User-generated content: media can learn from the ‘Wild West’

In the aftermath of disasters like the Boston marathon bombing, footage from citizen journalists is sometimes the ‘only option’. marsmettn tallahassee/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

User-generated content has become “a central element of the news gathering process,” says the controller of BBC World (English) Richard Porter, in a recently-released international study by the US-based Tow Centre for Digital Journalism.

The report defines user-generated content (UGC) as “photographs and videos captured by people who are not professional journalists and who are unrelated to news organizations”.

Most of the newsrooms included in this study, located all across the world, use UGC in their output.

Topping the list are Al Jazeera English, CNN and Euronews, but the BBC is not far behind with “the biggest dedicated UGC unit within the news industry”. News Corporation has gone one better and just before Christmas bought the huge UGC site Storyful.

Conflict (mostly Syria), protests and car crashes led the topics where UGC was most included, and availability was a big reason, with UGC often delivering “the only available pictures”.

This is a double-edged sword - UGC pictures and vision become “more available” precisely when they become “less available” from professional staff who have been laid off, such as the photographic staff at Fairfax recently.

If you employ fewer photographers, UGC content steadily becomes the “only available”. The same logic applies to text content.

But one telling phrase authors Claire Wardle, Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown say peppered their interviews with news editors and managers was: “There’s a Wild West attitude about getting stuff off the internet”.

This emerged from their interviews with 64 news managers, editors, and journalists from 38 news organisations, located in 24 countries including the ABC and Sky News in Australia.

The editor-in-chief of Radio Popolare in Italy, Marina Petrillo, has publicly compared UGC to wallets that journalists pick up off the ground: “They take out the contents without even bothering to look for a name inside.”

While “content is located at the scene of a breaking news event” and “newsrooms encourage people to send photos or videos directly” a lot of harvesting from social media goes on. They call it “social newsgathering” and it’s a lot like the social newsgathering reporters used to do in pubs.

The harvest is mostly “free” since apparently requests for payment from “citizens” are rare.

But the researchers found an editor who had drawn a line in his head to deal with the issue of payment to “accidental journalists”:

You’re not trained, you’re not a journalist, you’re not a freelancer and you’re not someone we want to take responsibility for.

Trouble is, many “user-content generators” are indeed trained, qualified to call themselves journalists and able to describe themselves correctly as “freelancers,” with or without that editor’s grudging permission.

These are the graduates of the university journalism courses which became popular worldwide in the 1970s and continue to attract strong enrolments everywhere. These graduates have been trained in the ways of institutional journalism by skilled practitioners.

They begin producing news and feature products (including photography) as part of their studies and are encouraged to sell their work into the established media market but also feed “street” publications and the community radio and television sector.

This has continued to the point where, in 2007, more paid journalism positions existed in Australia outside major newsrooms than within “Big Media”, without the total number of positions dropping.

I’m compiling the latest figures from 2013 with the help of two student journalists at Swinburne University of Technology – Lucy Gilbert and Lily Jovic (now graduated) – and it looks like there are still more paid jobs now, even after the crushing downsizing in established media in the past few years.

They’re just spread wider in magazines and websites. Instead of a declining industry, journalism is actually a thriving market but the market is changing and we have to change with it.

If user-generated content is such a big problem, it might also be an enormous opportunity for Big Media journalists to figure out what “those other journalists” are producing.

Publishers such as the BBC with its UGC Hub, and News Corp with Storyful, could start to analyse what’s coming in from citizen journalists as a way of working out what’s happening out there in the Wild West. Let’s hope they’re already doing it.