Strangled by the Grassroots

 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.

An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media

Enthusiast Group enters deadpool reflectively

Should Journalists Blog?

Kindly pointed out by my old friend Robin Lubbock from WBUR, here’s an interesting piece on journalists who blog in their spare time by Steve Outing.

Outing points out that in many cases, things don’t go well. Reporters “have been fired or punished because of their personal blogs,” he writes. Landmines include when “a simple family blog written by a reporter might contain a reference to trouble at work, or discontent with a boss. It’s so easy for such an item — meant for a tiny group but accessible by the entire Web world — to take on a life of its own and spread to a huge audience, embarrassing not only the employer but also the employee.” The result: Tightly controlled personal blogs, both by the employers, and by the writers, who tend to be increasingly careful of what they write for fear of creating trouble.

Outing also cites cases of “resentment and morale problems from those who consider the blogs they publish on their own time to be an important part of who they are.” A lot of these end up being anonymous, operating without the knowledge of their bosses. That means there may be a lot of ticking time bombs out there, once those folk are outed.

The bottom line for me is this: Journalists (I don’t include columnists here, who are paid to have opinions) should be careful that anything they write or say in public does not compromise their objectivity. There are the obvious topics — usually politics — which journalists would be well advised to stay clear of, whether or not they’re writing on their spare time. Someone who reads a casual remark on a blog that indicates a political bias is justified in feeling that same journalist may not lend balance to his/her reporting when they’re on the job.

That said, journalists are inveterate writers, and blogs are a wonderful place to scratch that itch — especially, I imagine, for editors frustrated they are not out there reporting, or reporters on a beat that’s not their preferred one. I can’t see anything wrong with a political reporter getting hot under the collar about the disturbed migration patterns of the Lesser Bluebacked Hedge Warbler (I know I’m pretty upset), so long as the causes of the disturbance are not political in origin. (Of course, they almost certainly are, knowing politicians. But I can’t say that.)

News: When Is A Newspaper Website Not A Newspaper Website?

 More on disguised branding, this time with newspaper-related sites. Steve Outing points out on Poynter that newspapers are putting up bloglike sites to appeal to the younger crowd, while playing down the site’s connections to the owner. Steve cites the Arizona Daily Star’s AZNightBuzz, where “there’s no indication on the home page that the site is connected to the newspaper, even on the About Us page”.
His conclusion: “Newspapers are deciding that the newspaper brand name may actually be a hindrance in attracting the college demographic to their media products — so they’re dispensing with it.”

News: Could Blogs Be The News?

 It’s a familiar theme, but Steve Outing is always interesting to read on anything, so when he takes a look at how blogs could change news reporting, I’m all ears. His latest column suggests that, “It’s time for increasing the speed of news sites — to that of television news — and Weblogs are the way to do it. And it’s time to stop thinking of blogs mostly in the realm of feature and opinion content, and move the concept into breaking news.” Interesting angle. I certainly think news organisations must take blogs more seriously, and realise that it’s no longer enough to file stories through traditional channels, in traditional ways.

News: Have Phone, Will Report

 Interesting posting by the excellent Steve Outing about the rise of photo-phones as news tools: Göteborgs-Posten, Scandinavia’s second-largest morning newspaper, today published on its website its first news photo taken by a mobile phone. After a collision between a tram and a truck in central Göteborg, reporter Ralph Källström reached the scene and filed a brief report to the news desk. Then he used his mobile phone to snap some pictures, picking the best and e-mailing it (via the phone) to the news desk, which added it to the web version of the story. His pictures turned out to be more dramatic than the official photographer who arrived later and filed much later. While in the print edition the photographer’s photos will be used, on the website they’re sticking with the reporter’s photo-phone shots.
That’s a great example, Steve concludes, of why news organizations should be replacing all reporters’ mobile phones with photo phones. I agree, but I bet the unions will have something to say.