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Pro-Am World

In October, as Heath mentioned earlier this week, Charles Leadbetter kicked off the magazine with an opening essay on the Amateur Revolution. "The 20th century was marked by the rise of professionals," he said. "Now that historic shift seems to be reversing... we're witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organization." Leadbetter was onto something.

Earlier this month, the New Yorker's James Surowiecki made his own case for the amateur when he laid into the "principal-agent problem." His essay, which touches off on the price-fixing and corruption scandal at Marsh & McLennan, describes an "economy in which knowledge is increasingly specialized and deferring to the judgment of experts makes sense." Problem is, those with the know-how (the professionals) are in a position to take advantage of those without (the amateurs). While scandals like those at Marsh are the exception, the author illuminates a couple of the darker corners of commerce (see the bit about real estate agents). Surowiecki's conclusion: "If the middleman offend thee, cut him out"... Become the professional-amateur.

As if to drive this home, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that popped up here just last week, has launched Wikinews, a free-content news database assembled by "citizen journalists." In other words: anybody. Really. "If you see a headline linking to an empty story, you can create it," reads the home page. "If a story needs to be moved to a new title as events develop, please move it."

My question is this: will developments like this expand the boundaries of how we define "news," or just blur them? An amateur, by virtue of the very definition, is someone who does not specialize - someone without professional training. But in some fields - medicine and law enforcement come to mind - there really isn't a lot of room for amateur alternatives. (No offense to Neighborhood Watch or midwifery, but I'll take a cop or an MD.) Fortunately, the media is not as clearly defined - just look how we've benefited from the rise of the blogosphere. Clearly no one owns the news, but will people buy into amateur news sites?