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Citizen-Based Media

Citizen-based Media

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

From producing original content and commentary to sharing and ranking news produced by professionals, citizens became an even larger part of the daily news information flow in 2008.

Among the findings:

Citizen News Sites and Blogs: A Two-Part Study

To get a better sense of what citizen journalism sites (both news sites and blogs) offer and how they differ from websites tied to legacy media, a team of researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Missouri and the University of North Carolina embarked on a two-part study, “Tracking and Analyzing Community News Models,” funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation.

The first phase, conducted in late 2007, was released as a part of our 2008 State of the News Media Report. That report, auditing 64 sites in 15 areas, found that the citizen sites tended to offer even less citizen participation than the legacy websites in those places.

The new, much larger, second phase of this research released for the first time here studied 363 journalism sites in 46 markets (145 citizen journalism sites and 218 tied to commercial media). The new findings establish clear differences between citizen blogs that primarily offer commentary (along with links to already reported information) and a new array of citizen news sites that also do original reporting.1 The broader citizen news sites were more interactive, more transparent and more likely to use citizen content. Blogs, while easy to create and set up, were much more limited and less open. Even legacy media now surpass blogs in many of the characteristics that citizen media were once supposed to represent.

Among the findings:

The nature of the content on the three types of sites varied fairly sharply. Legacy sites provided the greatest percent of news (89%), close to double that of citizen news sites (56%), and three times that of blog content (27%).

Content from Users

One oft-cited appeal of citizen journalism is that it gives voice to average citizens, allowing them to contribute to daily news in a way that was not possible before the Internet. The new study, however, suggests that is far from universal. In particular, citizen-run blogs (traditionally those offering primarily commentary and links) trailed far behind other kinds of sites in every aspect of allowing users to post their own information. Citizen news sites, on the other hand (those producing original reporting), have embraced this more fully, even outpacing legacy sites.

Openess to Citizen Participation
Percent of Sites

Characteristic
Legacy News
Citizen News

Citizen Blog

Social Interaction
Polls or surveys present 42% 9% 12%
Forums present 31 47 36
Citizen’s ability to upload:
Information about community activities 57 70 17
News/freature stories 32 62 16
“letters to the editor” 41 40 16
Audio 4 28 1
Photographs 34 45 9
Video 12 34 1

Just 17% of blogs allowed outsiders to post content about community events, one-fourth that of citizen news sites (70%). At traditional media sites studied, the number was 57%.

And only 16% of blogs allowed users to post news or feature stories versus 62% of citizen news sites and 32% of legacy.

Video and audio uploads were almost unheard-of on citizen blogs — a mere 1% of those studied — and they are still not the norm at citizen news sites (35%) or legacy media sites (12%).

One example of a citizen news site that allows participation from readers is Pegasus News (Dallas) http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/.  Users can upload an event or a photo, build an RSS feed to oneself, comment on stories and are even invited to tell your own related news story.

Distribution Options

When it came to helping users access or download content posted by the site, it was legacy sites that excelled. The old media, in short, are best exploiting the Internet in pushing content out. In most downloading options, citizen news sites again offered more options than blogs, although they trailed legacy news sites.

Presence of Various Distribution Systems
%of sites with each feature

Legacy News

Citizen News

Citizen Blog

RSS Feed

75%

77%

89%

MP3/iPod feed available

28

15

5

Content delivered to cellphone

29

6

2

Able to e-mail stories to a third party

79

30

25

The one distribution feature where blogs prevailed was RSS. (Fully 89% sites offered RSS feeds compared with three-quarters of legacy and citizen news sites.) Many online professionals now think this delivery system, while still growing, is losing out to newer and simpler distribution methods.

In particular, many websites are moving toward mobile phone or mp3 downloading options, and here citizen news sites and blogs both fell far behind traditional media. Together, just 9% of citizen news and blogs offered podcasts and a mere 3% cell phone delivery.  E-mailed stories, a standard offering at 79% of traditional media sites, were an option at only a quarter (27%) of the combined citizen sites.

Who They Are

If citizen media implies the promise of more transparency and openness to the news process, in practice there is still a long way to go. While two-thirds of the citizen sites studied provided some type of mission statement, only about 40% offered any behavior policy or privacy statement for users, or legal information, and citizen blogs were the least likely of all to do so.

And how about contacting the individual or group managing the site? E-mail was the only option at most citizen-oriented sites. Eight in ten of these sites provided some kind of e-mail contact information. But even the 20% without it stand out as problematic in a genre that is about connecting and uniting.  Among legacy sites, a full 98% provided an e-mail address.

