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User Generated Content and the Threat to Journalism

A few weeks back I asked readers for their opinion on a topic that I’d been asked to write a short column on for the Australian Marketing Magazine (no online version of the article that I can find).

The question was – ‘Will the growing popularity of digital user-generated content pose a threat to the traditional journalist?

The conversation that the question generated was interesting and I found it helpful when crafting my column (below). The piece was one where I was asked to take the affirmative position while another writer (Phil Mclean – Group Executive Editor at Fairfax) took the opposing view.

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It was a difficult task in some ways to write this one as it had a tight word limit, I didn’t see what Phil was writing (and didn’t even know who the other person was going to be) but also because I was asked to present the case for something that I didn’t completely agree with. I don’t think what we do as bloggers means the end to journalism – but it does present journalists with challenges. So that’s the line I took. Here’s my piece:

We live in a time of change and there is little doubt in my mind that we are seeing a shift in how people find and consume news and information.

A variety of factors come into play that make new media an attractive option for those looking for news:

Participation – many are no longer satisfied to just consume the thoughts and opinions of professional experts – but want to be involved in the process of discussing and interacting with the news. Beyond this we’re seeing more and more focus upon citizen journalism where millions of people have the means to engage in the reporting of news – simply by getting their mobile phone out.

Relationality – many of the new forms of media that are emerging not only involve readers in the reporting and interpretation of news – but they create spaces where community springs up around the news and information being shared. People are no longer finding meaning in news alone – but together in social networks.

Suspicion of Institution – Government, Church, Big Business and other ‘institutions’ are increasingly being viewed with suspicion. I’m finding in my own daily interactions that more and more people have a growing sense of disillusionment and suspicion of mainstream media outlets and are looking for alternative sources of information.

Customization – we live in an age where we have almost unlimited choice in many areas of our lives. New media allows people to customize the information and news that they want to consume. Using tools like news aggregation they can now choose specific topics that they wish to follow and control when and how they consume it.

Immediacy – no longer satisfied to wait for tomorrows paper or tonight’s news broadcast – people are increasingly following events in real time online. While TV and Radio have live coverage of some big events with broad appeal – New Media is light footed, nimble, highly targeted to special interests and quick. Whether it be watching Apple release it’s new iPod live via a blogger at the press event or getting reports and pictures of a natural disaster from a blogger caught up in the middle of the action – new media is increasingly ahead of the rest in getting information out.

None of the above signals the end of journalism in my mind – there will always be a demand for well researched and well presented information.

However it does present main stream media with numerous challenges – mainly around the way that they deliver news and information, how they draw readers into the process of reporting and interpreting news and how they keep journalistic standards high yet still compete to break stories.

Phil Mclean’s Arguments

I won’t print Phil Mclean’s piece in full – but his main arguments were:

1. that Journalism isn’t threatened because ‘we’ (I’m presuming he’s arguing for Fairfax) have not gone on the defensive about user generated content but because they’ve gone on the offensive and encourage their readers/viewers to engage with it.

“we bring our editorial expertise and judgement to ‘citizen journalism’ – and it works to amplify the scope and appeal of our content. This takes nothing away from what our journalists do; it enriches what we can deliver to our readers and viewers – and at virtually no additional cost.”

2. that in the complex world that we live in people want ‘intelligent people‘ to help them understand the world (to tell them not only what happened but why).

3. that journalists are embracing new technology, getting trained up and using it in their journalism.

My Reflections on Phil’s arguements

I would agree with some, but not all, of Phil’s points. With regards to his first point – I’d agree that some mainstream media publications are now embracing user generated content – however many have been slow off the mark and in the process lost significant ground. I also found it interesting that he points out that user generated content costs them little (if anything) – particularly with there being some talk of bloggers organizing themselves into unions recently to stop them being exploited by blog networks.

His second point is true (people do look to people to help them interpret the news) but I’m not sure that is something that only traditional journalists do. New media is also full of ‘intelligent people’ who can provide this service of helping people understand the world that we live in. Mainstream media doesn’t have a monopoly on that by any means.

Phil’s last point isn’t dissimilar to his first and I’d agree that some journalists are indeed embracing new technologies. However I would also point out that some are not. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been interviewed by mainstream media publications (including those of Fairfax) only to be frustrated by them not linking to the sites that they talk about and seeing comments heavily moderated (when there is the ability to leave them at all).

