John Juliano: UGC's coming of age

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Our industry has been talking about user generated content (UGC) as the source for breaking news and local content for more than six years now. Has its time finally arrived?

The Knight Foundation recently gave a portion of its US$2.4 million in grants to the makers of the Witness mobile app for user generated content, the AP style book is now contending with how to credit the originators of user generated content and how to detect fraud, and WatchdogWire, a programme of the Franklin Center for government and public integrity, has been training citizen watchdogs in investigative journalism.

In each of these cases, someone is putting their money with their mouth is.

So has UGC's time finally arrived?

Mary Ellen Beatty, director of Citizen outreach at the Franklin Center, as quoted in, says that local statehouse reporting has suffered, “there are few reporters keeping watch on state and local government”. And that “citizen journalists living in these communities often have a better grasp on local issues… they bring a unique perspective to local government.”

But is the reporting trustworthy or even any good? Franklin Center staffers teach the local contributors to work from the AP style book and how to cover local government. Posting privileges come with compliance.

In contrast, the Arizona Republic keeps about 650 contributors active at any given moment. The trick is contending with the constant turnover. The lifecycle of a contributor is limited. John Triplett, content partnership editor at Arizona Republic says that his contributors don't venture into hard news, and if they do the tip is passed on to full-time journalists. The Republic does not train or mentor its contributors; with the constant turnover, is it worthwhile or feasible?

The Associated Press kicked off the new year updating its online stylebook with guidance on using user generated content pieces including photos and videos taken at the scene by non-journalists and content shared on social media. “There are a number of challenges that face journalists handling UGC, most notably the issue of verification,” says the style book.

The AP seems to offer little guidance on how to do this, other than to tell “with the level of accuracy people expect from the AP” the story surrounding how the content was acquired. The meta-story, I suppose. But how does one vet user generated content?

The Witness project’s Informacam app, one of the winners in the Knight Foundation's News Challenge, does this by adding GPS location, information about the recording device and other metadata to the media. (My company's own JReporter product takes the same approach).

Wrapping this in business terms that we all can agree upon is whether the quality of the product we receive is worth the cost to obtain it, and does it have value in the marketplace?

Which in turn takes us to the real bottom line: when all is said and done, does user generated content add to the bottom line?

While we might increase the retention and quality of our contributors by incentivising, we might be better off attempting to monetise user generated content by enlisting the aid of sponsors who see our citizen journalists as potential customers: sell access to our citizen journalists and incentivise newsgathering through promotions and rewards paid for by our other customers, advertisers.

Recruiting contributors is no different than recruiting employees, recruiting customers or any other outreach that we as publishers and business people routinely engage in. It is marketing, it is building relationships, and giving the participants a reason to engage in the behaviour that we want from them. Recruiters know how to do this, salespeople know how to do this, circulation people know how to do this. It is, unfortunately, the newsroom which does not know how to do this on any broadscale. By changing newsgathering from a cost centre to a profit centre, we engage the portion of our news media organisation that knows exactly how to do this.

Let's not position newsgathering as a single activity: newsgathering needs to be seen in the context of our entire activity. Requests for coverage should be mixed with the news, the incentive offerings need to be part of an advertisement that explains the promotion or contest, the mobile app that we offer to deliver our content should be the same mobile app that the user receives invitations to supply coverage, explanations of the incentive and is used to send that content. Keep the user within the app. Make it a one step operation, and make users return to the app to see whether you have used their content.

Do we need all of this content? You betcha. Constantly changing content is the only way to keep me returning to a website. Good, constantly changing content requires the effort of many, many people. Many of our readers want to be contributors, all of our readers see events they want to send to us, and every one of our readers wants to read about their community. Isn't that our expressed role? To provide the news of the community to our readers.

And our implicit Mission? Our bottom line of course.

To make our UGC project a success, we've invited in those people whose livelihood is more tightly tied to cash flow than the newsroom.

We defined a method to engage our readers and encourage them to send news content. Do we further extend our conversational channel to the advertising people for promotions, so that advertisers can use our UGC channel to send in content that is solely used to generate income?

I'm sure there will be very strong opinions on this matter. I come down strongly on the side of, ‘yes, of course we do’. In order to have our users send this user generated content, they need to be practised in the methodology of sending user generated content. They need to be rewarded for sending user generated content, and the best way to reward them is to engage them in advertiser-sponsored promotions.

As much as we wouldn’t restrict the telephone or email solely for the use of the newsroom, let’s not restrict our user generated content channel to only news.

I was in a meeting at a major big-city newspaper looking at a mobile app UGC solution. The conversation came around to penetration levels and promoting user generated content. A lightbulb went on over the head of an editor who said to the group in panic, “What do we do if 1000 people send us content from our Independence Day celebration?” An advertising manager leaned in close to me and whispered, “We celebrate.” nngx

• Newspaper systems industry veteran John Juliano writes regularly for GXpress Magazine. Contact him at
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