QIT#9 Reader empowerment beyond content

This one really brings the incoherency of the QIT series to a new level. So please, bear with me:

I’ve been hearing a lot of debate about how news organisations need to re-engage with their readers and, for the most part, this seems to focus on content creation.

There is talk about promoting “citizen journalism”, using “UGC”, releasing APIs for developers, etc. etc.

It’s all good stuff. But there is no denying that those who volunteer time and effort to create news-worthy content or applications are a tiny minority.

Most people just want to be told what the news is by people who are employed to know.

Does that mean those who create want to engage more than those who do not? I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

Perhaps it’s just that others have time and skill barriers that stop them. Or they don’t really see how such engagement would benefit them.

I’m always stunned by how popular polls on news websites are. They almost always do well, perhaps because of their low barrier to entry: just one or two clicks and you’ve contributed.

The frustrating thing is that most of these polls are – beyond capturing a mood – utterly futile.

Readers may overwhelmingly vote that the Prime Minister should resign, but that poll is unlikely to have much influence on Gordon’s decision to bow out.

To look at it in the more negative light, you could argue such polls do little more than reinforce the idea that news organisations pay lip service to engagement, but don’t really want to empower their readers in any meaningful way.

So, what if polls were devised to empower? What if, at the end of the vote, the majority will of the readers was enacted? What message would that send out? What should the questions be?

Trust and UGC

Ever since the coversation about Flickr, there has been an niggle in the back of my mind about some of the arguments out there that newspapers will cut staff to start to rely more heavily on blogs and other user-generated content [edit user-generated content = UGC].

It’s certainly a fear expressed by the NUJ, and by others. I can see their point and have said that, if profit-driven newspapers groups thought they could increase margins by relying more heavily on UGC, then it would probably happen.

But I’ve started to revise those thoughts of late. If the Flickr question taught me one thing it was that while journalists are debating how UGC will be used in the future, we are not at all sure about how the future content generators might feel about it.

Whilst the value of blogs as sources is, I think, beyond doubt, it doesn’t mean that the Internet is an orchard of social networks for newspapers to cherry-pick content at will… even if there is no legal reason why they shouldn’t.

For example, Flickr is designed for photo sharing. From the comments I’ve recieved, there should be nothing legally wrong with a newspaper providing a Flickr feed on its website. BUT just because it can, doesn’t mean it should or that people will like it if it does.

One of the problems is that we live in suspicious times. The media is badly mistrusted and, whilst people are happy to read about others in the newspaper, they are fearful about getting involved with it themselves. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the lines: “Oh you’re a journalist, so what lies are you going to make up today?” or I’ve had to spend considerable time convincing people that I am, in fact, not going to stitch them up. Personally, it’s insulting, but then that’s the regard our industry is held in.

I suppose, once upon a time, with an army of dedicated readers and no Internet, it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference to sales if one reader was upset. Now they are a potential content generator, the situation is different. Not only will a lack of trust make it difficult to obtain content, it could also mean that if a paper appears to be doing something else that fits the untrustworthy stereotype, the news and damage will spread.

For example: A paper develops a Flickr feed without building trust in the Flickr community. It has done nothing legally wrong, but it is tapping into a community that will not all be fully paid up subscribers to that newspaper. Therefore, the default position of mistrust is likely to stand and the assumption may be that the newspaper is trying to profit at the expense of unpaid photogrpahers.

The understandable result is that Flickr members get angry and start pulling their photos from the group. They then replace these with offensive photoshopped versions telling that paper exactly were to stuff its feed. Angry blog posts sprout up all over the place and, within days, you’ve alienated a community and, I imagine, the feed would have been taken down.

I don’t have an example of where that has yet happened, but its seems pretty plausible possiblity.

So if newspapers are serious about UCG, then they might have their work cut out. Unless they start getting out into local social netwoks and communities and start building up trust, they may find their UGC dream backfires.