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Community Journalism

Community Journalism
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism

The activity in citizen media continued to expand in 2009. Advancements in technology further enabled citizen monitoring, and the popularity of Twitter and other social media aided in dissemination.  And this all comes as many communities face cutbacks and reduced coverage from traditional media.

“The new landscape is… more diverse and information-rich than ever before,” Michele McLellan, a 2009-2010 fellow studying online community news at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, told the project. In an essay written in response to new research in this report, she added, “Digital tools make it easier and easier to stitch together the information niches.”

Some new sites like stlbeacon.org and voiceofsandiego.org, often launched with the help of foundation grants, show promise, providing critical community news and information.  And some have formed partnerships with established news outlets.

Others are mixing community building with professional standards of reporting. Oakland Local, a community site founded by Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit and funded through both a startup grant and advertising, is one example of such an experiment. It covers topics like the environment, food, development and education for its local community and in a recent month had 65,000 page views, 40,000 visits and 25,000 unique visitors.

And some partnerships have begun between the old and the new media. The Seattle Times is partnering with a number of local neighborhood blogs including westseattleblog.com to share links and collaborate on reporting. Other legacy news organizations are looking to become aggregators of community sites as a way to deliver more micro local news to their users (and increase their value to users in the process).

Jane Stevens, the director of media strategies for the Kansas-based World Company which looks to integrate community information, reports that there are “16 advertising-supported media networks comprising 4,700 niche news sites.”  Federated Media, for example, is a network of 148 niche sites founded by John Battelle, also the founding editor of Wired Magazine. Federated Media sells advertising across its networks in a revenue-sharing arrangement and, according to Stevens, returned $25 million to its network sites in 2008.

Jan Schaffer of J-Lab estimated that since 2006, more than $141 million in nonprofit funding flowed into new media, a number that includes entirely professionally run sites such as ProPublica, headed by Paul Steiger, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal, as well as small ones, such as the Frostburg, Md.-based Appalachian Independent.

Of those that constitute citizen sites,1 what kind of work are they doing? What level of reporting do they offer? What aspirations do they have? And what prospect do they offer to complement or supplement what is being lost in traditional reportorial journalism?

A new study of some of the most highly regarded sites in the country offering citizen reportorial journalism suggest that many questions remain over how well equipped citizen journalism is to offer regular, complete reporting in their areas of coverage, to fill that gap of  traditional journalism and to what extent is this even part of their central mission.

A Content Audit of Superior Citizen Sites

To examine citizen journalism quantitatively, a multi-university team of academics, funded by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation, have conducted several stages of research in this field over the last two years.2

The study began in 2007, with 363 journalism websites across 46 randomly sampled U.S. markets. This initial research found, in a report first published here, serious limitations in the ability of these sites to compete with traditional journalism. The citizen news sites offered less news, fewer updates and were less open to interaction with readers than traditional news websites.

In 2009, the university team then went several steps farther to look more closely at 60 of the most highly regarded citizen sites identified by nationally known experts in new media, available here. They consulted experts and explored sites like placeblogger, the Knight Citizen News Network and cyberjournalist.net and found 60 sites that were identified as high quality and perhaps even exemplary of what citizen journalism could be. The highly recommended sites were then compared with the sites previously analyzed in the 2007 study. Researchers also interviewed many of the operators of the 60 select sites as well as those who operated some sites in the random sample of cities.

How do the nationally recognized and acclaimed citizen sites compare to the others? Do they have features and characteristics that make them stand out above the rest?

The researchers examined the content, audited site characteristics – like the ability of outsiders to make comments or post information — and measured the degree to which the sites offered users links to content other than their own.3

The new study found that a number of these sites individually revealed some impressive work. Many the people running these select sites also have backgrounds in traditional journalism.

In aggregate, though, the resources to provide these services at the same level of full news operations, day-in and day-out, do not exist, at least as of now. While promising, and at times rich in content, these more heralded sites still offer fairly limited levels of new content. They were also less transparent about funding and operations and no more likely to encourage citizen postings.

