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UGC – What’s the Fuss? April 5, 2007

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Essays, Journalism.
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Will journalists go the way of the dinosaur in this age of user-created content? We know the future for news will be different from the role Big Media played in the last century. The impacts of the Internet on journalism foreseen in this paper have come to pass.

Disintermediation – the idea of doing away with the middleman – is now the rage, thanks (or no thanks) to user-generated content (UGC.) As the UGC bandwagon takes off, what price for news organisations taking this route? How relevant are editors as gatekeepers when content is crowdsourced and “wisdom of the crowds” is the new mantra?

This heady cocktail of mixing user-content with editorial voice is merely a work in progress. The Los Angeles Times for example, discovered the cost the morning after in a short-lived mass media experiment when it turned its online editorial page into a Wikipedia.

Its Wikitorial let the public collaborate online and rewrite editorials. In doing so, the news organisation undermined the core of its brand. LATimes removed the site just three days later because some readers were flooding it with obscene messages and photos.

In a media saturated Web, users seek out branded news sites for journalistic information. While there will always be a role for trained journalists and news organisations, the roles are evolving into one of curating and aggregating information.

Richard Sambrook, BBC Director of Global News says it is important to protect a news brand by having clear editorial values and staying true to them. In the new information world, if you lose your brand, you lose everything.

We are no longer gatekeepers to information who can say to the audience “sit down at 6 o clock and we’ll tell you what we think you need to know.” Information is now commoditised and widely available.

Our role is to add value through analysis, explanation, verification and by reporting from places that aren’t easily covered. We also have to host a conversation about the world, incorporating public views and material alongside what we generate.

Richard Sambrook, BBC Director of Global News

Embracing the philosophy behind the user-generated content movement requires a significant mind shift for mainstream news providers. These sites are enabling conversations, they are controlling conversations. That’s a big mindset change for a lot of news people.

Howard Finberg, Director for Interactive Learning, Poynter Institute

Established news sites can leverage their brand to attract Web surfers. Since they are already in the community these sites get a headstart to build social networking applications. The question is whether these tools will attract a significant number of users like MySpace and YouTube.

More important than cold numbers, Google handles the ad business for its video. Beneath the laissez faire veneer of YouTube as a site for anything goes lies serious ambitions to ride on Google’s mastery of targetting ads in text and making money in video.

Big media have joined the merry band, flirting with social media and content generated by users. Recent arrivals to the scene: Ureport from FoxNews, CNN’s I-Report and MSNBC’s First Person. All attempting to tap user desire to create and share content on the Internet. All asking for reader photos, video, stories, etc.

Isn’t it something other sites have been doing for years? Why the big fuss now? Because it’s Big Media FOX, CNN and MSNBC catching up with the Jones. You call this citizen journalism? Please, it isn’t even journalism. As they say, bandwagons will get you to the next town. Principles take you and your users where you want to go.

The problem with this “citizen journalism” moniker are the words themselves. Journalism is the act of gathering and assembling information by an individual or organization to serve an audience. In theory at least, journalists are guided by these values when gathering news.

And “citizen” implies a grassroots element. So citizen journalism is about participatory media making by folks in a community. When traditional media jumps on the UGC wagon, the exercise is little more than just corporate-sponsored space to share content, sell eyeballs, clicks, and stickiness to advertisers.

So what should we call this user-generated content? CitiHub? Community Square? Anything Goes? A prominent “About” description of what the UGC news site is (and isn’t) will help credibility.

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