While some mainstream media outlets and publications are making significant inroads in engaging with their readers through methods of new media – to this outsider the process seems a little slow. Does this mean the death of journalism – not at all – but does the embracing of new technology by journalists and mainstream media mean the end to the new bread of media that is emerging – no way.

PS: just as I hit publish on this post I was reminded of a Tech conference that I attended around 18 months ago. The conference was attended by 50% PR people and 50% journalists (I was the token new media guy). The conversations that I had with journalists over the three days of the conference were illuminating and could largely be divided into four areas:

1. Angry – I hate blogs and all forms of new media. They are low quality and have nothing to add of worth.
2. Worried – I’m worried that my industry is dying, I can’t get freelance work because publications are using free user generated content instead.
3. Intrigued - I’m fascinated by new media and am thinking of jumping ship to do it for myself.
4. Frustrated - The publication that I work for talks a lot about new media, but we’re bogged down by bureaucracy and legals.

While I’m sure the landscape has changed somewhat in the last 18 months – these conversations ring in my ears and make me wonder whether a third column written by a journalist (and not an executive editor) might have enriched the conversation even further.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. I think the only impact that blogging has had on journalism is that it has forced the media companies to look at different ways online to present their message instead.

  2. worknplay says:

    Darren, quite an article there. I am not sure as to journalism ever fading away. there is always going to be a need of information coming out from the mainstream media.

    Also I think with the rise of blogging, journalism has dimmed out a little bit. With blogging it has become more easier for people to react and respond to the author and other commentes. Like you said it builds a sense of community. More people interact and more people share their views collectively.

    Once again, I don’t think journalism will ever go out of sight but I definitely think blogging and digital user generated content does pose a threat to the traditional journalists.

  3. 66tx says:

    is that it has forced the media companies to look at different ways online to present their message instead.

  4. Keith says:

    It has been interesting to see as big newspapers have gone digital, which ones have adapted. Look at the Washington Post for example, many of their writers write a blog along with their standard columns. The blogs allow them to disseminate bits of information that normally wouldn’t make the paper, are break important news that shouldn’t wait until the next day. Those blogs are extremely popular.

    It seems to me those newspapers will thrive, while others, will struggle with new media.

  5. George Burke says:

    I am not entirely sure I agree with the context of the arguments. Journalism that is news based are meant to provide unbiased information. I do not view blogging in the same light. With Bloggin explicit opinions are often expressed that are meant to guide ones thinking to a purchase or a point of view.

    The problem that journalism is undergoing is the fact that many journalists view it as their job to influence peoples opinions instead of providing information so people can form an opinion. Journalists need to revisit their principles, maybe then they won’t being competing with bloggers. The two should remai in their own niche.

  6. Here’s a question to think about: how many bloggers do you know who are quitting their blogs to work for newspapers?

  7. Darren,

    It is really too bad you were “pitted against” another writer. Discussions about this issue are all too often painted in black and white.

    As for the question about “how many bloggers do you know who are quitting their blogs to work for newspapers?”

    In North America many local daily papers have been using local “civic” blogs (i.e. the Gothamist network to scout local writers. Beyond that Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos is now writing for newsweek. Granted most of these writers aren’t “quitting” their online projects, but certainly open to the financial certainties of the more established business model.

    I just conducted a fantastic interview with David Cohn, a citizen journalist advocate with his feet firmly planted in contemporary net culture and the (evolving) world of contemporary journalism.

    I think the conversation we had may be of interest to you Darren. We cover everything from social bookmarking, to crowdsourcing, to discussing some interesting new projects from the Newassignment.net camp.

  8. Darren Rowse says:

    good question Michael.

    I actually know a few bloggers who moved into mainstream media – but they always kept their blogs…. one then quit and went full time into blogging dev stuff.

  9. Kim says:

    Michael – I think I see your point, but it is worth pointing out that there are a number of newspapers that do employ bloggers or cross publish blogs in print form weekly as columns. So, there are a number of bloggers that freelance for newspapers. I don’t know too many people that would quit the freedom blogging brings for a day job that doesn’t pay that well.