Follow-up interviews with the authors of these sites found the central mission in most cases was to help share local news – especially about government and politics – with the community. And while less than a third bring in enough outside revenue to fully fund the site, few expressed interest in getting help with a business model.

With that mission in mind, McLellan sees the findings as an opportunity to identify “the strengths of legacy media and of citizen news sites and how they might help one another provide news and information to neighborhoods, communities, cities and beyond.”

After doing the empirical studies of citizen sites, one of the writers of the study, Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri, said, “The major impediment to citizen journalism success is that the sites that do not have the financial backing of foundations, the work of professional journalists, or some supportive links with legacy media are usually fueled only by personal motivation and when that disappears, so will the site.”

In fact, one stark problem even among the exemplary sites is their apparent fragility.  Of the original 60 sites studied at least four have died, and one (benicianews.blogspot.com), has not had a fresh posting November 2, 2009.4 The closing of Chi-Town Daily News last September showed that even citizen journalism sites that strive for foundation and contributor support are challenged.

The findings also tend to confirm a growing body of research that suggests that all of these sites tend to operate with small staffs, even among volunteers, and thus can produce only a limited amount of content.5 PEJ’s own study of the news in one city, Baltimore, found among other things that new media offered substantially less reportorial content than legacy media.

What the new university research captures is both the potential as well as the distance the movement has to go.

New Content

First, in terms of the amount of news content, the 60 select sites were more active — but were still far short of operating as daily news feeds.

In an examination of top stories, the select sites offered fresh content – that is, content posted that day – less than half the time.6 Just 43% of the lead stories on these sites were new, original reports. This was almost twice that of the broader mix of citizen sites, where a mere 27% of the lead stories were new. Still, more than half the time, even the top story of the day was not giving readers new information.

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

One such site, Perfectduluthday.com, for example, links with other news sites like del.icio.us and digg but provided no original news.

When there was a new lead story, the focus most often was local and state government, accounting for 17% of the original reporting. The next most popular story topic was economic developments and challenges, which made up 15% of these stories.

A site that stood out for broad coverage at both the local and state level was the tcdailyplanet.net (Minneapolis/St. Paul). It featured stories on such matters as challenges facing St. Paul schools, interviewing St. Paul Public School superintendent Valeria Silva, and a report on the “tea party” movement and its potential for joining with the Independence Party in Minnesota. And it has a regular feature, “The Capitol Report,” focused on the Minnesota state legislature.

While the frequency of reporting seems insufficient for many of these sites to operate as full news operations, the focus on important community matters suggests the sites could serve as valuable supplements.

The types of lead stories on these highly regarded sites were also different in another way.  They were built as much around opinion as news right at the top. Half of all the fresh lead content was opinion, while 40% were news stories and 10% features that combined opinion and original reporting. These findings, while just a snapshot of lead coverage, suggest a media culture forming in citizen or community websites – even coming from former journalists – and sometimes it is a mingling of commentary and straight news, either within the same accounts or in the “lead” content at the top of the site. But news and opinion are not as separated as they are historically in traditional journalism.

A site that includes both opinion and news is dwightseffort.com (Hutchinson, Kan.), a collection of news, opinions and commentary. The lead story on the website on March 5, 2010, was an article taken from the Wichita Eagle on a potential statewide smoking ban. Directly next to it was an editorial by the Effort’s staff on Tiger Woods’ apology, which asked readers to provide their own commentary at the end of the editorial.

Some sites, such as Wyofile.com, include news reporting that is quite traditional in character. Other sites are closer to classic blogs. Citizenwausau.com (Wausau, Wis.), for instance, calls itself a blog and its contents are called “postings” rather than stories. In the lead on February 23, 2010, discussing a zoning change for a downtown Wausau apartment building, author John Fischer wrote that “[t]his project appears to be an outright abuse of those systems in place to help with our ‘affordable’ housing crisis.”7

Site Characteristics

Another area of study was the openness, involvement and interactivity offered to its users. Here, the select sites scored even lower than citizen sites over all. They offered less transparency about their sites and fewer ways for citizens to post information.

