to misrepresent your identity.” She then listed a number of seemingly independent Web sites that were, in fact, created by business groups with a vested interest in swaying
consumer opinion. These included RottenAcorn.com, UnionFacts.com, FishScam.com, and The Center for Consumer Freedom.

Though not necessarily involved in those sites, companies ranging from Burger King, to Sony, to Wal-Mart have misrepresented themselves online. The Web also connects marketers to bloggers, Farsetta continued. PayPerPost.com, for examples, pays bloggers to place reviews on various Web sites. These are similar to Video News Releases (also known as VNRs) put out by PR firms, which some broadcast outlets misrepresent as original, unbiased reporting. If such practices are going to become more common, Farsetta argued, they should be clearly labeled as “sponsored reviews” or pre-packaged news.

Some companies, such as Ford, Dove, Kraft, Crystal Lite, and ConAgra, have created their own online communities, which offer product tips, finders, and a lot of publicity information. But if you read their privacy policies, Farsetta said, you will see that the companies are collecting and sharing your personal information as you participate in their communities. Even the United States Department of Defense’s regional command centers have hired journalists and created their own “news” sites. “There is a lot of blurring of roles,” Farsetta said, “a lot of uncharted territory, and a lot of vested interests taking advantage of that grey area.” Reporters, she concluded,
must work to raise “online media literacy.”

Panel Discussion: The New Age of Citizen Journalism

After a brief lunch break, the conference resumed with a panel moderated by CJR publisher Evan Cornog titled, “The New Age of Citizen Journalism: ‘Can’t We All Just Get Along?’” The two-member panel included Jeff Jarvis, a media and news blogger for the Web site BuzzMachine and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, and John Darton, who worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent for The New York Times for over forty years. Cornog asked each man to “lay out the case for the other side,” with Jarvis touting traditional media and Darnton digital media.

Jarvis began by saying that “old media has to update itself… but the point of that is to carry over the value of journalism” to new media. Likewise, Darnton said he had learned a lot, especially during the presidential campaign, about new media. Both men agreed that each operation has its place. Darnton said that traditional media is like a “spine” and new media “fills” in the gaps. “We’re in a good position now,” he said. “What I worry about is the future and the possibility we’ll go online only.” Both agreed that the term “citizen journalist” isn’t a good one because journalism and information should be judged upon their own merits and not upon job titles.

Cornog asked if the professional news media are “under attack” and mistrusted. Jarvis replied that stories are becoming “more of a process” rather than a one-time, one-way explanation. Jarvis cited the example of Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, who pioneered the act of publishing “half-baked posts” in which reporters lay out what they know and what they don’t, and then ask readers to contribute their own intelligence. That approach can be very useful in consumer reporting, he said, citing the example of The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Radio, which mobilized its audience to report back on the price of food items around New York City. The input from listeners created a valuable database. Out of such mobilization “come new efficiencies and new business structures,” Jarvis said.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.