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    Cheap, But Not Free

    by Geoff Dougherty
    July 3, 2008

    A lot of the interest in citizen journalism over the past few years has been related to economics. Sign up a bunch of users on your site, get them to write stuff, sell ads along side the free content, retire early.

    While some content that comes in this way is impeccably written and delightfully newsworthy, most is not. So news organizations interested in publishing quality content, and hoping to do it for free, are bound to be disappointed.

    Partnering with citizen journalists to produce great neighborhood coverage involves money, and sometimes a lot of it. The journalists need training, and each story requires an editor’s close attention all the way through the process, from generating ideas to dotting the final “i”.

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    At various points during our year-long experiment with citizen journalism, I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t be more economical to simply pay experienced journalists to cover Chicago neighborhoods for us.

    But some cocktail-napkin calculations show otherwise.

    Right now, we’re working on plans for Phase Two of our citizen journalism program. It’ll provide Chicago readers with at least one story a week from each of our city’s 77 neighborhoods. We’re shooting for about 5,000 stories a year.

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    To produce that coverage, we’ll be recruiting more than 300 citizen journalists, training them, facilitating monthly story meetings in their neighborhoods, and assigning each journalist to work closely with a pro editor.

    How much does it cost? We’re still hashing out the budget. But it’s not likely to exceed half a million bucks a year, even when you factor in marketing and recruiting costs. Our cost per story will likely be between $90 and $125. Costs for the first year of our program have been similar.

    By contrast, we pay our freelancers $125 or more per story. That number doesn’t include editing time or overhead related to recruiting and managing those freelancers. With those expenses, freelance stories cost us between $160 and $200. So citizen journalism is clearly an economic win.

    The benefits go beyond economics, though.

    Each one of the 60 or so citizen journalists working for us is an advocate for our site. They tell their friends and family about what we do, which helps drive traffic and recruit other volunteers.

    On a personal level, they combat the image of reporters and news organizations as elitists stuck in the ivory tower. It’s hard not to like the press when the reporting on your neighborhood is done by your neighbors.

    And in terms of civic engagement, we’re getting dozens of people involved in their communities, attending school council meetings, interviewing their aldermen, and writing about zoning issues.

    So there’s a wealth of social benefits that come along with citizen journalism. And it’s hard work. And yes, it’s cheaper than paying reporters. But not as cheap as you thought.

    Tagged: citizen journalism economics
    • Geoff:

      You wrote:

      While some content that comes in this way is impeccably written and delightfully newsworthy, most is not. So news organizations interested in publishing quality content, and hoping to do it for free, are bound to be disappointed.

      I basically agree with your comment but I do have a problem with the way you frame the issue of citizen content. It is really not a black and white; either or circumstance.

      Certainly much of the content provided the community by individuals is fails as anything approaching hard news or even spot news. Regardless, social networks are excellent tools in providing content in the broad category of social news.

      While serious news organizations are apt to look down their noses at such content, the reality is that it serves several community functions. If you’ve ever read the society pages in august publications like the Washington Post you know that this content is just another variation on the lives of the rich and famous. Ditto the travails of Brittany or the next latest starlet scandal.

      The purpose of the social news – that content that is apparently of limited value – is that it, in its Internet iteration, provides validation to the lives of the not so rich and famous. I will add that in doing so, it also provides a reason for the individual who contributes and gains validation for their life — they are no longer limited to their fifteen minutes of fame — to come and be exposed to the greater community.

      My experience at paulding.com shows me that in areas other than pure spot news … accidents and fires … getting a good accurate story requires someone actually doing the job of journalism.

      Because the contribution of real news is critical to the continued existence of most social networks – news is the glue that keeps them from disintegrating – it really will not be provided by anyone other than someone practicing journalism.

      This is not to say that citizens do not have a role in the reporting of news but my experience here suggests their greatest contributions come in their providing context to the facts presented in the news. And don’t kid yourself, the importance of their comments on the news comes from their context as multi-dimensional personalities that folks at least believe gives their words varying degrees of weight.

      But the most important aspect of the social component is that it validates the individual and brings them into the community where they can be the consumer of community news. I call it the serendipity factor and it is a key to any commercial success in my estimation.

      GP Hughes

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