    I think your reflection on Phil’s first point, Darren, might want to be explored a little bit. I’m speaking as a journalist here, and not a blogger (I’m both). It’s hard to read time and time again that MSM has been “too slow to the punch” etc etc. in regards to user generated content or new media in general. I think the problem here is we have to remember that MSM in the long run, is a business. It’s hard to abandon a business model that worked for you for years and brought lots of profit just to try something new. Newspapers in particular have survived other new forms of media (radio, tv) and I think a lot of people did not see the ‘net would have when it began to take force.

    On top of that, there still is the whole problem of profits. If there was a model that guaranteed profits in the 25% range (which is what newspapers are used to) then sure we’d switch to it. But the Internet is not gaining that much profit for MSM. Even the most profitable sites, NYTimes.com and the Post, still aren’t making enough to match what the print edition was used to. Slow to the punch for a reason.

    I’m not making excuses here. I would definitely be in the frustrated category or journalists, I just thought I’d explain a bit more.

  10. Leo says:

    Excellent piece, Darren. As a former journalist myself (for about 15 years), I completely agree. Traditional journalism isn’t facing death anytime soon, but it certainly has competition these days. Much of what used to belong to traditional media — news, opinion, a voice against the government — has been taken over by new media and the average person.

    Part of the problem is that traditional media has been so slow to adapt. I foresaw the future of media 12 years ago when I was a part of a Gannett newspaper, and yet the people above me were very hesitant to go online.

    Part of the problem is that traditional media has become, instead of a voice against the government, more of a part of the establishment and the institutions it is supposed to safeguard us against. Traditional media is now owned by giant corporations, and as such is a voice of the powerful, and not the powerless and small. People don’t trust that anymore.

  11. Jeremy says:

    Personally I don’t trust the MSM for some important issues any longer – there are many issues that are presented in a skewed manner or hidden, thanks to the financial interests of such newspapers.

    And the credibility and reporting of quite a few reporters and especially experts in the MSM have been destroyed in many people’s minds – once you get closer to the ‘truth’ (gotten by a huge variety of viewpoints and open debate), it’s hard to ever go back to accepting what is presented as truth by most traditional news sources.

    The prime example of this is Ben Jones & Company (since some of the commentators understand the issues at hand much better than Ben himself) at The Housing Bubble Blog realizing the extent of the housing bubble, its myriad causes, and its most likely consequences well before any mainstream media caught on.

    And those who do reveal things that the MSM reveals much later (if ever) are never welcomed with open arms or offered jobs by the MSM.

  12. I think many freelance writers would be happy to occasionally ‘swap teams’, so long as it meant another pay-check coming in; another week off from getting a ‘real’ job.

    Lord knows I’ve done it!

    I sometimes find this offline/online debate so prosaic. It doesn’t end up getting anywhere, really! (Or it hasn’t yet, but it might one day).

    For me, it has – and always will – come down to work being polished and presentable.

    Bloggers sometimes aren’t; and neither are journos. No one is immune!

  13. Leon says:

    On some level journalism will be threatened, as people will no longer go to the traditional newspaper or evening news to get the day’s happenings. But ultimately they are the final, most accurate source. They should incorporate blogging in traditional media, adapting to the change instead of fighting it.

  14. Max Powers says:

    I agree that it would have been even more interesting to read the views of an established older journalist and also a younger newbie journalist right out of school.

  15. Lars says:

    Tell Phil he’s dreamin’. “Intelligent people. . .”

    At Fairfax?

  16. That use of the term “intelligent people” offends me. Having read a lot of old media and a lot of blogs I have a much higher opinion of the intelligence of the bloggers.

    Also selecting blog content to read is much easier than old media. Buying a paper only to immediately discard half of it and then read less than half of the remainder is a drag. I syndicate the blogs that interest me and have the ability to syndicate individual categories if an entire blog isn’t of interest to me.

    Good blog content gets referenced wildly and with ease. Telling someone “you should read yesterday’s edition of ‘The Age’ to see an interesting article” is hardly worth doing, you can’t easily buy old editions of papers so it’s only when they started putting their content online that it became accessible. Now I can email a URL to my friends when I see a good article. If there’s something I feel the need to comment on then I have a link in my own blog post.

    Finally there is the issue of ethics. The number of bloggers who claim to be objective and impartial in their writing is quite small. But I don’t believe that bloggers are any less objective or more biased than “professional journalists”, they merely declare their biases.

