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Citizen Media

Citizen Media

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

James Carey, the esteemed Columbia University journalism professor who died in 2006, once wrote that journalism was essentially conversation among citizens. Communication was culture, he often said. It was creating a community “of conversationalists, of people who talk to one another, who resolve disputes with one another through talk,” he wrote in an essay titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.”1

In 2006, citizen journalism continued to grow as part of online journalism. The terms have changed, from “zines,” to personal Web sites, to blogs, but they all share a common character — enthusiasm for people themselves creating, sharing and participating in the news of the day.

Citizen journalism, in other words, is a rediscovery of the essential truth Carey articulated years before the Internet was invented.

Throughout the year the pattern of citizens becoming pro-active participants in their own journalism continued to gain momentum, becoming part of the political campaign, gaining economic muscle and even becoming something that the mainstream media embraced rather than something they saw as a threat. A larger number of newspapers, indeed, began to allow users to weigh in on particular stories and to upload their own photographs. A few even incorporated citizen blogs alongside those of staff reporters. And perhaps since overhead and production costs are relatively low for corporate media companies, citizen-generated content is increasingly becoming part of these sites’ DNA.

Citizen journalism, in short, is becoming less something that is dismissed as the amateur hour before the professionals take the stage and more something that enriches the conversation.

In the midst of these developments, the earlier form of citizen voice — blogs — began to grow in ways that raised question about whether it was becoming less a part of the grass roots and more a part of the establishment. A group of celebrity bloggers, for example, have emerged, and some have even become familiar faces on TV.

Web 2.0

For many industry analysts, 2006 was the year Web 2.0 made an impact on online media.

Web 2.0 is a broad term, first coined by Dale Dougherty and popularized by O’Reilly Media, a publisher of books and magazines mainly geared toward the technology community. It refers to any media that involve the interaction and participation of the consumer: uploading and disseminating text, audio, video and digital photographs over the Web. Well-known examples of Web 2.0 include Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, and MySpace.

The number of Americans participating in Web 2.0 activities suggests it could soon become a major component of the online experience, according to survey research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Web 2.0 Activities

% of Internet Users Who Have Done This

Activity

Survey Date

36

Uploaded photos online where others can see them December 2006

32

Rated a product, service or person using an online rating system December 2006

27

Shared files from your own computer with others online June 2005

22

Shared something online that you created yourself, such as your own artwork, photos, stories or video December 2006

22

Taken material found online —like songs, text, or images — and remixed it into your own artistic creation December 2006

20

Created a profile online that others can see December 2006

14

Created or worked on your own Web page December 2006

14

Created or worked on Web pages or blogs for others, including friends, groups you belong to, or for work December 2006

8

Created or worked on your own online journal or blog December 2006

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, Riding the Waves of Web 2.0, October 5, 2006 and updated surveys

As they seek to increase ad revenue and attract more young readers, a number of online newspaper companies have picked up on the Web 2.0 phenomenon, creating their own MySpace-like social networking pages that will enable users to create their own communities, write their own news stories, and communicate with each other.

Many such sites are particularly focused on local events, or hyperlocal journalism as their practitioners describe it. At the News-Press, a Gannett newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida, for instance, the paper asked retired engineers and accountants in the community to evaluate documents and to evaluate the cost of connecting a new home to sewage lines. The citizen feedback was then used to help the reporters write articles on the question, leading to the resignation of a public official. The approach came to be known as “pro-am,” after a golf tournament that includes both professional golfers and amateur players.2

Some newspaper sites are taking it a step further. In Columbia, Mo., for example, Mymissourian is a joint print-Web creation that allows readers to write their own local news stories. The stories are edited by students from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and then uploaded to the Web. Beginning in October 2006, the site’s staff became responsible for producing—in print–all the news coverage on Saturdays that had been published by the Missourian, a daily newspaper, in order to subsidize its online finances. According to the editor, this move was “a reversal of the print-to-online model that newspapers have been following.”3

At the same time, a number of grassroots sites have emerged from outside the tradition of mainstream media. Perhaps the best-known example is backfence.com, a collection of 13 Web sites from around the country, mainly concentrated in suburban Washington, D.C. Visitors to an individual backfence.com site can not only read and produce local news, but can also view advertisements and classifieds. There was some bad news for the site in January 2007, however, when it was reported that Backfence had laid off a number of employees. Its co-founder, Mark Potts, refused to disclose the exact number.4

According to a study released in February by the University of Maryland’s J-Lab, such hyperlocal “citizen media” sites that rely on user-generated content are quickly proliferating. J-Lab has been able to identify 700 to 800 of them, the majority of which have been launched in the past two years.

The sites employ a wide variety of business and editorial models, but they appear to share a common enthusiasm for creating community conversations. Among the respondents to the J-Lab survey, 73% said they considered their sites a “success” and 82% planned to stick with their ventures indefinitely. Four out of five said their sites provided local information not found anywhere else, and three-quarters indicated that they helped build connections to the community. Slightly more than a quarter of those surveyed thought these operations increased voter turnout.5

There are questions, however, about the economics of citizen media. The J-Lab report acknowledged that many of the outlets were “shoestring” operations hampered by a lack of human and financial resources. And even as it predicted that the medium was here to stay, the study also anticipated significant turnover and burnout among the operators.

When asked how much it cost to launch their “citizen media” sites, 43% of the survey respondents put the figure at less than $1,000. In addition, 51% said they didn’t need to earn revenue to continue operating. Asked if their revenues exceeded operating costs, 42% said no and another 38% did not know.6

Some of these operations are diversifying their revenue base and developing distinctive brands — such as the Rocky Mountain-based New West, which has created related businesses in advertising and publishing. But as the report suggests, many of the sites at this point are essentially mom-and-pop operations.

