Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Citizen Journalism: The Professor’s View

Part Two of a Geezer's View of Richmond's Buzzing Blogosphere: The Professor’s View

Jeff South is an Associate Professor in VCU’s School of Mass Communications. In April he attended a conference in Los Angeles, "Media Re:Public," convened by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Among the topics covered was citizen journalism, as practiced by community news Web sites/neighborhood blogs.

At that conference Richmond was pronounced the No. 1 city in the nation for citizen journalism Web sites. This recognition was reported as news first by local blogs (here, here, here). In May, examined the phenomenon (here and here), but for the most part the mainstream media have ignored the news of Richmond's status in the realm citizen journalism.

To shed a little more light on this developing story, South has been kind enough to respond to SLANT's questions about the direction of this new movement. What follows are those questions and his responses:

SLANT: Given that Richmond’s community blogs -- as a group -- have recently been seen by media scholars as more developed than those of other American cities, how would you account for that phenomenon? Is it a fluke being driven mostly by technology -- could have happened anywhere -- or is there something about Richmond?

South: Technology is a big factor, but so is the local media culture. People in Richmond have a lot to say, and I think they feel (rightly or wrongly) shut out of the mainstream media. Let me put something on the table at least for discussion. I don't have any data to back up what I'm going to say; it's just a hunch based on anecdotal evidence. But:

I've worked for newspapers in a lot of cities -- Dallas, Phoenix, Austin, Norfolk, Charlotte -- and I sense that people here have an exceptionally strong reaction to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. While a lot of readers no doubt like the paper, it evokes what in political polling would be called "high negatives." I think a lot of that reaction can be traced to the editorial page's historical baggage: as a cheerleader for Massive Resistance, as a strident voice of ultra conservative politics, as the scourge of progressives, as an impediment to race relations ...

Sizable segments of Richmonders historically have sought an alternative to the daily paper -- and so they've turned to the Daily Planet, the Free Press and other media that have sprung up over the years. In an analog world, the barrier to entry was high (as was the cost of staying in business). With today's technology, anybody can be a publisher -- and so online alternative publications have been growing like kudzu.

This might explain the proliferation of news blogs in Richmond: People feel more comfortable posting on the Fan District Hub or the Church Hill People's News than they would on the blogs sponsored by the RTD/

[In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I've worked part-time for the Richmond Free Press and have been a consultant for Media General and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I have friends in both the MSM and the alt-media in town.]

SLANT: What’s your prediction for the future of this movement? Are the best of such online self-publishing endeavors likely to become viable competitors for traditional print and broadcast news sources? Or, will the mainstream media just assimilate them? Or, are they part of a new wave that will lead to something else we haven’t even seen yet? Or, what?

South: I think the genie is out of the bottle and will never go back. Online self-publishing -- by individuals and communities -- is here to stay. In many cases, it will be a labor of love; in some cases, it may have commercial aspects (ads, sponsorships, an NPR-type support base). At the hyperlocal, neighborhood level, I think these publications will not just compete with but supplant MSM: The daily paper and metro TV stations don't have the resources to do micro news. (They've tried: The RTD and many papers I've worked for instituted zoned editions or inserts targeting specific geographic communities. That strategy has largely been abandoned.) News blogs' competitors will likely be other news blogs. At some point, people in a particular neighborhood will become alienated by the "established" hyperlocal Web site and break away to create a rival site. Call it alt-alt-media!

The traditional media will never go away. There will continue to be a need and a market for the kind of "professional" news reporting that is difficult for bloggers to sustain: coverage of government meetings, crime and courts, and intricate investigative journalism, for example. It would be interesting to do a content analysis of news blogs and see how many items play off or link to MSM news stories. If you took away the MSM, what would be left on the hyperlocal news sites? (A lot, I'm sure; but a lot would disappear, too.)

At some point, I think the online alt-media and the MSM outlets will reach an accommodation. Some in Big Media are hoping for micropayments (don't hold your breath!). More likely, in my opinion, will be traffic generation and at least an ethic of giving credit where credit is due. Maybe local daily newspapers' Web sites will serve as aggregators for both MSM and community news-blog content. They would drive traffic to the news blogs, and the news blogs in turn would link to the daily paper.

Note: Click here to read Part One of this series. Stay tuned for Part Three.


john m said...

"If you took away the MSM, what would be left on the hyperlocal news sites?"

There are 20 posts on the front page of the Church Hill site right now, with a collective 225 comments. 3 of the stories are sourced from established media; the 3 posts have generated 9 comments between them. 2 of those 3 stories I should've been able to get, too.

The less established Carver/JWard site runs about 50% sourced from other publications. Even at this level, though, there is value in aggregating and offering a platform for community-specific discussion.

F.T. Rea said...


Just counted the stories with links to them on the front page at the Fan District Hub. There are 41 (if I counted right). Only four are posts that link to MSM sources.

As you know, community news sites are getting some of the same press releases the Times-Dispatch does. It isn't unusual for one or more in the RVANews network (of news sites/neighborhood blogs) to begin to spread the word well before any of the MSM outlets.

And, of course, the community news publishers are steadily developing their own sources for news, some have made noticeable strides toward posting original or exclusive content.

So, I agree with Jeff that the genie is out of the bottle, but I agree with you if you're saying not all of the community news sites are depending mostly on the MSM for their sources.