Readers’ Revolution panel on MyMissourian

UPDATED: On Monday evening, I had to rely on the wisdom of the crowds to help me find Skempton Hall at Imperial College and managed to be only slightly more than fashionably late – good for a party but maybe not so good for a panellist for a discussion. The topic was the Readers’ Revolution, various ways in which media consumers have also become media producers.

Clyde Bentley of the University of Missouri – who I had the pleasure of meeting at Poynter’s Web+10 last year, talked about the hybrid web-to-print MyMissourian project. And Robin Hamman, a friend and former colleague at the BBC, was speaking about his Manchester blog project (I’ll post about Robin’s presentation tomorrow). I talked about what I call newsgathering in the age of social networks and also ways in which the Guardian is moving community and participation from the edge to the centre of our digital strategy.

Clyde was already speaking when I arrived. After giving an overview of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the Missouri Method, he talked about the media landscape that media organisation find themselves in. According to Netcraft, there are now 101,435,253 sites.

We’re fighting for attention.

Now, I hear media leaders say that this is why brand and quality are even more important in the age of the Attention Economy. I disagree. I think relevance trumps industry-defined measures of quality, but Clyde will touch on that.

Clyde may be a professor, but he understands the economics of media, which I think more journalism students need to get to grip with as they enter the job market (and it’s a tough market out there for new grads or even old hands). The most valuable voices in journalism today are passionate about journalism and realistic about the numbers.

Last month, I heard executives from the Washington Post and the New York Times talk about how they are focussed on growing their online businesses as quickly as possible to make up as revenue tails off from the print business. But the numbers, as they stand, are sobering. Online journalism is not enough to meet the shortfalls as newspaper
revenue falls. Clyde said:

The money isn’t there. Revenue is 5.41% , only about $1.9m for newspaper revenues online versus the print revenues. … Plot line of online revenue versus print
revenue doesn’t meet soon. We are not making enough money to turn off
the presses in my lifetime. We need an interim strategy.

UPDATE: I asked Clyde the source of those figures. Too many slides going by my sleep-addled brain at that point. The figures are from the Newspaper Association of America. It represents expenditures for online advertising in newspapers only. Clyde said: “Our initial research shows most of the overall online advertising is for messages that do not support editorial content — corporate sites, click-throughs from other commercial sites, free-standing ads, etc.” And there is not a major shift from print to online, yet. Clyde said that the shift was a bit more than 4% last year.

The citizen connection is about easy blogging and social networking. Clyde added: “Money is going online; it just isn’t going to support journalism.”

Initially, they drew a fiscal blank. How about a hybrid of citizen journalism and their own? “Web and print. Users with journalists. News and fun.” was born. It is a site that anybody can participate in. It’s not hard news.

Inspiration came from OhMyNews, started by a radical leftist journalist. It has changed the face of Korea. Dean Mills, the dean of the prestigious school of journalism at the University of Missouri, recognised the potential and asked us to move quickly. was proposed in May 2004, and launched in October 2005.

It didn’t go over too well initially, Clyde said. Critics complained: “People are ripping you off. They are going to flood it with commercial messages.”

But they had done their research before launch. They wanted to give the voice to the voiceless, and allow non-journalists to set the agenda. And, they knew that they were going to make money.

They proposed to allow citizens to gather stuff online – photos and stories – and use that material in a print product to pay the bills.

All US newspapers have a TMC product, a total-market coverage product. With circulation dropping, they send TMC products free to non-subscribers. The vast majority, 88% of US newspapers, have a free product. Pre-print advertising, not classifieds, account for 25% of our revenue. But then there is driveway rot. Free-sheets sitting unread, rotting on the driveway. (Or tube-stop rot here in the UK with the blizzard of free newspapers.)

The print edition of MyMissourian launched in October 2005. It allowed them to use of the efficient advertising pattern of print. The print MyMissourian has Increased their readership by 28,000 households. They have 900 or writers who contribute to the site and, therefore, to the print edition. People are more interested in MyMissourian because they help create the site and the newspaper.

Is there a future for journalists? Yes, both professional and citizen journalists, but the job of professional journalists is changing, Clyde said. It is now more about guiding people to content and covering stories from a different way. Journalists should invite the public to the table.

Many editors are concerned about errors, credibility and libel. The arguments: How do you deal with issues of decency, commercialism, literacy and banality?

They looked for simple, logical solutions. As for banality, Clyde said, “Banality? Journalists are poor judgements of what or who is stupid.”

For the MyMissourian community, they laid down four simple rules:

  • No nudity
  • No profanity
  • No personal attacks
  • No attacks on the basis of race, religion, national origin or gender

The site meant the end of ‘no’ when it came to what they could cover. “We don’t say: ‘No won’t cover your event’, or ‘No, we can’t run your youth baseball story’,” he said.

The citizen journalists write about personal memories, faith of all kinds (“Journalists hate covering religion because it’s not matter of logic. It’s a matter of faith,” he said). We enlist senior photogs, older members of the community, and give them disposable cameras.

This is gut level journalism. Some people just want to share their recipe. They’re planning on releasing a cookbook just based on the recipes that people have shared.

You know what’s not popular? Politics. It’s less popular than Clyde and his colleagues had predicted. Religion
is far more popular than we predicted. And pictures of dogs, cats, even
rats trump most copy.

And the bottom line is that that it cost less than $1000 in new costs in a year and a half.

The cultural issues

Suw and I often say that the cultural issues are more challenging than the technical ones. And Clyde said that this has been hard on journalism students. “They want to write, not guide.”

Many of his students were at a loss at how to cover non-news topic like Little League. And I was fascinated when he said that few students are well prepared to work with the public. Journalists are basically shy people.

The lessons from their hybrid experiment:

  • Use citizen journalism to supplement not replace.
  • UGC isn’t free.
  • Online attracts the eager, but print serves the masses.
  • Give people what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
  • Get rid of preconceptions of what journalism is.
  • Every day people are better ‘journalists’ than you think.

Next, they want to integrate blogs with print.

It’s a very interesting model, and it’s the kind of creative, ‘hybrid’ thinking that is needed to reconnect journalism with readers, viewers and listeners. It reminds me of a talk I recently heard. We live in an ‘and’ world, not an ‘or’ world. Although I’m a strong advocate of online journalism, I recognise that strength lies in new combinations of the strengths of online and traditional media. Creative and organisational tensions will exist, but I’ve convinced it’s where the opportunities lie. The challenge is helping inspire the change.

technorati tags:, ,

Comments are closed.