Nor did the citizen media sites offer much in the way of helping people contact anyone through old-fashioned snail mail or telephone, or even getting a sense of where the people creating the website were located.   Only three in ten citizen news sites and a mere one in ten citizen blogs provided this information. Among the traditional media, this was standard (more than 80% of the sites studied).

Presence of Contact, Background & Legal Information
Percent of Sites

Legacy News

Citizen News

Citizen Blog

Puprpose/mission of site

80%

91%

65%

Legal information about site

69

51

32

Information about behavior

68

49

36

Privacy Policy

75

49

30

Email contact

98

91

74

Phone number

88

28

9

Address

81

32

7

Content

When it comes to the content itself, there were broad differences in what users might find among blogs, the newer breed of citizen news sites and old media. It should be noted that only stories posted on the day of the download were analyzed.  As a result, the number of stories analyzed for the citizen sites dropped greatly (from 145 sites to only 80 stories). Thus there was much less “fresh” news on the citizen than the legacy sites.

As an example, 64% percent of daily newspaper news sites had a new top story on the day the sample was downloaded.  On average, 42% of the other legacy news sites (weekly newspapers, television news stations, and radio sites) had a new top story on the day the sample was downloaded.  On citizen sites, the percentages dropped considerably, to 23% for citizen news sites and 36% for citizen blogs.

Blogs, again, were the most distinct, and the most limited. Looking at home page stories, legacy sites devoted nearly all their posts (89%) to original news reporting. Citizen news sites provided much less reporting (57%), as well as opinion and special content like calendar items. On citizen blogs, opinion lead the way (47%) with the remainder of posts divided between reportage and special listings.

Type of Content Offered
Percent of Posts Studied

Legacy News
n=180

Citizen News
n=25

Citizen Blog
n=55

News

89%

56%

27%

Opinion

8

16

47

Specialty

3

28

26

Blog posts were also much more likely to offer no sourcing of any kind (other than the author’s) to support their analyses. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of posts had no sources, and 22% had just one. On citizen news sites, single-sourced accounts were most common (36%), but more than a third of the content offered two sources or more. The legacy news sites studied were the most deeply sourced. Nearly half of the posts (46%) offered at least two sources. But the amount of content without any sources cited was not that different from citizen news sites (24%).

Level of Sourcing
Percent of Posts Studied

Total Number of Sources

Legacy News
n=180

Citizen News
n=25

Citizen Blog
n=55

0

24%

28%

64%

1

27

36

22

2

13

8

9

3

11

4

0

4

7

4

0

5 or more

17

20

6

The one area where citizen journalism sites—both news and blogs—exceeded legacy sites was in links to outside content. Fully 91% of the content on citizen blogs and 89% of citizen news sites offered at least one outside link. That was true of 77% of legacy sites. Citizen sites were also much more likely to offer multiple links. Roughly 70% of the home page stories from both citizen blogs and news sites (with blogs slightly outpacing news sites) offered 11 or more links, close to double that of legacy sites (38%).

Use of External Links
Percent of Sites

Total External Links

Legacy News

Citizen News

Citizen Blog

Zero

23%

11%

9%

1 to 5

16

11

7

6 to 10

23

11

14

11 to 30

31

26

33

31 to 50

5

9

`4

51 to 100

1

11

`6

101 or more

1

19

8

But it should be noted that citizen sites were linking much more to legacy sites than the other way around.  Only 14% of legacy links were to citizen sites.  But 29% of citizen sites were to legacy sites, suggesting that the legacy sites were providing a flow of “news” to the citizen sites.

What does all this portend?  Certainly access to inexpensive, interactive technologies and an interest among citizens to have more of a voice in daily news has led to much more citizen activity and citizen-based websites. Still, according to the authors, “citizen journalism sites in general offered fewer opportunities for citizen participation and interactivity than did legacy-based sites,” with citizen blogs offering the least of all.

And, although the study did not track this statistically, many citizen news sites vanished during or soon after the study. The Multnomah Villager, www.multnomahvillager.com , for example, was started in 2005 and included in the sample, but suddenly closed in February, 2009. Others went dormant for months and then began back up again.

Still, citizen news sites continued to grow and develop. J-Lab: The Institute for
Interactive Journalism lists about 800 community news websites or blogs that “attempt to cover community news and information with some journalistic DNA,” according to executive director Jan Shaffer. Some, says Shaffer, are run by former journalists and others by people from outside the profession.

Among many examples, New Castle Now in the area of Chappaqua, N,Y., was begun when the local newspaper closed down. It produces a full range of news and commentary and listings about the local community along with citizen comments.  In Cambridge, Mass., Cambridge Community Television features nine citizen journalists who use both the Web and television media to “promote community events, alert neighbors to proposed development, and explore difficult issues like violence and racism.” Such sites are also appearing in the ethnic media, such as ourtahoe.org, a Spanish-language newsletter and website that highlights issues important to the Latino population in North Lake Tahoe.

