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Reporting’s mass appeal

Special to The Times

A woman in Venice Beach reviews “The Lion King” and declares it the best musical she’s seen -- of the four she’s ever seen. In Dallas, a group of professional reporters and “citizen journalists” collaborate on a federal government expose. And a Milwaukee news magazine’s experiment with amateur reporters yields fresh insights into city planning, fire department politics and “taco butt,” that unsightly parting of the derriere caused by too-tight denim inseams.

Is this the future of journalism?

Across the country “citizen newspapers” are springing up, full of promise, energy and atrocious spelling errors. They’re largely written by unpaid, untrained and unedited citizen reporters, who say they “commit acts of journalism” more for kicks than out of a sense of civic calling.

In Los Angeles, one of those revolutionaries is Ariel Vardi, 24, an Israeli by way of France, who has no journalism training and doesn’t think much of his own writing abilities (“I’m more of a photographer. I’m not fluent in English”).

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Vardi is the founder and editor of BrooWaha, an online collection of news, reviews and opinion pieces that purports to cover Los Angeles the way professional media don’t. The site is edited by Vardi in the evenings, when he comes home from his job as a software engineer. He says he doesn’t check for quality or accuracy. He just makes sure the site is devoid of advertisements, fiction pieces and pornography.

“I am just trying to get as much information for L.A. as I can and give readers the opportunity to choose what they find interesting,” Vardi said.

This month Reuters, the world’s largest international multimedia news agency, partnered with Yahoo to create You Witness News, a site where amateur photojournalists can upload their work for display on Reuters.com and Yahoo News. These works are as varied as pictures of Santa Claus pinatas in Mexico and firefighters battling a blaze in Moorpark. All are being sifted through by Reuters editors, and anything of value to mainstream media might be purchased and reprinted.

That Reuters has chosen to begin this experiment with photography is significant. Photos typically don’t lie, and part of the success of a photographer is being at the right place at the right time: Charles Porter, then a 25-year-old loan specialist, won the Pulitzer Prize for his iconic shot of a firefighter cradling the body of a dead baby after the Oklahoma City bombing.

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Reporting, though, is another matter. Chris Ahearn, president of Reuters media group, said it’s unclear whether You Witness News will accept citizen-reported news stories in the near future. But there’s a telling toolbar on the site filled with reporting tips from Wikinews and other sources that is basically a DIY J-school for the lunch-hour dabbler.

“We’re trying to lead the way to help people innovate for the next generation of journalists,” Ahearn said.

Gannett, which owns 90 newspapers including USA Today, has gone a step further, with an experiment in citizen journalism dubbed “crowdsourcing.” It brings readers into the news-gathering process, beginning with reporting on government wrongdoing, including a reader-analyzed investigation of a sewer utility.

For his part, Vardi came up with the idea for BrooWaha while finishing his computer science master’s degree at Georgia Institute of Technology. He established a rating system for the articles -- a kind of public system of vetting -- that helps the most popular stories rise to the top. He worked on the architecture of the site in Atlanta and launched it in August in Los Angeles. In the next couple of months, he hopes to start a BrooWaha in San Francisco, New York and Atlanta.

“In newspapers, there aren’t enough journalists to cover everything. On campus, there were so many students; they see everything that happens. I thought giving them a tool to share everything they see would be really helpful,” Vardi said.

So far, the crew is falling short of that mark. The site is heavy on opinion pieces -- some containing the kinds of factual errors and belligerent soap boxing of standard-issue blogs. But there is also a story about the on-court etiquette of pickup basketball games in L.A. that sheds enough light on the topic to make a subculture seem accessible.

Still, Vardi admits, the site has a long way to go. He’s working on a design feature that will encourage authors to write more about what they see and less about what they think. Such a focus has already worked in Dallas, where the Examiner’s professional journalists have partnered with citizen reporters to expose questionable Congressional earmarks nationwide, according to PressThink, an open-source journalism site.

Vardi said he wanted the site to cover the underground scenes of Los Angeles and “to make writing become a hip activity again.”

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The site’s numbers are modest so far -- it received 50,000 hits last month and has registered 400 or so users -- but he is optimistic about its prospects.

“There is still a lot of work to control and increase the quality of everything that is submitted. But I think it has a high potential,” he said.

“What you’re seeing is a radical new way of doing journalism. We’re back to the time of the lonely pamphleteer or the tramp printers in the Europe,” said Philip Meyer, Knight Chair in Journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Just as lonely pamphleteers organized into newspapers, all of this will be organized into some kind of structure.”

Meyer doubts sites like BrooWaha will replace traditional media, but with advances in technology, the nature of “the media” is in play at the moment.

“What you’re seeing right now isn’t the end product; it’s in development,” he said. “We old-timers look at it and say, ‘This is terrible. This isn’t journalism.’ But, in fact, this is something that has value and needs to be developed.”

Fabrice Florin, executive director of NewsTrust.net, a nonprofit news rating site that launched this month out of Mill Valley, compared the situation to the Wild West before the sheriffs. “We found some great citizen journalism pieces, and we found some terrible ones,” Florin said.

Vardi says it’s hard to avoid the terrible stories entirely, but he’s trying to hone a system to keep inaccurate stories to a minimum and allow good writing, informative pieces and thoughtful prose to flourish. “I think most people who write for BrooWaha were bloggers before, and they’re not used to the format of BrooWaha. But that’s going to change,” he said.

Journalism professor Meyer, for one, can’t wait.

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“I close every semester by saying, ‘I’ve just taught you journalism as it was practiced in my day. The journalism in your day is going to be different,’ ” Meyer said. “ ‘It’s up to you to invent it, please don’t mess it up.’ ”


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