Citizen Media: Fad or the Furture of News?

A new report from J-Lab , The Institute for Interactive Journalism, titled Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News? The rise and prospects of hyperlocal journalism, by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director, is available for download. J-Lab is a center of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. It helps news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.

From the February 2007 Press Release:

Local news web sites offering content generated by users are securing a valuable place in the media landscape and are likely to continue as important sources of community news, according to a report released today by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.

“Citizen sites are developing as new forms of bridge media, linking traditional news with forms of civic participation,” said J-Lab director, Jan Schaffer, author of the report, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

These sites, which take many forms, have rapidly emerged since 2004. But rather than delivering comprehensive news and “finished stories,” most sites are “forming as fusions of news and schmooze” that pay particular attention to key issues in their communities, Schaffer said.

The report was commissioned to determine the prospects for sustainability of these fledgling enterprises. It relied on in-depth interviews of 31 different sites and a 60-question, online survey that targeted 500 citizen sites that could be identified in the fall of 2006 and generated 191 responses.

“This report is the most comprehensive I have seen in documenting the community media revolution,” said Dean Thomas Kunkel of the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism, which houses J-Lab. “It quantifies what has been inherently difficult to quantify. And it shows in great detail how different entrepreneurs are employing different models and with different goals in mind.”

Most citizen media ventures are shoestring labors of love, funded out of the founders’ own pockets, and staffed by volunteer content contributors. While they’d like more readers and revenues, site founders nevertheless professed a solid resolve to continue: 51% said they didn’t need to make money to keep going; 82% said they planned to continue “indefinitely.” Nearly all would welcome reinforcements and the ability to make even token payments to writers.

“While not all individual sites will continue to operate, we project that the phenomenon of citizen media will be sustainable, with new sites coming online in serial fashion to replace those that collapse as their founders burn out,” Schaffer said.

A sizable majority, 73%, of the survey respondents, pronounced their sites to be a “success,” based largely on the impact in their communities.

Respondents said their sites provided local news and information not found elsewhere, built connections to the community and helped local media to improve. Asked to describe community impact:

* 82% said they provided opportunities for dialogue.
* 61% said they watchdogged local government.
* 39% said they helped the community solve problems.
* 27% said they increased voter turnout.
* 17% said they increased the number of candidates running for office.

The full report is available online at the new Knight Citizen News Network web. Print copies arel also available by email request to: news@j-lab.org.

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