User-generated content: Free isn’t its competitive advantage

For news organisations to survive and thrive, they have to understand their competitive advantage and the relative competitive advantage of different digital strategies. I was reminded how important this is when I read a great article by Anika Gupta, the product manager for Citizen Journalist Online, a new user-generated content portal for Indian news channel CNN-IBN. Writing on MediaNama, Gupta points out that free content is not the competitive advantage for user-generated content:

Either you pay content producers or you pay content editors, but somebody has to get paid. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Even if you don’t have a portal, it still takes time, someone’s time, whether that’s a social-media savvy reporter or editor or a dedicated team and portal. She writes about the challenges of “polishing” UGC, making sure the content is spelled correctly while also retaining the voice of the user. She works for a citizen journalism or UGC portal, and there are also issues of filtering and verification. If your UGC portal is even mildly successful, you also run into scaling issues. You receive more content than you can use much less evaluate. The ability to filter relevant content can become huge even before you have to assess whether it’s accurate. This is all to say that user-generated content, especially done right, might be less expensive than original content but it is far from free.

If free content isn’t the competitive advantage for user-generated content, what are its true competitive advantages:-

Become the go-to news organisation for UGC

Of course, as Gupta points out, tapping into UGC allows news organisations to get photos and videos from a much wider range of sources. It is impossible to anticipate breaking news events, but now, many of the first bits of footage we see come from mobile phones. However, to gain an advantage over your competitors, you need to have already established your news organisation as the outlet where people will send their photos, videos and first person accounts.

Long before the BBC created its UGC hub, the BBC News website (where I worked from 1998 until 2005), had long been engaging its audience to help it report the news. The BBC had a couple of journalists who monitored and verified photos and emails that came mostly via an email address put on the bottom of stories. However, this allowed the BBC to develop a relationship with its audience so that when big news stories broke, members of the public would send their photos, videos and first person accounts to the BBC. That became a huge competitive advantage for the BBC even in early 2000s, long before many outlets had even realised the opportunity.

Nothing beats local content”

This is a huge competitive advantage for local news operations, and one which a lot of local news groups have yet to fully embrace. As Gupta says:

A blog post by your neighbor will always feel more authentic than a TV news story by an unknown anchor who has visited your town once.  People are drawn to what they know.

Build up a group of core contributors over time

Al Jazeera is relaunching its UGC portal, Sharek, and one of their goals with the new site is to allow them to more easily identify consistent, credible contributors over time. Developing an effective UGC strategy means building up a relationship and sourcing information about those contributors. This will make it easier to evaluate material in a breaking news situation because you will develop confidence with frequent contributors.

Make sure there are ways to reward those contributors. A couple of years ago, the local version of freesheet Metro in Finland actually listed the price they paid for high quality user photos on the photo itself. However, the reward doesn’t need to be monetary. The BBC’s interactive radio programme World Have Your Say (I was on the launch team) developed ways that active members of their community could take on informal roles in helping the show, whether that was with community management or suggesting show topics.

Increased audience loyalty

Most newspapers in developed digital markets boast a larger digital audience than a print audience. However, many of these visitors read a single story per month and can’t really be considered a core audience. Again, this type of engagement is not free. It takes a lot of time from smart social media staff who blend traditional journalism skills such as evaluating sources and verification with community management skills.

The deeper your engagement and UGC strategy, the more savvy news organisations will have to become with their business strategy to support it. This goes back to Gupta’s original point: UGC isn’t free. UGC and engagement strategies have often been poorly thought as editorial products, with the primary emphasis being on tapping low or no-cost content. The Guardian recently launched its new citizen journalism project, GuardianWitness, with a partnership deal with mobile phone operator, EE.

For local news sites, I still believe, even in the age of Facebook, that there are opportunities to develop deeper relationships with their communities through user-generated content. One of the big issues with these local strategies is that they need to represent a much broader range of the lived experience of local communities and not just focus on hard and breaking news.  The national newspapers (and national journalists) love to poke fun at what they see as boring parochial news stories, but local food, fêtes and sports are part of that lived experience. News sites that become truly woven into the fabric of the fabric of their communities will have a better chance of attracting the loyal audiences that advertisers want. Building up a loyal audience of community contributors will also help news organisations gather the kind of user data that is critical to modern, targeted advertising.

That again, will take investment. I think that local and regional newspaper groups in the US and UK are facing what could be their last opportunity to adapt their editorial and, just as crucially, their business model to the market they find themselves in. It’s not clear that many of the hollowed out groups have the money, the stomach and the smarts to make targeted strategic investments. They might think that UGC is the way to pad out the skeletal products left by years of savage cuts. They should think again.

Journalism: It’s about people

It’s not often when in the flood of social media about journalism a new theme comes out so clearly, but today, the theme I’m hearing is about people. Steve Yelvington, of Morris Publishing in the US, flagged up this post by his colleague, Derek May, an executive vide president at the group. Like John Paton‘s Journal Register Company, Morris is embracing a digital first strategy, but May quoted Billy Morris at length of the challenge facing his company, well known challenges. Morris said that “digital first” was a good first step, but he announced a new strategy: “Audience First”.

What does “Audience First” mean? It means the people come first. What the people want in digital form, we provide in digital form. What they want in print, we give them in print. And what it takes for businesses to reach the people, we provide – both print and digital.

They are setting ambitious audience growth targets, to double their news audience and quintuple their “total audience”. They believe that:

In the digital era, doing a good job on news gets you only a very small slice of the digital audience.

This is really interesting, and as a journalist, it’s something that I’m going to have to digest. On one level, I understand perfectly what he means. The newspaper has always been a bundle that included a lot more than what I might call public service journalism. I guess it begs the question: In a digital era, what is the bundle of information, products and services that creates a sustainable business to support itself, including public service journalism? It’s a fascinating, platform agnostic way to frame a solution to the problems facing news organisations right now.

I’ll tell you another reason why I like the idea of Audience First. In the near term, the next five years, at newspapers, print and digital will still have to co-exist. As much of a digital journalist as I am, I know that simply shutting off the presses would require most newspapers to gut their existing news operations. You only have to look at what happened at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that went digital only and went from 165 journalists to 20. (Note, I’m not suggesting that digital first advocates, especially as I count myself as one, are advocating shutting off the presses.) A counterpoint to the Seattle PI is The Atlantic magazine, which sharpened both its print and digital offerings. In 2010, it turned its first profit and a decade, and in October of last year, The Atlantic announced that its advertising profits were up by 19%.

It takes a village

The next story of people-focused journalism comes from a former college classmate of mine, Cory Faklaris, who works for Indianapolis Star.

In the US, the newspapers that really have really taken an economic beating in the last seven years are the big city metros, and the papers in Philadelphia are a good case in point. The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the Philadelphia Media Network, is up for sale for the fourth time in six years.

Chris Satullo at Philly public radio station WHYY worked at the Inquirer for 20 years. Satullo notes that another former ‘Inky’ reporter, Buzz Bissinger (name straight out of central casting) asked in the New York Times, “Who will tell Philadelphia’s story“. Satullo responds: The rest of us.

But, please, don’t waste too much breath asking the wrong question: What will happen to the ink-on-paper artifact called a newspaper? That one’s settled: Newspapers will shrink into a graying niche.

Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive. What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.

Satullo points out a truism, as true in the glory days of newspapers as it is now: Great journalism is collaborative. Amen.

Put the audience first regardless the medium, and win more of their precious time by not only giving them great journalism but engage them in doing it. This sounds like a winning strategy.