February 8, 2007

The “News and Schmooze” Explosion

On February 6, the front page of New West—“a network of online communities” in the Rocky Mountain region—included a link to a photo essay on the Montana legislature, a chapter from a guest writer’s book on pantheism, and a “snowblog” item announcing the death of a famed “avalanche guru”.

Bankrolled for less than $1 million, New West is part of the rapidly growing category of hyper-local “citizen media” outlets, places with names like Backfence, H20town, and Village Soup, that utilize user-generated content. These local web sites are, according to a new study by the University of Maryland’s J-Lab, a “fusion of news and schmooze” that promotes the kind of civic engagement that the mainstream press in theory aspires to, but in practice has been slower to encourage.

On February 5, the J-Lab (the Institute for Interactive Journalism) released a relatively bullish report entitled, “Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News.” It concluded that, while they are often “shoestring labors of love,” these sites are “securing a valuable place in the media landscape.” The prognosis, according to the study, is that the genre will stick around, even as there is considerable churn and turnover due to factors such as burnout and lack of resources.

One thing is certain—these sites are proliferating. The J-Lab has identified about 700-800 of them, and according to study author Jan Schaffer, approximately 60% have been launched since 2005. As the report points out, they use dramatically different editorial and business models (some are operated by traditional media companies) and few, if any of them, “are setting themselves up to be comprehensive substitutes for a full-blown local paper.”

Still, Schaffer ventures that in the future, there will likely be an increasing number of marriages between the passion and voice of the community sites and the resources and expertise of the traditional news outlets.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re going to see….some mainstream media in the community setting up partnerships,” with the citizen media, she says.

The J-Lab study surveyed almost 200 people who were either “citizen media” readers, founders, or contributors. And while the results conveyed a strong sense of optimism and mission, they also revealed how much of a volunteer-driven, mom-and-pop operation many of these sites are.

Among the respondents, 73% said they considered their sites a “success” and 82% planned to stick with their ventures indefinitely. Four out of five believe their sites provided local information not found anywhere else, and three-quarters indicated that they helped build connections to the community. Slightly more than a quarter of those surveyed thought these operations increased voter turnout.

When asked if these outlets tend to tilt ideologically, Shaffer responds that “they may be ideological in a broader sense of caring about their community. They want problems to be solved.”

When it came to financial issues, 43% of the respondents said it cost less than $1,000 to launch their sites, and 51% said they didn’t need to earn revenue to continue operating. (It was an even split among those who said they were running non-profit and for-profit enterprises.) Asked if their revenues exceeded operating costs, 42% said no and another 38% did not know.

While fundamentally optimistic about “citizen media,” the study discussed the significant hurdles and issues including: problems “sustaining their labor or finding sufficient fresh replacement troops”; difficulties in building traffic; and contributions from citizens that are “more impressionistic than systematic, or what journalists would consider ‘finished.’’’

Given all the different kinds of experiments in the universe of citizen media, Schaffer was asked for a particularly interesting or effective example.

“I think New West has the most interesting model,” she says, “very low overhead and real good journalism.”

New West—which has spun off related businesses that include publishing and advertising ventures—may be a brand that’s around for a while. Many of its citizen media contemporaries may not be so fortunate.

But if the J-Lab analysis is true, their kind of journalism is here to stay.