By Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis
This article first appeared in the Nieman Reports Volume 59 Number 4, Winter 2005, a publication by The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
The news industry is a resilient bunch. Newspapers, in particular, represent some of the United States’ oldest and most respected companies. So far they have weathered storms of significant social, economic and technological change by figuring out how to transform themselves and what they produce. The creation of the telegraph, for example, had doomsayers frothing, but instead newspapers turned a disruptive technology into a tool for better reporting.
During periods of massive change, the death of the newspapers has always been greatly exaggerated. So, given the industry’s survival skills, why worry now? One reason might be that the burst of the dot-com bubble during the late 90s made many think they had overestimated the impact of the Internet. But in retrospect, the news media might have completely underestimated the influence of this new medium.
Add other ingredients — easy-to-use, open-source publishing tools, a generation who finds it more natural to instant message someone than to call, a greater demand for niche information, and a rapidly growing shift of advertising dollars to online media — and you have a recipe for radical change in the news media landscape.
Likewise, the list of online competitors is seemingly ever-expanding. Search giants, such as Yahoo!, MSN and Google, continue their expansion and encroachment into the news business, siphoning ad dollars and eyeballs from traditional media Web sites. Craigslist, Monster, eBay and countless others have taken a more direct bite out of newspaper’s bread-and-butter, classifieds.
But the greater threat to the longevity of established news media might not be a future that’s already arrived; it might be their inability to do anything about it. Bureaucratic inertia, hierarchical organizational structure and a legacy mentality have paralyzed many news organizations from developing a meaningful strategy in this dynamic information age. And their real Achilles heel might be what made media companies a favorite of Wall Street until recent years - an ability to consistently garner operating profits double that of your average Fortune 500 company. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2005 observed, “If older media sectors focus on profit-taking and stock price, they may do so at the expense of building the new technologies that are vital to the future. There are signs that that may be occurring.”
Some have suggested that such behavior is a sign of an industry in a death spiral. Cost cutting with no investment for the future limits chances of an encore. Only a few exceedingly rare exceptions of online news operations are profitable, such as The Wall Street Journal, but most are still unwilling to engage in a different relationship with their audience.
In October, Bill Kovach, former New York Times editor, Nieman Foundation Curator, and journalist for 43 years, told the Society of Professional Journalists Convention and National Journalism Conference that “… too many journalists, especially journalists of my generation, remain in a state of confusion about the challenges of the new media environment and remain dangerously passive about the opportunities presented to traditional journalism by the new communications technology.”
Perhaps it’s this simple: Traditional news media are not yet willing to adopt the principals of the environment in which they find themselves. Consultant and media critic Jeff Jarvis frames it this way: “The No. 1 lesson of the Internet whether you’re Howard Dean or a media company or a marketer, is that you have to give up control to gain control.”
In the last two years, citizen media has grown from a promise to a legitimate presence in today’s media sphere. Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful digital and mobile devices, citizen journalists are contributing many varieties of information and news: first-person, grassroots reporting, not-only in text but with photos, audio and video; commentary and analysis; fact-checking and watchdogging; and filtering and editing the ever-growing mass of information online.
Citizen media is a trend that mainstream news media clearly recognize. With great trepidation and reluctance, mainstream media are beginning to learn how to evolve their business from an authoritarian “top-down” approach to integrate and report on user-generated news, as well as establish ways to collaborate in meaningful ways with its audience. However, they still have trouble letting go of control.
During the Hurricane Katrina, many mainstream news sites like CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times made an effort to solicit stories, photos and video from citizens. But despite the tremendous amount of content generated by citizens, only a small fraction found its way onto large online news sites, where it was clearly segregated from the main coverage.
Major news events such as Hurricane Katrina continue to bring more citizens into the journalistic fray. And with them, a tangible indication that authority is shifting from once trusted institutions to communities or individuals who have discovered how to earn credibility and influence online. Some of the top Weblogs and citizen media Web sites have traffic and online reach that outpace mainstream news media destinations. They include:
What has emerged in this new media ecosystem is a stark contrast between the entrenched forces of big media doing what it knows and the rest of the Internet informing itself — reporting, discussing and vetting the news.
Talking with publishers and readers of sites such as Baristanet, iBrattleboro, MyMissourian and The Northwest Voice, it is becoming clear that these efforts are giving a new identity to the communities they serve.
Here’s what the most successful citizen media efforts have learned:
The Wikipedia project has spawned more open-source, collaboratively written projects. Wikibooks is an attempt to create a comprehensive curriculum of free textbooks and manuals. It has more than 11,000 titles so far. Wikinews aims to “create a diverse environment where citizen journalists can independently report the news on a wide variety of current events.” In its first eight months, it has accumulated more than 2,000 articles. RSS, the XML-based technology used to syndicate headlines and other information, was the province of Weblogs in 2003. Now, it’s a fixture of mainstream media Web sites. As well, RSS gave birth to a new form of participatory media – podcasting.
