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User Generated Content and the Threat to Journalism

A few weeks back I asked readers for their opinion on a topic that I’d been asked to write a short column on for the Australian Marketing Magazine (no online version of the article that I can find).

The question was – ‘Will the growing popularity of digital user-generated content pose a threat to the traditional journalist?

The conversation that the question generated was interesting and I found it helpful when crafting my column (below). The piece was one where I was asked to take the affirmative position while another writer (Phil Mclean – Group Executive Editor at Fairfax) took the opposing view.

It was a difficult task in some ways to write this one as it had a tight word limit, I didn’t see what Phil was writing (and didn’t even know who the other person was going to be) but also because I was asked to present the case for something that I didn’t completely agree with. I don’t think what we do as bloggers means the end to journalism – but it does present journalists with challenges. So that’s the line I took. Here’s my piece:

We live in a time of change and there is little doubt in my mind that we are seeing a shift in how people find and consume news and information.

A variety of factors come into play that make new media an attractive option for those looking for news:

Participation – many are no longer satisfied to just consume the thoughts and opinions of professional experts – but want to be involved in the process of discussing and interacting with the news. Beyond this we’re seeing more and more focus upon citizen journalism where millions of people have the means to engage in the reporting of news – simply by getting their mobile phone out.

Relationality – many of the new forms of media that are emerging not only involve readers in the reporting and interpretation of news – but they create spaces where community springs up around the news and information being shared. People are no longer finding meaning in news alone – but together in social networks.

Suspicion of Institution – Government, Church, Big Business and other ‘institutions’ are increasingly being viewed with suspicion. I’m finding in my own daily interactions that more and more people have a growing sense of disillusionment and suspicion of mainstream media outlets and are looking for alternative sources of information.

Customization – we live in an age where we have almost unlimited choice in many areas of our lives. New media allows people to customize the information and news that they want to consume. Using tools like news aggregation they can now choose specific topics that they wish to follow and control when and how they consume it.

Immediacy – no longer satisfied to wait for tomorrows paper or tonight’s news broadcast – people are increasingly following events in real time online. While TV and Radio have live coverage of some big events with broad appeal – New Media is light footed, nimble, highly targeted to special interests and quick. Whether it be watching Apple release it’s new iPod live via a blogger at the press event or getting reports and pictures of a natural disaster from a blogger caught up in the middle of the action – new media is increasingly ahead of the rest in getting information out.

None of the above signals the end of journalism in my mind – there will always be a demand for well researched and well presented information.

However it does present main stream media with numerous challenges – mainly around the way that they deliver news and information, how they draw readers into the process of reporting and interpreting news and how they keep journalistic standards high yet still compete to break stories.

Phil Mclean’s Arguments

I won’t print Phil Mclean’s piece in full – but his main arguments were:

1. that Journalism isn’t threatened because ‘we’ (I’m presuming he’s arguing for Fairfax) have not gone on the defensive about user generated content but because they’ve gone on the offensive and encourage their readers/viewers to engage with it.

“we bring our editorial expertise and judgement to ‘citizen journalism’ – and it works to amplify the scope and appeal of our content. This takes nothing away from what our journalists do; it enriches what we can deliver to our readers and viewers – and at virtually no additional cost.”

2. that in the complex world that we live in people want ‘intelligent people‘ to help them understand the world (to tell them not only what happened but why).

3. that journalists are embracing new technology, getting trained up and using it in their journalism.

My Reflections on Phil’s arguements

I would agree with some, but not all, of Phil’s points. With regards to his first point – I’d agree that some mainstream media publications are now embracing user generated content – however many have been slow off the mark and in the process lost significant ground. I also found it interesting that he points out that user generated content costs them little (if anything) – particularly with there being some talk of bloggers organizing themselves into unions recently to stop them being exploited by blog networks.

His second point is true (people do look to people to help them interpret the news) but I’m not sure that is something that only traditional journalists do. New media is also full of ‘intelligent people’ who can provide this service of helping people understand the world that we live in. Mainstream media doesn’t have a monopoly on that by any means.

Phil’s last point isn’t dissimilar to his first and I’d agree that some journalists are indeed embracing new technologies. However I would also point out that some are not. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been interviewed by mainstream media publications (including those of Fairfax) only to be frustrated by them not linking to the sites that they talk about and seeing comments heavily moderated (when there is the ability to leave them at all).

While some mainstream media outlets and publications are making significant inroads in engaging with their readers through methods of new media – to this outsider the process seems a little slow. Does this mean the death of journalism – not at all – but does the embracing of new technology by journalists and mainstream media mean the end to the new bread of media that is emerging – no way.

PS: just as I hit publish on this post I was reminded of a Tech conference that I attended around 18 months ago. The conference was attended by 50% PR people and 50% journalists (I was the token new media guy). The conversations that I had with journalists over the three days of the conference were illuminating and could largely be divided into four areas:

1. Angry – I hate blogs and all forms of new media. They are low quality and have nothing to add of worth.
2. Worried – I’m worried that my industry is dying, I can’t get freelance work because publications are using free user generated content instead.
3. Intrigued – I’m fascinated by new media and am thinking of jumping ship to do it for myself.
4. Frustrated – The publication that I work for talks a lot about new media, but we’re bogged down by bureaucracy and legals.

While I’m sure the landscape has changed somewhat in the last 18 months – these conversations ring in my ears and make me wonder whether a third column written by a journalist (and not an executive editor) might have enriched the conversation even further.

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