Citizen journalism has been growing in popularity. News often breaks via social media. Traditional media outlets are incorporating social media into their reporting efforts, and some even have dedicated areas for citizen journalist. A Lebanese entrepreneur is taking the concept a step further with his new mobile app, Signal.

News by the People

In the last few years, events from ranting airline employees to the shocking self-immolation of a man protesting social injustice in Tunsia were not reported first by major news outlets. The events were Tweeted, emailed, posted on Facebook walls and displayed on video and photo sharing sites. Technology makes it possible for anyone in any obscure corner of the globe to communicate information to millions in seconds. It seems that everyone with a smartphone now also has access to a press pass. 

This rise in citizen journalism is what prompted Mark Malkoun to create Signal, a mobile app that allows anyone to upload a photo or short headline and share it with the public instantly. Malkoun, who lives in Lebanon, saw the impact of public news reporting last year during the social unrest in the Middle East and wanted to create something that facilitated this process better than any of the existing options. Signal takes advantage of several technology trends -- mobile, social, gamification and geolocation. 

To report an event, users capture media, upload the content tagged with their location and add a short headline. The app groups related content from multiple users to create a single article. Once these mini-stories are submitted, users can vote on the content, which serves as an indication of popularity and verification of importance. Signal requires that content be geotagged within the last 72 hours to reduce the amount of stale news. Signal encourages images more than text by limiting headlines to around 60 characters, which could help with content validity.

Signal display stories based on user location, most votes or latest submissions; users can also filter top (most votes) news by continent or country. The name of the app suggests how Malkoun envisioned news being created and consumed. Signal refers to both the contextual information provided by location and the importance of the information suggested by user votes. There is no need for a user to subscribe to a topic or individual to see news that might be relevant because it is happening near them.

Signal, which is still in private beta, will be available in the iPhone app store to Lebanese users for free in the next few months. The service will then expand to more areas and mobile platforms. Some beta users have expressed concern that the app could endanger users by revealing their location because it requires geotagging. Malkoun said the next release will include more security and privacy protections. 

Is This the Future of Journalism?

Signal is certainly not the first citizen journalism app. Mobile apps such as OneNews and Meporter have been available for over a year. More traditional media outlets such as Al Jazeera and the Associated Press have released mobile tools that allow people from around the globe to submit tips and photos. CNN was heavily criticized back in November for its move to fire 50 staff members, including dozens of photojournalists, in favor of using free content submitted by the public.

Journalism is changing, but it’s unlikely that news reported by the public will become the primary source of news articles. Many sites and apps begin with an active user community, but participation often tapers rapidly. Many citizen journalists enjoy writing and sharing information, but it is difficult to ensure a consistent stream of content using the model. Participation, however, is not the largest issue with news driven by the public. 

In most cases, professional journalist and media organizations have a code of conduct. The vast majority of content is researched and verified; content is expected to be factual and unbiased. No such standards exist for publically reported news beyond the will of the individual. A malicious user could manufacture content from articles to images and video, and even when the intent is not malicious, personal viewpoints could color content.

Despite these challenges, technology and demand will continue to drive the growth of citizen journalism. New sites, applications and hybrid uses will emerge. Journalism may follow the same path as marketing. Trends such as mobile and social media are transforming it from one-way messaging to an interactive two-way dialogue where everyone expects their voice to be heard.