NEW YORK Since CNN embraced the citizen journalist movement back in August 2006 with the launch of its iReport initiative, the news organization has received nearly 100,000 news-related photos and videos from viewers, including nearly 10,000 this past January alone. Yet less than 10 percent of those submissions have appeared on CNN.com or the cable channel.
That's all about to change. Time Warner's CNN this week will enter YouTube territory with the launch of iReport.com, a new Web site built entirely on user-produced news. And unlike CNN's own properties -- where only iReport submissions that have been handpicked by editors and checked for accuracy ever make it online or on air -- the new site will be wide open, allowing users to post whatever content they choose, CNN told Mediaweek exclusively.
The new site looks and feels much like YouTube and other video-centric destinations. Wanna-be Anderson Coopers can upload videos, photos and audio files through an easy-to-use interface. Visitors to the site can search for specific clips or sift through various news categories, such as politics or weather. Users also can rate and share clips, and even embed them on personal Web sites.
CNN executives acknowledge that iReport.com's openness is something of a departure for a news organization that prides itself on accuracy and editorial judgment. But iReports have become increasingly popular and in many cases have even proved beneficial in the reporting of breaking news. Some of the most compelling footage from last April's shootings on the Virginia Tech campus came from the 420 user-gen video clips CNN received, while last year's California wildfires yielded more than 11,000 submissions. So, a user-gen site is the logical next step, said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide. "It starts with the audience," he said. "Audiences are more and more comfortable participating in news. It's a natural extension for us."
Walton acknowledged that he and others at the news net don't quite know how iReport will evolve once users warm up to the site. But CNN officials are banking on the Web's community aspects to boost the venture, as well as to determine which content belongs and which doesn't.
"The community will decide what the news is," said Susan Grant, evp, CNN News Services. "We are not going to discourage or encourage anything -- iReport will be completely unvetted." (CNN will, however, monitor the site for objectionable content.)
Grant explained that iReport content would be clearly labeled as not necessarily reflecting the editorial views of CNN. "We'll be telling people in lots of different ways that it's a post-moderated site," she said.
To encourage participation, the network has begun reaching out to frequent iReport contributors such as Rick Ebrecht, a Savannah, Ga., resident whose clips of violent storms and a recent Space Shuttle launch ran on CNN.
Regulars like Ebrecht -- who estimates that he's submitted seven or eight photos to CNN, with roughly five or six making the cut -- will be able use iReport.com to establish profiles and possibly develop a following among other users. "It's great that people can submit whatever they want," he said. "It engages them."
Still, Ebrecht wondered about the site's lack of policing. "The first thing that came to mind is ethics and credibility," he said. "People have to not take things at face value. People [on the site] will have to keep an eye on each other."
Advertisers, too, are likely to keep a close eye on the site, although Grant downplayed the importance of monetizing the site at the outset. "We're going to start very, very small," she said.
Initially, that means just a single display ad on the site's home page, and no pre-roll video ads. "I don't know if we're ever going to have them," she added.
That's likely to change if media buyers have their way, said Craig Woerz, managing partner at Media Storm. Woerz had not yet seen iReport.com but liked the idea of tapping into user-gen news so long as controls were in place.
"We love it," he said. "That's exactly the kind of things our advertisers are looking for. What we like about citizen journalism is that it's emotional and real."
Woerz applauded CNN's willingness to experiment. "They have to [try things like this]," he said. "Ratings are challenged right now. News organizations can't count on elections every day or a bridge collapsing. They need to keep innovating."
Grant agreed. "We like being first," she said. "This is an opportunity to create a relationship with a global audience."