The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Taking CJ to the ‘hood’

What happens when citizen journalism collides with traditional journalism?

Bentley bookcaseLike any collision, you could expect a few injuries – at least damaged egos. But so far neither type of journalism has been fatal to the other. What is of concern, however, is that the bumper of the CJ Prius doesn’t mesh well with that of the Traditional News SUV.

Here at the Missouri School of Journalism, our citizen journalism efforts are narrowly focused on its relationship with traditional journalism. We are the world’s oldest journalism school and have served that profession for a century. My charter from Dean Mills was to find some way to keep trained journalists in the user-contributing future media picture.

Our first research planning meetings were marked by loud arguments over whether it was even possible, whether we would ruin journalism or whether it would make any difference at all. The first consensus was unexpected: Citizen journalism approached by a traditional organization must have a revenue stream.

The blogs, discussion boards and news groups that spawned citizen journalism had little profit motive. We quickly realized that the burden of paying a staff significantly changed a medium.

Our initial effort was a traditionally structured Web site packed with user-generated content and sidebar ads. had good readership, but like most Web sites generated very little revenue. We did better by tying the site to an existing Total Market Coverage newspaper. A TMC (aka “shopper”) is the free edition thrown to every home in an area.

TMC’s suffer from “driveway rot.” Because they often carry stale stories, canned features and syndicated columns, they may not generate enough interest to be picked up and taken in the house. Adding compelling citizen journalism content indeed increased readership without competing with our traditional daily product. We conducted a survey that showed our TMC had remarkable readership – about 65%. Increased readership is the key to making ads work – and sell.

But the TMC still relies on traditional print newspaper delivery. What next for newspaper citizen journalism? To answer that, we refocused on what content people said they wanted rather than the delivery package. It’s no surprise that readers say we are too broad, to impersonal and unwilling to consider the topics they like. So they start their own blogs – two new ones every second.

We think we may have found part of our answer right under our noses – in our own neighborhoods. We are currently experimenting with a series of e-mail-delivered publications that look like Web pages but arrive on one’s “cyber doorstep”. These new publications have a combination of staff and resident-written content and “often talk about what journalist consider the mundane – dogs, nice neighbors, pretty flowers. But we also lace the “good stuff” with zoning stories, election results, etc. And we also found excitement from advertisers eager to reach people in their own markets.

We are not yet sure where this will take us. In theory, one could replace a general print newspaper with a set of online neighborhood e-mail publications that cover the same area. Circulation costs would certainly be lower. But it appears that we would also need to re-examine the newspaper vision of “news.” If people tell us their neighborhood news – especially that they submit themselves – is of high priority, we may need to lead with that and put the crime, mayhem and politics on the Web back pages.

That’s a tough notion for traditional journalists to swallow. But so is obsolescence.


April 24, 2008 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

1 Comment »

  1. Clyde…

    Bill Kovach had some interesting things to say today at the brown bag related to citizen journalism. I tried to report on them a bit:

    Comment by Carrie Brown | April 24, 2008 | Reply

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