Podcasting, the creation and distribution of audio recording online, went from the fringe to the mainstream in about 18 months. In it’s infancy, podcasts were produced by the same folks writing most Weblogs, the everyday citizen. Then Apple integrated podcasting into it’s popular iTunes software, with CEO Steve Jobs calling it “a TiVo for radio: you can download radio shows and listen to them on your computer or put them on your iPod anytime you want.” Now, everyone from major radio and TV news outlets (CNN, NPR, ABC), to newspapers (Denver Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Forbes) to book publishers such as Simon & Shuster are experimenting with podcasting.
Podcasts show that amateurs can gain mindshare in a new medium as or more effectively than pros. In less than a year, the popular comedy podcast, “The Dawn and Drew Show,” hosted by a husband and wife who describe themselves as “two ex-gutter punks, who fell in love, bought a farm in Wisconsin and share their dirty secrets,” have attracted an audience of more than 200,000 listeners. Their podcast is now simulcast on Sirius satellite radio.
Photo-sharing Web sites such as Flickr, acquired by Yahoo! in March 2005, are becoming hubs for citizen photo-journalists. In a June 2005 report by InternetNews.com, a Flickr spokesman said the service has 775,000 registered users and hosts 19.5 million photos, with growth of about 30 percent monthly in users, and 50 percent monthly in photos. Since the Hurricane Katrina, more than 11,500 images related to it were uploaded and shared. Even mainstream news sites such as the BBC have begun to use images from Flickr users to accompany their news stories.
Like the early days of the Internet, there is a palpable optimism driving experimentation, and the idea that any effort could become the next big thing. Here are some emerging changes we see in the media landscape:
Citizen media represents not the end of journalism or news media companies but a shift in where value is being created. In the traditional broadcast model, value was created solely by the newspaper or TV station. In the future, more of the value will come from creating an infrastructure for citizen participation and nurturing trusted communities.
Google understands how powerful and profitable building infrastructure but not the end product can be. Google Maps, for example, offers an easy way to add sophisticated maps customized with whatever data and designed for whatever purpose on any website. Google AdSense is another variation. Provide an easy means for people to make money from the traffic on their site without requiring too much control on how or where the ads must be placed. eBay earned $1.1 billion in Q3 2005, yet it builds no products or houses any inventory. Instead it has created value by enabling a trusted community to transact in a safe marketplace. Both eBay and Google show that there is great value to be created if you are willing to embrace a different role in the value creation process.
Media companies and those starting citizen journalism endeavors need to understand that media is becoming more of a social entity. As in any social environment, there are participants who serve different roles in the creation, consumption, sharing and transformation. This is giving rise to information ecosystems, such as the blogosphere, which we are just starting to recognize and understand.
“Any media organization only exists on the quality and depth of it’s relationship with the public,” says Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC Global News Division. “You’ve got to have a healthy and strong relationship for people to come to you. Technology is changing that relationship fundamentally.” Sambrook says the BBC’s role is shifting from broadcaster and mediator to facilitator, enabler and teacher. “We don’t own the news anymore. Our job is to make connections with and between different audiences,” he said.
With media companies still generating respectable returns on investment, the smart money will be on those organizations like the BBC that can integrate successful citizen journalism experiments supported by better staff training, equipment and practices that encourage reporters and editors to collaborate with their audience.
Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis are the co-authors of We Media: How audiences are shaping the future of news and information, a 2003 research report on the emergence of participatory journalism. An update to the report, commissioned by The Media Center and The American Press Institute, will be released online in January, 2006. The report can be downloaded in PDF (3.1mb).
24 Dec: Jay Small sees a soft landing for big media in The future is here, the value is missing:
Newspaper execs can “get it” or not. Many more do than, I suspect, some “citizen journalism” pundits want to believe. And more than a few of the pundits really have no idea how “CitJ” self-sustains.
No matter. The boldest experiments in tools, methods, content, participation and transparency may not restore enough of the value that has been destroyed in the advertising economy surrounding information service providers...
The most likely scenario, in my mind, is that old-line news media will manage themselves slowly down to an economic floor where the sustainable value of Internet information services they can operate meets and beats the cost of operating them.
But what of the value the Internet destroyed? Thoughts on that here:
Such a soft landing is a choice and a goal, however, not an inevitability. Some newspaper-owning companies (indeed, perhaps most) are going to keep propping up profit margins via expense cuts year after year until it all collapses at once.
As a former financial journalist, and now occasional contributor to blogs and Wikipedia, I note that the very structure of your piece speaks volumes about the digital divide between “traditonal journalists” and bloggers. I found that the first half of this piece--while perfectly respectable traditional journalism--basically could be disposed of totally, as I already knew much of it, yet found the second half to be much more valuable and of interest to bloggers. As a journalist, you can’t assume that people have any prior knowledge of the subject.
Also, curiously, the top half seemed almost boilerplate, while the second half, while not entirely knew, at least put things into a useful perspective. The top half seemed impersonal; the second half seemed more current. Like the lady in the magician’s act that gets sawed in half, your piece demonstrates some of the difficulties anyone faces--Trad j or blogger--in making the content fresh. Personally, I wish you had written more in your own true voice. I think the second half sounded more like the real you. It had more energy.
Idea is fresh but is trusted hardly