Steve Outing writes a bittersweet eulogy to his failed startup, the Enthusiast Group, which tried to build a business around grassroots media. His conclusion: with the exception of one or two sites that make it big (YouTube, Flickr) user generated content is not strong enough to stand on its own.
In my view — and based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project — user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it’s powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted.
It’s an important lesson to learn. Steve found that while quite a bit of content came in, it was of such varied quality that it just didn’t hold users’ attention. YouTube and Flickr made it big, and so while there’s tons of rubbish on both, there’s still enough to engage and entertain users. The fact that both make it easy to find the best stuff (usually because it’s the stuff a lot of people are looking at) helps.
What Steve found is that on smaller sites, however good your good stuff is, if you’ve got bad or mediocre stuff for most of your content, you’ve got a mediocre publication. Unless it’s highly targeted, hyperlocal content it just won’t hold the reader’s/viewer’s interest.
Of course, the bigger lesson here is that quality matters. Which means good writing/photography/video/reporting/editing still matters. Which means that despite all our fears, journalists still matter. What we’ve yet to do is find out how best to merge citizen journalism with professional journalism. Or, as Steve concludes:
I depart my latest venture nevertheless convinced that grassroots or user content is immensely powerful. We just have to figure out how best to leverage it.