About three years ago I attended a very interesting conference. Nominally at least its purpose was to provide a group of journalists and editors from one of Britain’s largest local newspaper publishing groups with the tools and ideas required to grapple with the new digital age.
Each editor and journalist attending the conference was facing a common problem: their newspapers were losing revenue and readers to the internet. While they could see the opportunity to grow new readerships online, they could not see any corresponding opportunities to make money. All the while, they were fighting to keep their one revenue raising activity, the newspaper, going. Signing over resources to a growing but seemingly revenue-less platform wasn’t an option.
Furthermore, the newspaper group’s bosses made it absolutely clear they weren’t going to be investing much in online businesses (until they started making money), while also claiming (rather confusingly) that each newspapers’ future would lie as much online as it did in the traditional print world.
Not wishing to send its journalists away even more confused and disillusioned than they had arrived the company made a number of suggestions to make ends meet online and enrich its fledgling news websites. One of these was the concept of user generated content, otherwise known by its initials, UGC.
This, it seemed, was the glorious panacea for all our online ills: the readers would write the website for us! Over lunch on the first and second day of the conference, however, it was met with considerable opprobrium. It seemed journalists’ experience of user generated content was not universally positive. What examples as already existed – user comments, or letters in the world of print – not to mention the infernal community columns that you find in many local newspapers – were hard work for journalists and often, if not consistently, rubbish. ‘The trouble is,’ I heard one cynical old hack mutter, ‘most people are idiots. And they just write stupid things.’
Having spent a good amount of my time editing community columns, chopping down letters and trawling through emails to our website I can’t claim I felt any different. But I did understand that all our complaining about UGC seemed a little rich. Ever since I’d first set foot in a local newspaper newsroom I’d been aware that a paper is only as good as its readers and only as good as the contacts it makes with those readers. Nine times out of 10, our best stories were not – as journalists often like to think – down solely to our hard work and dedication, but to our network of contacts and, more often than not, those contacts were readers who‘d be happy to contribute a lot.
So where am I going with this? Well, I think we’ve been indulging in this UGC stuff for years, only we‘ve called it reporting. UGC is a silly term, because it gives the impression that readers will be writing – on their own – the newspaper or website. But UGC, in a sense, is what every local reporter has to rely on. S/he doesn’t often have time to handle the story from beginning to end, or the knowledge. It strikes me that if the very well-meaning bosses had realised this they may have got a rather better reception from the journalists than they did. The problem was that users’ involvement was sold as the answer to the content problem, not an answer to the newsgathering and story-honing problem, which is where I think it has much greater usefulness for journalists.