Setting goals for citizen journalism

Yesterday I stuck up for amateurs in response to a post by Nicholas Carr that looked down on the Web 2.0 hype around user-generated content. Today I point to a frank critique by Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing who finds many citizen journalism sites populated by writing “that only a mother could love” — and suggests how to boost quality.

This is what call my “airport security” blog. That is I empty the contents of the column into the plastic bin and x-ray them for points that fit my theme (that citJ, as Outing calls it, is worth soliciting and can be improved). So in recognition of the fact that virtually all of the following is pillaged from his column, and to see what I left out, you may wish to read the entire piece.

Outing, a print and online veteran who lives in Boulder, Colorado, started his research by looking at, a new network of micro-local citJ news Web sites created by Denver’s daily newspapers” and then surveys other sites. He writes:

“Among citJ content, there’s a mix of quality … I saw much more writing that only a mother could love. (Citizen photography was, in my opinion, better than the writing.) The best citJ sites will identify the best citizen content and highlight it — so that a list of the top five items on a homepage will be interesting and not deadly dull.”

This latter point — that you have only one chance to make a first impression — is emphasized by Northwestern University journalism professor Rich Gordon who is the faculty advisor for the student-run citizen site.

“Hard as it is to get people to visit a citizen journalism site for the first time, you don’t want them to come and decide it’s not worth coming back,” Gordon tells Outing.

Outing brings up the issue of compensation. Some sites try to pay a little something to regular contributors, other say no, the glory of exposure is enough. (I believe money matters and wonder whether there is a business model in hosting citJ content, and flowing services to the contributors such as ad placements with a revenue split between host and author; not a novel idea but better than not paying which, in my view, only attracts people with axes to grind.)

He talks about training, and again responses are divided. My feeling is that if you don’t establish a cadre of regular, somewhat-trained and somehow-compensated contributors, you’re going to get great heaping gobs of yuck. One great guerilla idea I noticed in the column was to look for people who live in an area and who post on some other sort of online forum, even a picture place. Ask them to populate your site.

The piece also makes the argument that giving exposure on the main page to the best stuff encourages more good stuff. And don’t forget about Outing’s comment that user-generated pictures were, by and large, of higher quality than the word stuff. The Rodney King video certainly had impact.

One last note. Outing points to a lovely blog on citizen journalism called It’s run by Amy Gahran and Adam Glenn and offers useful pointers such as a reminder that this weekend in New York is the meeting of the Online News Association.

In quick summary, my view is that we do need to make citizen journalism work, and that payment and training of some form will be necessary. I am ready to identify problems, like how do you encourage and elevate quality rather than take whatever comes over the transom, without getting elitist and squelching innovative approaches. But I don’t consider it wise to base a business or social model around slapping up a site and expecting readable, useful to appear. Such forums already exist in the social networking world and they seem to attract people who want to get laid or sell the stuff in their garage. Both are noble goals and may those posters meet success. But I want to aim citizen journalism at loftier targets.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media