They were about the same in their distribution methods (though these select sites were measured a year later when distribution options it might be expected to have increased) and scored higher in ways for citizens to at least get in touch with people who ran the site.

In the information offered about their own Web sites, the select sites turned out to be even less likely than citizen news sites over all to provide basic information such as a mission statement, privacy policy, guidelines about what can be posted or even an e-mail contact.

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

For example, citizenwausau.com did not have easy-to-find mission statement or contact information. In contrast to the general pattern, WestSeattleblog.com provided very specific information about the rules for commenting.

Even a year later, these sites were less open to citizen input than other citizen news sites studied. They were half as likely, for instance, to allow citizens to upload news stories or community activities or to take part in online forums. And they were even much less likely to allow the uploading of audio or video – two areas with the most development in 2009. On Wyofile.com, for example, despite its other strengths, there is no salient way for ordinary readers to blog, and the “guest columns” appear to be mostly taken from other publications. One exception to this trend is Twin Cities Daily Planet, which invites citizen participation in the “Free Speech Zone.”

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

However, more of the select sites provided contact information, including e-mail addresses, phone numbers and physical addresses. Examples of this strong site contact function included uvScene.com, which covers a cluster of New England communities, has complete contact information and also invites comments and story tips.  Both  wickedlocal.com in Plymouth Mass., and Seaside-Sun.com in Oregon provide complete contact information.

An important area where the two groups of citizen sites were very similar was in the kinds of distribution offered. The 60 sites were just as likely to provide RSS feeds, iPod feeds, content delivered to cell phones (which was low for all citizen journalism sites), and the ability to e-mail stories to others as were the citizen news and blog sites studied in the randomly chosen 46 cities. The St. Louis Beacon for example, offers a daily e-mail of new content, a Twitter feed, a Facebook site and an RSS feed.

When it came to external links, close to a third (32%) of the 60 select sites had none on their homepages. That was true of just 10% of other citizen news sites in 2008.

Motivations of Those Who Are Responsible for Citizen Journalism Sites

In addition to exploring qualities of highly regarded citizen sites, the research team also explored the motivations of the individuals running these sites. Why did they create these sites? What do they hope to achieve and how do they measure success? To answer these questions, the team interviewed 91 site owners from a mix of all 205 citizen sites studied.

The most important motivation was a significant background in traditional reporting. Two-thirds (66%) of those interviewed had a background in paid journalism, with an average of 14 years’ experience. Many of the respondents spoke to the importance of providing information to citizens, with little emphasis on financial sustenance. Those with a background in paid journalism, though, had more interest in financial success than those without.

Reasons for Launching a Site
On a scale of importance from 1 to 5

Reason for launching site Importance (avg.)
Provide community information 4.66
Alternatives to community media 4.46
Improve community quality of life 4.20
Strengthen community ties 4.00
Citizen sharing and talking opportunity 3.71
Share own opinion with others 3.42
Make money 1.83

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

When asked why they started their sites, the biggest motivations were to provide information and alternative local media.  For example, some of the answers were:

  • “To play a kind of watchdog role on city government.”
  • “Community service was the overriding motivation.”
  • “The one big one is to help people share their news with the community.”

In the study, we asked owners to rate how they would evaluate “the quality of success” for their site. They strongly believed that their criteria for success were based on fulfilling the original mission of the site, coverage of local politics and government, and offering quality news coverage of topics important to the community.

Going forward, what they looked for most were ways to increase traffic and to attract more volunteers, but they expressed little interest in getting assistance with creating business models.

The financial side of the operation seemed almost an afterthought. Very few said they were in it mainly to make money. Generating revenues was the lowest measure of success. Examples of comments included:

  • “It’s not about the money.”
  • “A not-for-profit makes no money.”
  • “I don’t want to advertise.”

Measures of Success
On a scale of importance from 1 to 5

Measure of success Level of Importance (avg.)
Fulfilling your original mission 4.16
Coverage of local politics 3.92
Coverage of local government 3.92
Quality news on topics important to community 3.76
Traffic to your site 3.48
Coverage of local environmental issues 3.27
Quality of coverage of local public schools 2.81
Coverage of local crime 2.60
Revenues generated by your site 1.90

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

About half (54%) of the sites have some advertising, while only 30% received individual donations and 22% get funding from private organizations. Over all though, just 30% said their total outside revenues fully funded the site and half use some of their own money to support the site.

Future Needs
On a scale of importance from 1 to 5

Need Level of  importance (avg.)
Ways to get better traffic 3.07
More volunteers 3.07
Better revenue stream 2.92
Technological help 2.49
Expertise about online advertising 2.41
Help from traditional journalists 2.30
Business model help 2.22

Source: Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson et al., University of Missouri.

Those with paid journalism experience gave each of the financial indicators greater importance. They were more likely to have become citizen journalists at least partly to make money, gauge some success on earned revenues and would value assistance from experts in online advertising. The biggest difference between those with paid journalism experience and those without is an increased desire for help to generate a stronger revenue stream.

Those from traditional outlets, then, seem to have an understanding of the need for a financial and revenue model and the repercussions of pressures on existing business models.

In reviewing both of these studies, the findings suggest that the desire for frequent original reporting, emphasis on public policy issues and connection with citizens is strong. In practice, the resources to provide these at the same level of full news operations do not exist.

Conclusion

This area of journalism is still in its infancy and, as those involved in citizen journalism explain, the landscape continues to broaden. Financially, they face some of the same burden as legacy media do today, but in some cases without established overhead costs.  Of course, they face daunting challenges in developing newsroom capabilities, obtaining financial support and understanding changing news preferences.

Despite the gaps between legacy news coverage and citizen news, highly promising citizen and alternative sites are emerging daily. Imaginative news formats, partnerships, formats, technological capabilities and passionate supporters of journalism values offer significant reasons for optimism as journalism continues its mission to inform citizens, make their lives better and nurture democratic processes.

Stevens, the World Company executive, and others even see some of the differences as sign of “enormous opportunity” to create networks such as Patch.com that include traditional reporting, citizen input and other kinds of information as well. Stevens writes: “You have to integrate community conversation with ‘traditional’ journalism…. That means providing the same tools to the community, including businesses, as journalists have, and focusing content on how to solve problems and improve the community.”


Footnotes

1.Citizen sites are hyperlocal blogs and websites that report on micro news in their communities. (Citizen Media, J-Lab.)

2. The multi-university study was written by Steve Lacy (Michigan State University), Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy (University of Missouri) and Dan Riffe (University of North Carolina) under a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation.

3.  It is important to note that the smaller group of select sites was captured more than a year later (summer 2009) than the other citizen sites of legacy sites (spring 2008). Thus, some advancement in technological offerings could be expected.

4. Winooskieagle.com no longer exists even though it was one of the highly regarded sites.  Mygrandforks.blogspot.com is a site designated as superior, yet its URL is no longer found.  NewspaperTree.com (El Paso) has also disappeared and Womblog.com is also gone.

5. Recent academic research includes L. Rutigliano, “Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media,” 2007; and M. Kirkpatrick, “State of the Blogosphere 2008: Technorati Numbers Indicate Blogging Is Niche and Slowing,” 2008. For a full literature review, see the academic paper of this current study. –LINK

6. Trained coders led by the university team conducted a two-day audit of home page content and links. The same coding and audit method was used for the phases of the study. For a full methodology, see the academic paper—LINK.

7. John H. Fischer, “Trolley Apartments,” Citizen Wausau, February 23, 2010.