Citizen journalism = free content?

[Keyword: , , ]. Following my column in The Stirrer last week about the surge in free newspapers, there was something of an outcry when a Media Guardian article dared to do the maths on what would happen if all newspapers were free.

One line from the article caused particular offence, as it looked at ways to cut the imaginary budget of a typical paid-for paper to break even as a freesheet:

“Will a £5m reduction in budget be catastrophic? Unlikely. With a thriving website it should be possible to make better use of citizen journalism from our readers, thus cutting the editorial freelance bill. This might save another £1m.”

How simple! We just get the readers to create the content, and hey presto! We save a million.

The National Union of Journalists’ new media mailing list was aflame at this. “No need for journos” was the summary – ‘they’re trying to put us out of a job’ was the implication. Indeed, the trend for citizen journalism had previously so frightened the NUJ that, when last year they drew up a code of practice for citizen journalists, they decided not to use that phrase, but instead to refer to these people as “witness contributors”.

That phrase caused much laughter and backlash from writers who saw in the phrase a stubborn resistance to seeing their readers as anything other than passive consumers. But it’s not surprising that industry managers should see the rise of citizen journalism and user-generated content as a source of free content, not to mention a way to be seen to be cutting-edge.

But this perception of users as only a source of free content will ultimately backfire. Indeed, “free” is misleading, because a truly successful project will require substantial investment. The Guardian spent time and money building the technology behind the commentisfree website, while the BBC has a whole department paid to sift through user-generated content. On the other side of things, thelondonpaper has been criticised for setting up a section on its website for people to simply ‘contribute content’, with no apparent investment in giving them reasons for them to do so.

As more and more media organisations compete for users to create their content, citizen journalists may find themselves realising that their content is worth more than just a byline. Already agencies like Scoopt have sprung up to broker fees on behalf of ‘witness contributors’ who are lucky enough to snap something newsworthy.

Ultimately, if the news agencies competing for ‘free’ content increase in number, will it become a sellers’ market?

Related links:
Newspaper free-for-all
Citizen journalism – NUJ launches Code
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