We’ve been writing a lot about the trend of media companies paying more attention to citizen journalism and amateur reporting tools. Perhaps no mainstream media outlet has done more to push citizen journalism into the spotlight over the past year than CNN. In August 2006, they launched the user generated content-focused i-Report feature on their web site, which has since attracted over 100,000 submissions from users, and last summer they held the first of two CNN-YouTube presidential debates, in which questions were submitted via YouTube. CNN is about to take their participation in amateur news reporting a big step forward with the planned launch of iReport.com, an entire portal dedicated to completely user generated news content.

While CNN’s i-Report section has grown in popularity in recent months — it took in 10,000 submissions in January alone… the site’s editors have only displayed about 10 percent of those submissions, which are vetted for content and accuracy.

The new site, according to Mediaweek who got an advanced look at the site, will be completely open in terms of what users can upload. Users will be in charge of deciding what constitutes news, and which submissions should be removed from the site. “The community will decide what the news is,” CNN News EVP Susan Grant told Mediaweek. “We are not going to discourage or encourage anything — iReport will be completely unvetted.” (Though CNN will monitor the site for inappropriate content.)

Mediaweek says that the new site will look and feel a lot like YouTube and will also feature the usual community features, such as the ability to rate and discuss videos, and embed them on other pages.

CNN recently paid $750,000 for the domain names “ireport.com” and “i-report.com,” so this is clearly something they are serious about. And they should be. As we’ve noted in the past, citizen journalism is fast growing in importance. The only way to keep up with a shrinking news cycle, is to have distributed reporting capable of capturing breaking news as it happens. Often times, the people best suited to report breaking news are amateurs. CNN saw that happen with last year’s California wild fires, when much of their most compelling footage came in via i-Report.

“The real contribution of citizen journalists in a story like this, where whole areas of land are closed off and the fields of greatest danger keep shifting, is in having more eyes on the ground,” Thomas Hollihan, a professor of media at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, told the Baltimore Sun. “Citizen journalists are swapping information back and forth – reporting where the flames are now headed or showing images on their cell phones of the fire. And with so much happening so quickly, that kind of information can be really powerful – if it is accurate.”

Accuracy is a potential concern for CNN, who have had editors vetting users submissions before allowing them on the web. CNN’s Susan Grant said the network will be clear about labeling the new iReport site as a “post-moderated site” (i.e., moderated after posting, rather than before) and that the views put forth in videos uploaded to the site don’t necessarily reflect those of CNN.

But accuracy concerns aside, not embracing citizen journalists, or at the very least their tools and methods, seems to be something that the mainstream media can’t afford to do. As Scott Karp says, “The news business — and the journalism it supports — can no longer afford to wait for innovation to happen in due time. It needs to happen NOW.”