Back in the old days - pre-2005 - community activist Amy Gahran had three ways to reach readers of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo.: She could persuade a reporter to quote her, write a letter to the editor, or buy an ad.
Now, the Internet has provided a fourth option, and Ms. Gahran wants to take advantage of it. She plans to recruit a "citizen journalism reporting team" to cover a controversial housing development - and post its work on the Daily Camera's website.
Her unpaid volunteers won't have reporting experience, but she's not worried. "The skills involved in creating journalism are underappreciated, but they aren't particularly rocket science," says Gahran, a freelance writer.
Ordinarily, a planned infiltration like this one would send editors rushing to barricade the door. But the Daily Camera's online chief says he welcomes Gahran's efforts, and he has plenty of company. In several communities across the United States, newspapers are encouraging amateur writers to fill their websites with content ranging from diatribes to serious reporting. On Friday, the venerable Los Angeles Times joined the parade, allowing Web denizens to rewrite its daily editorials en masse.
This development raises profound questions about the news biz and its evolution - from what role a newspaper should play in its community (opinion leader versus discussion facilitator) to what "professional" standards should apply to nonprofessionals. Will editors accustomed to tight control ever adjust to the free-wheeling world of the Internet? Will online users view tradition-bound newspapers as anything but clueless has-beens? And finally, will the online world ultimately boost the industry's sagging fortunes?
For now, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Andrés Martinez isn't too worried about the last question. Instead, he's watching to see if a new creature called a "wikitorial" is a success or, as the Times itself puts it, an experiment that might be bound for "the dumpster of embarrassing failures."
"Wiki" refers to wikipedia.com, an online encyclopedia that allows users to rewrite its entries, for free, whenever they feel like it. The notion, says Mr. Martinez, "is that if you have something that is communally built from scratch, you might end up with a comprehensive truth."
Wikipedia.com has become a raging success, gaining respect for its reliability and spawning 600,000 entries in English and hundreds of thousands more in languages from Korean and Finnish to Hebrew and Esperanto. Not surprisingly, "wikinews" has appeared, too, allowing amateur reporters to collectively write articles about current events.
The wikitorial is similar, allowing Times readers to go online and edit a single editorial a day. The wikitorial is continually updated to reflect the revisions, like a word-processing document that undergoes multiple rounds of editing.
But users can't go wild at latimes.com. The site's "terms of services" specifically name a long list of no-nos, including anything that is "disparaging," "inaccurate," "unfair," or "contains gross exaggeration or unsubstantiated claims."
Such guidelines sound pretty limiting, but they also serve a purpose. "Newspapers can't knowingly offend a portion of their readership or shareholders," says Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads, a service that connects people who post Web logs, or "blogs," with advertisers. "Newspapers are well-oiled machines designed to create a uniform product with all the sharp edges rounded off."
By contrast, Mr. Copeland says, the Internet is unfettered. "A blogger may dish out an anecdote about what her son ate for breakfast, an endorsement of a candidate, a curse word or a prayer," he says. "In that mix are bound to be comments that offend one constituency or another."
The Internet's hundreds of thousands of blogs, of course, are unregulated. Users post messages as often as they wish. Typically, readers comment on entries, and their comments spawn more comments, creating an endless online dialogue.
A growing number of newspapers, including the Monitor, offer staff-written blogs. Some staff bloggers have license to go far afield from their usual beats. At The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., for example, the arts critic blogs about recreational vehicles; a columnist's blog tracks reform in the Catholic church.
Papers are also testing community news pages, where readers can post softball scores, photos of their pets, or actual news coverage. "It won't be long before a user scoops the newsroom," says Kevin Kaufman, Daily Camera new media editor. "That will be an interesting and terrific day."
But who's minding the store? Some newspapers, like the Daily Camera, approve messages before they go online. But others let freedom ring, at least until someone uses a profanity and gets flagged after the fact. "It's impractical to have editors sitting around waiting 24 hours a day to edit blog posts," says Ken Sands, online publisher for the Spokesman-Review.
Extra staffers are costly, too, and cash-strapped papers aren't throwing money around. Whatever is spent on these online experiments, publishers hope they will attract wayward readers and boost the bottom line. It seems reasonable to focus on the Internet: 1 in 5 readers prefers newspaper websites to printed editions, states a new Nielsen/NetRatings survey.
A brighter financial future for newspapers is certainly possible, says Dan Gillmor, a citizen-journalism advocate in Palo Alto, Calif., especially if online operations find a way to woo small advertisers who have been scared off by the high price of newsprint ads. Success hinges on whether newspapers can bring themselves to loosen up, he says. "Engaging the readers in a conversation is essential," says Mr. Gillmor. "The 'citizen' part of this is about conversation and what journalists can learn from it."