We discussed citizen media this evening, but not in great detail, and not with a more complete picture of simply “What is a citizen media site?” So, your class assignment this weekend is to extend our discussion on citizen media by digging a little deeper into this issue: What makes a website a citizen media/journalism site? What are its defining features? What makes it successful (or not)? What kind of lessons can we take from this? … Here’s your assignment:
1. Read again this section from the PEJ report on the state of citizen media in 2008:
Getting a Read on ‘Citizen J’
To get a better sense of citizen journalism Web sites, a team of researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Missouri and Ohio University have embarked on a two-part study titled Tracking and Analyzing Community News Models, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation. The first phase, conducted in late 2007, was an audit of various features on 64 citizen journalism sites in 15 metropolitan areas. Phase 1 examined the sites for such elements as the posting of outside material, the use of links and the extent of advertising. The sites studied ranged in their reach from covering an entire metro area to a smaller city to even a single neighborhood. (Click here for the full report).
The fact that 15 metro areas now include at least this many local citizen news sites and local blogs is something of a finding. The phenomenon is becoming more robust.
The other discovery was that, for all that citizen journalism might imply openness and interactivity, the majority of sites analyzed tended to demonstrate the instincts of “strong gatekeepers” who control the content and are somewhat more difficult to interact with than the ideals of citizen journalism suggest. Now, instead of professionals, those gatekeepers were the bloggers or citizens who ran the sites.
The majority of sites did not allow users to post news and feature stories, information about community activities, letters to the editor, photographs or videos, the study found.
The one form of openness was that the majority, indeed almost all, did allow users to post comments about the material on the site, but the staff reserved the right to edit or otherwise screen the comments to meet its standards of civility.
Among other trends that emerged: Most offered only limited ways to interact with staff, were low-tech compared with mainstream media sites and had spotty advertising. Many of these sites were also very young, established only in the last six months, which may explain some of the lag in technological sophistication. One area where they seemed comparable with established media outlets was in direct links to additional information.
2. Let’s put this to the test. Go to this interactive directory of citizen media sites that we visited at the end of class today. Pick three sites (either at random or of interest) and spend some time familiarizing yourself with your options for contributing content beyond merely comments—can you add your own stories, photos, video, etc.? With what kind of ease?
3. In the comments section here, post a brief analysis (maybe 100 words on each) of what you’ve found. Tell us about the sites you looked at (give us the URL) and their strengths/weaknesses as a citizen media hub: How open and intuitive are they? What kind of activity are they getting? (i.e., are the posts going comment-less, as if in a vacuum)? To whom do the sites link—mainstream media, alternative media, other bloggers? Bottom line: Is this a place you’d want to hang out or build a community?
Doing this little exercise will give you a better sense for what exactly is a citizen media site, and what can make one better. That’s a key theme we’ll keep revisiting in the coming weeks, particularly as we take up issues of community organizing and citizen journalism.