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Citizen journalists make new inroads into political reporting

An MSNBC contest will pick two amateur reporters this week to cover the party conventions.

By Uri Friedman / July 28, 2008

Nathan Robinson: The accordion-playing sophomore is a finalist to cover a presidential convention for MSNBC.com.

courtesy of Nathan Robinson

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If you click onto MSNBC.com for political updates, a month from now you may get some of your news from a fresh-faced, accordion-playing college sophomore named Nathan Robinson.

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One of five finalists in a contest sponsored by MSNBC.com, NBC News, and MySpace, Mr. Robinson finds out Tuesday if he'll be one of two citizen journalists covering either the Democratic or Republican convention for MSNBC.com. For him, it's a chance to liven up mainstream journalism. For MSNBC, it's an attempt to bring a new perspective to the news.

Stuck with rising competition from Internet-mediated news, traditional media have been reaching out to Web-savvy citizen journalists to expand their online audiences. But only this year have major television networks and their web affiliates begun carving out reporting slots for nonprofessionals on one of their marquee topics: the presidential election.

Besides MSNBC.com's Decision '08 Convention Contest, CNN's citizen media site, iReport, announced a film festival for reader-submitted videos from the campaign trail. ABC News' user-generated site, i-Caught, has asked readers to send in video thoughts on the most important issue of the campaign, with the best comments slated to appear on television.

The trend is surfacing even as heightened competition between traditional media and citizen media strains relations between professionals and amateurs, who lack formal training in journalism standards and often publish material without a rigorous vetting process.

"You can take the cynical view that citizen journalism is a buzzword now, or the sincere view that [the mainstream press] thinks this will illuminate what's going on and get closer to the real world," says Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "Or it's something in-between, which is most likely: some showmanship and some curiosity about trying new things."

The 100-plus citizen journalists who submitted video clips for MSNBC.com's contest certainly tried new things.

"I can play hardball with Chris Matthews / Outfox Fox News / Countdown with Keith till the moment the people choose," rapped one Harvard Law School graduate in his video.

Another contestant listed his credentials: "The role of citizen convention journalist is not really conventional at all, nor is it really even a journalist, so you really just have to be a citizen. And I checked. This guy is, like, totally a citizen," he says, flashing his own passport.