A mobile app called Meporter aims to help citizen journalists report on events and breaking news.

Meporter launched Tuesday afternoon at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City. The app is purposefully simple: Witnesses use it to report news events, and others use it to browse nearby reports.

“We like to call it the local, mobile news desk,” founder and CEO Andy Leff told me in a phone interview. Users can “report, update and read local news as it’s happening from their phones.”

A couple things about Meporter’s approach stand out: The company is offering to license these reports to news organizations, and it is offering real rewards and possibly even payments to the users who create content.

But it faces similar challenges as other apps that depend on a network of users to create and view content: demonstrating its usefulness and attaining a critical mass of users.

Meporter is only available on the iPhone right now, but an Android version should be released in two or three months, Leff said.

Opportunities for news orgs and citizen journalists

Leff said some news organizations have approached him to license the reports filed via Meporter. He is negotiating those arrangements.

This is the screen where users file their reports.

A reliable system for gathering and sharing eyewitness reports could be valuable to news organizations seeking to increase neighborhood-level news despite shrinking newsroom staffs. A service like Meporter is not going to provide coverage of city hall politics or school board policies, but it can work well for images and descriptions of house fires or videos and reviews from a concert.

And for the people who submit those reports, Meporter offers tangible rewards for participation.

Like Foursquare and many other social services, users earn badges for certain milestones and accomplishments (posting five, 10 or 25 stories, for example). Meporter calls its badges “press passes.”

But unlike most other services, those badges are actually worth something. Meporter seeks companies to sponsor badges for certain accomplishments; users who earn those badges can claim rewards from the company.

For example, Leff said, Forbes magazine sponsors a press pass for people who post at least 10 stories in the “business” category. Those users can then claim a free six-month subscription to Forbes. Meporter is pitching local sports teams to sponsor press passes for users who post a certain number of sports stories, Leff said.

In addition, Leff said that if Meporter does create profitable deals with news organizations, it will split that revenue with the users who created the reports. That’s a notable commitment in a time of much debate over the treatment of volunteer contributors to for-profit content sites.

Similar to other content sharing services, Meporter users retain the rights for any content they post, according to the terms of service. But they do grant a very broad license to the company to use the content however it wants and to syndicate that content to any other company.

User base and differentiation among the challenges

The map lets you browse for reports near your current location.

The biggest question is whether Meporter will succeed in developing a large enough network of people creating and viewing reports. If no one is posting in your area, you probably won’t be reading often. And if no one is reading, users won’t be motivated to post. The app showed me a handful of posts near my location in Arlington, Va., though they were posted by Leff, who lives in the area.

The app allows users to easily forward their posts to Twitter or Facebook, which could help it gain awareness in the early stages. That kind of Twitter integration helped the photo-sharing app Instagram reach 4.5 million users in just seven months.

The accuracy of users’ Meporter posts will be a concern for traditional news organizations. Meporter logs the location of the phone so that people can’t claim to be someplace they’re not.  Readers can also see how many stories someone has posted before and browse those stories to evaluate his reliability.

One thing Meporter will have to do is differentiate itself from other apps in this space.

National media have had their eye on citizen journalism for a while. Users of CNN’s smart phone apps can submit reports with its iReport feature, but those reports are far more varied in topics and not aimed at local events. The Associated Press app has a “send to AP” tool, but those reports aren’t public. CBS has an Eye Mobile app that was released in 2008, but it hasn’t been updated since and is aimed at local.

Other startups may pose some competition. One called Intersect lets users post and browse stories by the time and place they occurred; Intersect has partnered with The Washington Post in the past. A not-yet-released app called Tackable will encourage sharing of local breaking news photos, at first in California.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is for Meporter to stand apart from Twitter, where people are conditioned to share breaking news and photos. (Of course, Meporter users can publish their reports quickly to their Twitter accounts, so it’s not an either-or situation.)

Leff gave a few reasons why Meporter should emerge as a better starting point for local news than Twitter:

  • Single-purpose: Twitter is a communication platform for anything: news, products, personal updates, jokes and memes. Meporter will focus exclusively on local news, making it a better place to post and find that content, Leff said.
  • Geolocation: Twitter geolocates only a fraction of tweets, and even those have questionable accuracy. Meporter will pin down an address or GPS location for each event and will filter browsing to items within a couple miles of your location.
  • Categorization: Meporter posts are assigned to topical categories (such as business, crime, entertainment, health, nightlife and sports), making it easy for readers to filter by their interests. Twitter has no such capability other than keyword searches and hashtags.

Whether that’s enough to make Meporter a hit, we’ll have to see. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.

As smartphones end up in the pockets of most people in the near future (Nielsen predicts by the end of 2011), you can pretty much count on an eyewitness with a smartphone at most news scenes. Some system must emerge to facilitate the sharing of their photos, videos and reports. Perhaps Meporter will be that system.

Here's a short video showing the service: