I have long had reservations about the hype surrounding user generated content. Let’s be very clear here that I’m talking about the hype surrounding UGC here. Along with the flight to “hyperlocal” it has been touted as the salvation of journalism (in conjunction with “hey, let’s do video”). It’s not.
My reservations do not spring from my not trusting my user but from my experience of achieving success by following the user. And in my bust-to-boom experience of online journalism I’ve not seen much in the traffic figures that suggests that the users are interested in pure user generated content in the journalistic context.
Some important caveats: Of course, there’s a huge appetite for pure UGC elsewhere on the web (yes, I’m aware of YouTube) and UGC can be a potent ingredient in the news-gathering process (yes, I’m aware of the footage of the London Tube bombings: nothing beats video from somebody at the scene of a major news event). And UGC in terms of carrying on a conversation about the news on a news site is a wonderful thing.
UGC is most definitely a vital part of the answer. But it has been for centuries. What newspaper has not relied on readers calling/writing in with tip offs? Without journalistic input UGC is not the answer for news sites. And I’ve always been suspicious of ventures that claimed it was.
This last belief has not always made me popular. At the ONA conference in New York a couple of years ago, I mischeviously asked a panel of worthies if they would like to be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon. There were gales of laughter from the audience and I got umpteen beers bought for me (score!). But I got an online slap in the wrist from none other than Sir Jeff of Jarvis. And the representative from pure cit-j play Backfence dismissed me as patronising.
I note with interest that Backfence is now in the toilet. And in some ways that is not surprising. At that ONA session, Susan DeFife (FaeFife?) kept banging on about a wonderful financial investigation that proved their whole concept. Everyone nodded sagely at this great breakthrough in Cit-J – apart from one very experienced US journalist who sought me out afterwards to point out that he had looked at this article and it was “totally unreadable”.
Backfence died because the content was not strong enough. And the secret truth of strong content is here: the skills required to uncover and identify important or relevant information and present it in a way that is coherent, ordered, interesting and grammatical are restricted to a tiny proportion of the general population – and not enough journalists.
News sites live or die by the quality of their content. By and large, with some honourable exceptions (such as OhMyNews), such quality content comes from (some) professional journalists and (some) bloggers who are so good they are effectively professional journalists. (EDIT: Actually, as Neil McIntosh points out below, OhMyNews employs dozens of professionals.)
But don’t just take my word for it. The widely-respected US journalist Steve Outing believed so passionately in Cit-J that he put money where his mouth was and set up a business based on it.
It failed. In a brave and honest piece in Editor & Publisher, he explains why. Here’s what he has to say about UGC:
In hindsight, I think we tried to rely too heavily on user submitted content. Even though a lot of it was really great, the overall experience was weak when compared to, say, reading a climbing or a mountain biking magazine filled with quality professional content throughout.
We believed that having a core level of professional content –- from our site editors -– would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.
I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.
It’s all about the quality of the content. It’s all about giving the users what they want. And here’s the rub: your economic circumstances do not affect the users’ demands. If all you can afford to publish is purely amateur reporting (or for that matter low-quality video produced by professional text journalists) it does not necessarily mean that there is any demand for that.