Enough such sites exist now that associations and networks to support them are forming. The Knight Citizen News Network, a self-help portal for community news and information sites created by J-Lab, had nearly 800 member sites as of February 2009.  Similarly, the Center for Citizen Media, started by Dan Gillmor, a technology writer, and jointly affiliated with Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The center, according to its website, works to enable and encourage citizen journalism.

Social Networking and Video

The university study focused on blogs, citizen news sites and legacy media in specific places. But two other forms of citizen media, often with a more national scope, gained a larger role in news in 2008: social networking sites and video sharing.

While YouTube, the most popular video sharing site, is known for entertainment content, news sharing became a more important part of the site’s identity in 2008.

A key reason is an explosive growth in users. Consider that the site had 82 million unique users in December 2008, up from 31 million in January 2007. And more of those people than ever used the site as a way to watch news and information about public affairs.

One of the best examples of this came during the 2008 presidential election.  According to Newsweek magazine, users viewed 3 billion videos during the campaign featuring either John McCain or Barack Obama, representing 15 million hours of viewing.2

Some of these were the campaigns themselves communicating directly. Officials from the Obama campaign told PEJ that its channel on YouTube alone had more than one billion videos downloaded during the course of the race.

Some of the election videos, such as the famous “Obama Girl” video, were original creations by citizens. And while not traditional news stories or Obama campaign material, they often carried as much impact on citizens. Other videos, taking the role that television news has traditionally played, highlighted gaffes, or inconsistencies, made by opposing candidates on the campaign trail.

While YouTube is a form of social networking, other sites, such as Twitter (See Online Section for more Information on Twitter), make that kind of open source connection even simpler using text. And there are other lesser-known and less trafficked sites that combine aspects of both, offering users a place to share video, audio and pictures as well as text-based stories.

One example is Plurk. Like those on Twitter, users on Plurk create profiles and “follow” other users’ feeds to keep up on what they are posting, but along with the 140-character postings, Plurk offers a way to share videos and other multimedia content. At this point it attracts only a fraction of the audience that Twitter does, but the option of video clearly has some appeal.  In December 2008, Plurk had a unique audience of 212,000, compared to Twitter’s 1.9 million

The two most popular social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace, are used more for sharing personal information and staying in touch with friends.

But in December 2008, Facebook, the leader of the two with a unique audience of 54 million, added a feature that became at least partly (and perhaps unintentionally) a portal for news.3 Facebook’s “newsfeed” is a running posting of updates about what any user’s friends are doing, but it is increasingly being used to share content from other places that users want the Facebook community to see. During the election this was especially evident as users declared their support for one candidate or another.  Videos from the campaign trail were a regular occurrence on Facebook, as they were on YouTube.

Citizen Aggregated News

If Blogs, citizen news sites and social networking all grew in 2008, so did a fourth category of citizen-based media—citizen aggregation.

With citizen aggregation, citizens are not doing the original reporting, but ranking work reported by others by voting and sharing stories online, creating, in effect, a user news agenda.

Digg, for example, studied in-depth in our 2007 Report, bases its story rankings on votes from the Digg community. In order to vote on a story, users have to create a profile on Digg. Similarly, users on Reddit submit links that are then voted up or down by other users, and the links are organized by topic.

Topix is similar, but has a hyper-local focus and more involvement of users who can submit stories and discuss issues affecting their communities. Rivaling Digg in unique audience traffic, Topix stands out among the user-ranking sites for its focus on local news. In December 2008 Topix had a unique monthly audience of 6.2 million, compared to 6.8 million at Digg.

This hyper-local focus also means that Topix, unlike Digg or Reddit, can tailor itself to local advertisers rather than national ones and allow advertisers to post their ads only to users that live in the community they exist in.

All three of these aggregators and others are becoming fixtures on traditional news sites as well. Many legacy news sites, now aware of the impact of these rankings, are making it even easier for citizens to do so. Most major news sites now attach to stories links to Digg, Reddit, Topix or other such sites so users can easily put that story in the ranking.

Legacy-Based Citizen Media

For the last several years, legacy media, too, have been trying to figure out the right way to incorporate citizens into their own news content. In 2008, those efforts became more refined, and the scope of that activity took a more distinct shape.

The challenge, according to online editors at a USC-Knight Digital Conference in 2008, is for each organization to figure out what citizen contributions are the most valuable as well as the most appealing to its audiences.