Perhaps the key question is whether an economic model built almost exclusively around ad revenue will prove sustainable in the long run. According to some analysts who study citizen media sites, the sites urgently need to create multiple revenue streams, not just from advertising, especially in times when revenue and profits are down.

But increasingly, analysts believe consumers will come to demand the ability to interact with the news producers, or they will migrate elsewhere. Indeed, some industry analysts argue that online newspapers and other news sites need to offer more interactivity in order to survive. “What makes the Internet so attractive is consumers can communicate with consumers. And they can communicate with [the publication] in a way they feel comfortable with,” said Gerard Broussard, senior partner and director of media analytics at GroupM Interaction, at the Media magazine Forecast 2007 conference.

Blogs

For all the growth in interactivity, perhaps the purest form remains blogging, or personal Weblogs, the phenomenon in which someone creates a site and becomes an instant own publisher and writer. After seeming to stall or even lose some momentum in 2005, there was evidence that blogs regained momentum again in 2006. Whether a political season had something to do with that, or whether the gain was more widespread, is uncertain.

Blog Readership

The most recent data suggest a significant increase in the number of people who read blogs. Survey results from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that the percentage of online users who say they have ever read blogs rose in February 2006 to 39%, up markedly from 27% a year earlier. That puts the total number of Americans who now read blogs at approximately 57 million.7

But to put that in perspective, a February 2006 Gallup survey found that reading blogs (20%) is far less popular than e-mail (87%), checking news and weather (72%), and shopping and travel (both at 52%), and is still behind some online activities that are generally considered to be fringe use: instant messaging (28%), auctions (23%), and videocasts and downloading music (22%).8

Of course, the rise of blogs has its roots in politics, when bloggers gave the 2004 Presidential contender Howard Dean early, albeit short-lived, momentum. Two years later, it appeared a higher number of Democrats read blogs than Republicans. According to data from Gallup, 15% of the population who said they are frequent blog readers identified themselves as Democrats, compared to just 6% who said they were Republican and 7% who considered themselves independent.9

What types of blogs are people reading? While the blogs that generate the most buzz are ones devoted to politics, many popular blogs focus on other topics. Research from Edelman, a public relations firm, found that of the top 100 blogs in the U.S., 34% cover technology, 26% are about culture, and 25% are devoted to politics. The study also found that just 3% were what it called “personal diaries.”10

Blog Readership
Percent of adult internet users, 2004-2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Blog Creators

Blogs include everything from a personal diary about bird watching to an outlet that breaks news about current events to a promotional public relations tool on a car manufacturing site to a celebrity-filled gossip page. Some are the voice of just one person. Others serve more as forums open to any registered user to post opinions.

The number of bloggers, those who produce content as opposed to merely reading it, did not appear to grow in 2006. The most recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggest that just 8% of online users say they author their own blogs.11

In previous years of the annual report, we reported that bloggers tend to be younger, wealthier, and more tech-savvy than the general online population. The most recent data suggest this is still largely true. For instance, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that more than half of all bloggers are under 30. Moreover, bloggers are avid news consumers: 95% report reading news online, compared to 73% of the general online population, Pew Internet found.

We’ve also begun to understand more about the attitudes bloggers hold toward their work. Most bloggers, again according to Pew Internet, do not think of themselves as journalists. Over a third (37%) say their most popular topic is their life and experience (37%), more than twice number (11%) who named politics and news.12

It was long the consensus that since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the blogosphere was dominated by conservative voices. But a close examination of the 12 most popular political blogs, according to a June 2006 listing from Technorati, revealed that at least at the top, blog voices lean to the left. Seven can be considered liberal, four conservative, and one without a clear partisan nature.

Growth of Bloggers
2002-2006, percent of adult internet users
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Blogging Economics

Except for a very small group, most bloggers make no money from their endeavors.

Just 8% of bloggers report generating any income from their Web sites, according to survey data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Among those bloggers who report making money, most say they do so by selling items on their sites (68%) or through advertising (56%). Smaller numbers receive donations from readers (29%) or secure subscriptions to premium content (19%). For now, anyway, that seems acceptable. Making money was the least-offered reason for blogging.13

Motives for Blogging

Motive for blogging

Major Reason

Minor Reason

Not a Reason

To express yourself creatively

52%

25

23

To document your personal experiences or share item with others

50%

26

24

To stay in touch with friends and family

37%

22

40

To share practical knowledge or skills with others

34%

30

35

To motivate other people to action

29%

32

38

To entertain people

28%

21

52

To store resources or information that is important to you

28%

21

52

To influence the way other people think

27%

24

49

To network or meet new people

16%

34

50

To make money

7%

8

85

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Those bloggers who do earn some money have been hesitant to say publicly how much revenue the ads on their sites have generated. But the blogger ad market appears fairly small; one estimate puts it at $50 million to $100 million. But according to a research study conducted by Outsell Inc., which surveyed 1,200 advertisers in November 2005, blog advertising was expected to grow 43% in 2006.14

A few years ago, many media critics offered varying degrees of skepticism toward the fanfare that surrounded the emergence of blogs. And a minority even questioned how long they would be around.

Heading into 2007, some of that skepticism — shared by much of the public as well —remains. How much can one trust the accuracy of news and information posted on blogs? How can blogs survive without a reliable revenue stream?

It may be a case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Much of the talk a few years ago — that blogs would supplant traditional media — seems antiquated now. The relationship between blogs and traditional media, in the end, may be more complementary, even synergistic, as time moves on. Citizen journalism, and the interactivity it promises in Web 2.0, increasingly seems to offer the potential of enriching traditional journalism (by enriching citizens), not threatening it.