    I don’t claim to be un-biased in my blogging. I advocate causes that I believe in and am happy to tell everyone why I advocate them. I wish that all “professional journalists” would be as honest.

  17. Mark says:

    Darren ~

    This is a tough one as I sit reading with my first cup of coffee for the day.

    Anyone who would assume that journalists are the only ‘intelligent people’ capable of delivering information has either a tremendously huge ego, or is a complete technophobe and his fear of technology has made him deliver unintelligent comments.

  18. markowe says:

    Well, as if to prove Darren’s point, while the publication in which the article came out is now frozen in time, with little further opportunity for the issues to be explored, we are continuing the discussion in the context of a blog. I wonder if your interlocutor for the article has a blog where he can do the same..?

  19. Michael Woo says:

    I’m worried that my industry is dying, I can’t get freelance work because publications are using free user generated content instead. >> I believe that the sky is the limit when you are dealing online – so many possibilities.. and so little time to do them all

  20. Wayne Liew says:

    I can’t say that journalism is dying for sure since they still provide news that online bloggers like me and you won’t get access to.

    How many bloggers actually got invited into political debates in a hall full of ministers?

    Nevertheless, one advantage that bloggers can sit on will be the added freedom of speech whereby we are not that bounded by laws and regulations (although there are).

  21. Kevin says:

    Will it pose a threat to journalism?

    Let’s hope so.

  22. I agree with the statement that it will not replace journalism. However, it has presented obstacles in the way that journalists and papers try to draw online users.

  23. Shawn Farner says:

    Great piece Darren, argued very well. I feel that biggest threat a blog poses to a newspaper or magazine is the sheer speed in which something can be shared with the world.

    For instance, I’m at a press event where Sega announces they are coming out with a new game system. This is huge news. Unfortunately, newspapers (if they even cover it) won’t print the news until tomorrow and magazines, well, you’ll be waiting until next month’s issue. A blog could break that story mere seconds after the announcement is made and have pictures to boot.

    Add to that the sense of community you feel with a blogger and his or her fellow readers, the instant gratification of knowing your thoughts are being read immediately after you press “submit” – no waiting for your “Letter to the Editor” to get published days/weeks later – and you have a deadly combination on your hands.

    Long story short – blogs are a definite threat to traditional types of journalism.

  24. John W says:

    Professional journalism won’t go away – some of the distribution will shift to new media formats. Also, the quality content density of blogs is still too light (meat to fat and gristle ratio) for the majority of blogs.

  25. BJ says:

    Kim has a number of good points, the greatest of which is the issue of money. Blogging just isn’t a financially sound model for a major organization yet, even though a number of the largest news outlets are utilizing blogs for opinion pieces.

    Kim adds that “the MSM in the long run, is a business.” That leads to a stack of other issues as well, which individual bloggers — even those operating as a business — don’t face: unions, societal expectations, financial obligations and legal issues.

    I know that these have been some of the issues I’ve been facing while slowly cajoling my company into blogging.

    The MSM journalists that Darren spoke to at that conference are reacting to those pressures. It’s almost like the Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. I believe they’re in the mourning process for Journalism As It Was.

    Denial is no longer possible, as the influence of new media and user-generated content grows.
    Anger is the next step. Some will hate all new media. Some will hate only one part (i.e., “feedback from people on the scene is great — bloggers discussing it the next day, don’t know anything”). Some will hate only the new media in their own field of expertise.
    Bargaining is represented by the half-measures of many organizations or corporations who use blogging, but can’t really “let go.”
    Depression is the realization that the industry as they knew it is dying and a new model is being created. Darren saw that in the journalists who were worried about not being able to find freelance work.
    Acceptance is part of the Intrigued by New Media step — and I think it ties into the Frustrated step:
    When we’re ready to go, we want to go.
    Now.

    But businesses just don’t move that fast. They can’t. At the very least, they have to have the lawyers look at it — there’s too much at stake to leap before they look.

    So I think that any analysis which insists that a corporation or organization should act or react as an individual does feeds the division between MSM and NM, and undermines the opportunity to get MSM interacting smoothly and (mutually) profitably with NM.

  26. If those ‘intelligent professionals’ would behave a little more intelligent and professional then they might get some of my respect and sympathy. Ever since I was a teenager it’s been plain for me to see that MSM don’t have the public interest at heart.