Some attempts have proved successful, while others were abandoned because of low participation or quality control issues. CNN, for example, first started its iReport.com in August 2006. It was spun off as its own site the following February, and later relaunched in a slightly different form.

The Oregonian, the newspaper in Portland, on the other hand, used citizen volunteers in its coverage of the 2008 primary caucuses there. Editors culled volunteers, brought them in for training and assigned them to specific tasks before the event. The work paid off as the paper’s website was the first to predict the winners of several caucuses.

Many of the efforts are local. What follows below are just a few examples from 2008.

Hartford Courant’s iTowns

The Hartford Courant in 2008 launched iTowns to bring citizen journalists in Connecticut to the paper’s website as well as the print edition.

Readers can go online and submit articles, photos, videos, event calendars and other information to one of six regions around Hartford, where towns are the basic unit of local government. The idea is that content submitted by users is locally targeted to wherever that user is from. Each region also has a local reporter who blogs about his or her region and adds content to reader postings.

Each Sunday a printed edition of iTowns is delivered to readers in its area. In addition to citizen-submitted news content, the paper has asked local artists to submit their work to provide the cover art for the weekly print edition, and online there is a photo gallery of the various covers that also helps give some exposure to the artists.

The Lawrence (Kansas) News University

Dennis Anderson, managing editor of The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World, created a “news university,” operated jointly by the newspaper and the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication, teaching citizens the basics of newsgathering. According to Anderson, 162 citizens applied for the 25 slots available for the most recent 10-hour course, conducted in five two-hour weekly sessions. The results looked promising, but the project was in its early days.

The Virginian Co-Pilot

Other experiments did not fare well. Among the most ambitious was Co-Pilot, a citizen media section in print and online of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. The Pilot made an effort to build citizen contributions into the paper. It picked one of its best editors to run the section, sent her to Spain to study a similar section there and published the section three times a week.

The result, the Virginian-Pilot’s editor, Dennis Finley, said, was a nine-month struggle that ended in March 2008 when the section was killed. “Mostly, we discovered it is not the savior we thought,” he said. “It was very difficult to get quality reader-produced content.”  He added that the feature was not popular in the newsroom and that, even though readers said they wanted it, in the end, “nobody cared when we got rid of it.”

Survey Data on Citizen Activity

Other evidence in 2008 also reinforced the notion that citizen media, at least within the context of legacy sites, would have an important role, but that it would not involve citizens being their own reporters. In a 2008 survey of newspaper editors, a majority expressed a cautious assessment of the value of citizen content. Several complained that getting acceptable written content — e.g. stories — from citizen journalists usually required significant investments of newsroom staff time to train, coach, educate, confirm and edit.  “It’s not the answer,” said Miami Herald executive editor Gyllenhaal. “The idea that all you must do is open the gates and copy flows in is not right. Like anything good, it takes work, a lot of time and a lot of thought.”

That is reinforced from findings of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ biennial survey on news consumption. It found that Americans are not taking advantage in large numbers of the potential that the Web offers to create content — or be their own reporter. What they are doing instead, to a much greater degree, is exploiting the opportunity to manage the content they use for themselves — or become their own editors. They are checking for news throughout the day, hunting through links and aggregators to find what they want, sorting among many sources, and sharing what they find with friends.

Consider that more than half of the respondents (53%) said they used search engines to hunt for news on particular subjects at least once a week. When getting news online, more often than not (50% vs. 41%) they follow links and arrive at a news site rather than going directly to the home page of a favorite news organization. Nearly half (47%) have emailed a news story to a friend (up nearly 20% from 2006). Nearly a quarter of Americans (22%) now have customized Web pages that include news, and this includes 12% of the least involved news consumers, the so-called disengaged. Fully 15% of Americans now receive e-mail alerts for news.

But the data showed they are not by and large producing content. Only 4% of Americans have ever posted their own news content, including videos or photos. Only 7% post comments about news stories, even on occasion.

Even among those most engaged with the new technology, the numbers are not large. Only one-in-five of the most technologically oriented users, a group that amounts to 13% of adults, post a comment on news stories even just occasionally. And only 1-in-12 have ever posted a photo or video.

Footnotes

1. Some examples of typical citizen news sites from the 46-city sample:
Cleveland:  Brewed Fresh Daily (http://www.brewedfreshdaily.com )
Miami:  899 (http://miami.indymedia.org )
Tulsa: Oklahoma/Tulsa Indy Media (http://www.okimc.org/)
Bend, Ore. (http://www.bendblogs.com/)
Charlottesville, Va. (http://www.cvillenews.com)

2.  Jessica Ramirez, “The Big Picture,” Newsweek Web Exclusive, November 10, 2008

3.  Nielsen Online