How the MSM is tackling participatory journalism

I have been at the ICA annual conference in Montreal this week, talking about the research that Neil Thurman and myself have done into “participatory journalism” in Britain. What follows is a shortened version of the talk by Neil Thurman and myself, but it is still on the long side for a blog post.

The term participatory journalism is itself rather ill defined. We’ve taken it to mean the technical, editorial, and managerial processes that allow readers’ contributions to be elicited, processed, and published at professional publications. So the term, user-generated content (or UGC) and user-generated content initiatives seems more appropriate in this context.

Neil started the work in 2004 with a study of online editors’ attitudes to participatory journalism and a survey of the UGC initiatives they were running at that time. Back then participatory journalism in the UK was unevenly distributed.

Only one of the national news sites surveyed hosted real blogs—those with comments enabled. And one national newspaper website had no formats for readers to contribute at all. Where readers could contribute, editing or pre-moderation were the norm, applied in 80 percent of cases. In this sense, the media was retaining a traditional gate keeping role, with journalists acting as message filters.

Editors’ attitudes to participatory journalism were mixed, with comments like this from the then editor of Telegraph.co.uk:

This idea with blogs and particularly wikis that you can go in and edit stuff and all join the party. It is a load of fun but it just detracts from what a traditional idea of journalism is. I think we have to be quite careful.

Editors were concerned about the ways non-professionally produced content challenged journalism’s professional norms. They expressed particular concern over its news value; standards of spelling, punctuation, accuracy, and balance; and the influence of blogs on the mainstream media.

There was, however, an understanding of the benefits of UGC, although this was framed by editors within existing journalistic norms and practices. Contributions from the public were seen as a source of stories, and as a way of increasing loyalty as well as the depth and diversity of coverage.

Perhaps unexpectedly there wasn’t any fundamental prejudice towards UGC amongst editors. Instead, our research findings were consistent with the view that innovations in newsrooms unfold in a gradual and ongoing fashion, shaped by combinations of initial conditions and local contingencies’. Specifically we found that time and resources, the legal environment, the management and professional preparedness of journalists, and news sites’ technical infrastructure were the key determining factors in the adoption of user-generated content.

We also established a taxonomy of user-generated content initiatives in an attempt to start to make sense of the wide variety of forms, and the even greater variety of names they went under. This generic taxonomy of formats has developed over the course of our surveys.

About 18 months after the first survey, we did a follow up study which revealed a significant increase in UGCIs by late-2006. The number of blogs had jumped from seven to 118 and there had been considerable adoption of ‘Comments on stories’ and what we called ‘Have your says’.

At this time our taxonomy expanded to include a new format—‘Reader blogs’—introduced at the website of The Sun. This format can be seen as the most radical departure from the traditional publishing model, as it seeks to present ‘news’, and comment on current events from the point of view of the audience.

While news organisations were providing more opportunities for participation, we also found evidence that they were retaining a traditional gate-keeping role. Moderation and or registration remained the norm as editors’ concerns over reputation, trust, and legal liabilities persisted.

This said, we did record a greater openness among editors. One described user media as a “phenomenon you can’t ignore”, another said they “firmly believed in the great conversation”, and one editor explained he was “very interested in unlocking” information from his “very knowledgeable” readers.

But there were hidden agendas in news sites’ decisions to open up to readers. Self-interest emerged as a strong motivator. Some editors were fearful of being “left behind” and there was also worry that, if they didn’t give their staff a “piece of property on the internet”, journalists might develop a community of readers by blogging elsewhere.

This follow-up study confirmed: publications’ desire to get the “right user-generated content” that fitted their brand’s values and the considerable resource implications of moderation. It also questioned the extent to which readers wanted to contribute—and whether that mattered.

Our most recent, unpublished, survey again takes us 18 months forward—to May of this year—and shows a continuing adoption of UGCIs and, perhaps surprisingly, evidence of a more relaxed attitude to moderation. Despite ongoing concerns, the websites of three national newspapers all currently publish readers’ comments without registration or pre-moderation.

The shift away from moderation might well be a result of the increase in opportunities readers have to participate. With more choice, news websites may be finding that readers are less likely to participate if barriers to participation (like registration) exist, or if they don’t get the immediate, positive feedback instant publication gives. This is clearly an area that could benefit from further research.

Although there has been a continual increase in opportunities for readers to contribute over the three years of our work in this area, textual contributions are, in the main, still limited to short ‘comments’ on subjects or stories determined by professional editors. There is little in the way of longer-form contributions or opportunities for readers to set the agenda. We could suggest then that the media is creating an architecture of publication for material from the audience, rather than an architecture of participation.

Where opportunities for readers to set the agenda do exist (for example in readers’ blogs; or at message boards) they often seem to be part of what some have described as a “closed-off annex where readers can talk and discuss, as long as the media companies don’t have to be involved”.

Attempts to create genuinely open spaces where readers can set the agenda are few and far between. The Times’ ‘Your World’ travel site is one, but after initial external investment to get it running (it was sponsored by BMW) the site has atrophied without ongoing support and management. The most recent posts are 4 months old.

A similar feature at The Guardian—‘Been there’—is a much more successful example of the mainstream media allowing readers to set the agenda. Unlike at The Times there are no restrictions on length and users can edit and update other submissions. What’s more readers can aggregate other readers’ tips to create travel guides, hence performing a real editorial role for the 1st time.

Here user-generated content goes beyond simply publishing material from users and instead emphasises the sharing and remixing of content. However we mustn’t forget that this feature is outside what most journalists would consider to be ‘news’, in the softer area of lifestyle, and so, perhaps, a more ‘acceptable’ area for publications to cede control to.

The emergence of online tools that allow for broad participation in the creation and dissemination of content has repercussions for the role of journalists as conveyors of news and information. Our research looked at participatory journalism from the perspective of the professional journalist and hope we’ve offered some insights into the adoption of this emerging trend.

This post is part of May’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Ryan Sholin.

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  • Interesting stuff, Alfred – there’s real value in your consecutive studies, you have a kind of “historical” data no-one else has. Also very interesting to note that “hard news” is still out-of-bounds for readers (the most opportunities for participation are in the travel sections), despite evidence (did you chech out Zvi Reich’s presentations at ICA?) that citizen journalists are actually quite good at hard newsgathering.

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