    It finally entered the mainstream consciousness when the MSM did such a bad job with the War on Terror / Iraq, but it’s been going on for ever.

    A lot of people in the world are still living in an industrial age paradigm and can be very elitist. The same thinking that caused the music industry to miss the boat is the same thinking that will cause media to suffer as well.

    We are moving past the knowledge economy into the age of the wisdom economy where the ‘long tail’, ‘guru and crowd wisdom’, ‘crowd sourcing’ and anarchic self- organising systems rule.

    Get with the 21st century already!

  27. Cornelis says:

    If those ‘intelligent professionals’ would behave a little more intelligent and professional then they might get some of my respect and sympathy. Ever since I was a teenager it’s been plain for me to see that MSM don’t have the public interest at heart.

    It finally entered the mainstream consciousness when the MSM did such a bad job with the War on Terror / Iraq, but it’s been going on for ever.

    A lot of people in the world are still living in an industrial age paradigm and can be very elitist. The same thinking that caused the music industry to miss the boat is the same thinking that will cause media to suffer as well.

    We are moving past the knowledge economy into the age of the wisdom economy where the ‘long tail’, ‘guru and crowd wisdom’, ‘crowd sourcing’ and anarchic self- organising systems rule.

    Get with the 21st century already!

  28. Evan Hadkins says:

    The unspoken issue underlying much of this is quality.

    On the MSM: think of the field you know and love best – do you go to the MSM for information about it? I sure don’t! I may go to a blog by someone I trust though. Blogs are often written by people with specific expertise, journalists rarely are – and increasingly (no doubt to their frustration) are more and more doing scissors and paste on media releases.

    Will this lead to the end of MSM? I don’t think so. There are now blogs mimicking magazines – giving huge numbers of posts in one area on any day. But people go on to blogs to look for specific stuff – the general view on lots of different things is special to newspapers, TV and Radio.

    PS A lot of the blogs on the Sydney Fairfax paper are fairly low quality. Mostly a chance to express opinion or have some fun. Very little information provided.

  29. 66tx says:

    It seems to me those newspapers will thrive, while others, will struggle with new media.

  30. Erin says:

    This argument has been circulating throughout the world for a while, and having a BA in journalism I can see how the main stream media see blogging as a threat to journalism. However, I do not see it as the death of journalism. Journalists need to take advantage of this new form of media. It can benefit the media by reaching out to the public with a more democratic approach.

  31. Dee Stewart says:

    I am a journalist, but I have had a blog for three years now. I love my blog. I love it so much that I write freelance now instead of being a staffed writer.

    Blogs will not kill journalism. I predict more journalists will hop on the bandwagon. I began my blog to share stories that my old editor didn’t want. I wrote for a Christian newspaper, who–at the time–didn’t want to share church scandal with the community. Although I respected my boss, I didn’t totally agree. The first blog I wrote had a more journalistic tone.

    Every month I think I will start a newsblog, but I don’t want the headache of charging my subscribers and spending 80% of my time in sales meetings to pay for all the fact checkers, staffed writers and photographers I would need. I like things small. I have a small child. Plus I’m having so much fun at my blog I don’t care to.

    When blogs began to garner big ad bucks like papers then I would be alarmed until then…

  32. Suffian says:

    I think that the situation will work out in the same way that it has with the recording industry.

    The news industry, like music, must simply learn and adapt to what’s going on around it, instead of resisting change to the point where it’s too late to turn back. Instead of sticking its head in the ground and pretending that downloading music is merely a trend, the recording industry should have scaled and reformed its sales and distribution models when it had the chance.

    Similarly, journalism must acknowledge and make use of the latest trends and technology to successfully evolve with consumers.

    I don’t see any difference between the NY Times’ decision to offer free content and Radiohead offering people to pay as they please for an album. Both of these ‘content providers’ have successfully understood change and used it to their advantage.

    If news blogs offers free content, then why shouldn’t online newspapers do likewise? Both profit from online advertising revenue, don’t they?

    And the more free content that you have to offer, the more the likelihood of an increase in traffic, no? So, what’s the holdup?

    Is the difference between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ content in the content itself, or the means in which it is accessed?

  33. Rachid says:

    This is just the tip of the iceberg…New Media is re-defining not only journalism ..but many more industries…