So you want to run a user generated content portal

timeEvery media organization worth the name is looking at how to bring in user-generated content. CNN led the charge years ago with iReport, the Guardian just announced GuardianWitness.  Al-Jazeera has a social-media show and site called the Stream.  Soon enough everyone will have a UGC portal.

Recently, a journalist in Hong Kong, who is working on a book about crowdsourcing, asked me, “What are the benefits of user generated content (UGC), besides the free content?”

For the record, free content is not the advantage.

Let me explain. The other day, I spotted some Twitter commentary about a breaking news story, and forwarded it to an editor in case we wanted to use it.  She came by a few minutes later and said, “I can’t take anything that has spelling errors or incorrect facts in it.”

And my thought was, Well I guess that rules out Twitter.

The reality is that most people are not trained journalists.  It’s easy to accept this in theory, but much harder to accept it in practice in a breaking news situation. As someone who runs a UGC portal, much of my day goes in checking things like – did this person spell the name of their home state correctly? I’ve gotten posts in which people misspelled their own names.  Copy editors complain endlessly about how long it takes to correct journalists’ copy, and journalists have been trained.

None if this reflects badly on non-professional journalists – they’re just casually sending content our way.  But it does reveal the dark secret of the so-called “HuffPo model.”  Either you pay content producers or you pay content editors, but somebody has to get paid.  There is no such thing as a free lunch (and HuffPo pays their editors and their staff writers, if not their bloggers.)  When discussing social sharing and user generated content, there is a tendency to forget (or just remain ignorant of) how difficult it can be to polish user content while retaining the original voice.  (The other option, of course, is to disavow all responsibility for what users post. But then what’s the difference between the site and FB?  Most UGC sites seem to have settled in a poorly demarcated middle ground, where they edit for “voice” but excuse themselves from legal liability.)

That said, there is a very real space for sites/portals/etc that bridge the gap (consistently, daily) between legacy media organizations and their readers.  Beyond buzzwords, the truth is that most organizations increasingly need their users in order to provide accurate news at the same speed that Twitter provides…well, whatever it is that Twitter provides.  Consider breaking news: there is simply no way to send a camera crew to a location faster than someone at the site can take a picture and upload that picture to Twitter. Media organizations cannot ignore that the images that percolate on Twitter and Facebook affect how people perceive our coverage.

On a broader level, in a world where media content (online) is ruled by metrics like “engagement,” nothing beats local content.  I recently interviewed Aswin Punathambekar, a researcher who has focused extensively on how online communities grow and thrive.  One of the things he noticed was the grave importance of authentic content.  A blog post by your neighbor will always feel more authentic than a TV news story by an unknown anchor who has visited your town once.  People are drawn to what they know.

Social media is also increasingly how viewers hold the media accountable, and finding ways for users to channel their questions and frustrations is key.

Are there alternate models for user-generated content?

One possibility is to approach user generated content the way Amazon is trying to approach “fan fiction.”  (Hear me out!) Amazon has found a way to possibly monetize fan fiction (which is a genius idea, only slightly unhinged by the fact that almost all fan fiction is absolute drivel.)  That said, there might be a few really good stories in there, or at least stories that readers will relate to.  Even if the prices are low and cheap, they have created an alternate revenue stream and it cost them almost nothing (and the authors get something too).  Similarly, BuzzFeed uses their community section as a potential talent incubator. There are innovative ways to look at UGC and its potential to bring people together around topics and in a vernacular that feels more organic than the usual magazine article and/or TV show.  The question is, how much of what we consider “journalism” will we preserve in those end products?

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