Citizen journalism is code for "free content" - why we need a sustainable media business model

Citizen journalism is code for "free content" - why we need a sustainable media business model

Summary: The media industry is trying to add citizen journalists to its mix of content as it struggles to create a sustainable business model...

Frédéric Filloux, a former newspaper editor turned VC, has written a good criticism of the "citizen journalist" concept, that non-professional journalists can replace their professional counterparts.

In The Oxymoronic Citizen Journalism | Monday Note, he writes:

First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities. Or even a people’s car repairman. Then, for information, why in hell would we accept practices we wouldn’t even contemplate for our health (OK, big issue), or for our washing machine?

While he states the very obvious, in his post he does layout the criteria for quality journalism, something that few "citizen" journalists can hope to match.

He also does a good job in explaining that Google's investments in data centers are more profitable than investments in news rooms (which is why it won't buy the New York Times, as many have suggested).:

Google spends five times more each year for its datacenters than the New York Times spends for its entire newsroom). Part of the reason is the return on such an investment. Financially speaking, the news business is not very appealing. See for yourself in this revenue per employee table.
Google being the 100 index :
News Corp:………..47
Washington Post:…19
NYTimes:…………. 22

However, he doesn't discuss the economics of online news content (although he does in prior posts see:Digital Takeover, The Fairfax way | Monday Note )

The reason we see the ascent of the citizen journalist over the professional journalist, is the economics of the business. The Huffington Post has been very successful but that's because it keeps its costs down and tries to corral as much free content as it can -- the New York Times employs more people to moderate comments than the HuffPo employs professional editors and journalists.

The Washington Post is trying to learn from HuffPo, the Nieman Journalism Lab reports: WaPo wades into HuffPo’s unpaid content model. And other newspapers are taking a similar approach.

Yes, we do need more quality journalism and content of all types but the economics of this business won't support it. Citizen journalist is just code for "free content."

Demand Media and Associated Content, get a lot of criticism because they pay contributors very little money. They use their algorithms to estimate the lifetime ad revenues of a piece of content, such as a "how to..." video and then pay the contributors a piece of that estimate.

[Please see: Interview With Patrick Keane - Associated Content . . . And The True Value Of Online Content - SVW]

They have been criticized for taking advantage of contributors and general dumbing down of online content but Demand Media and Associated Content merely reflect the stark realities of the economics of online content.

This means that traditional media is facing a huge transition, to an online business model that cannot support its legacy structure. In Maine, there is a phrase: "You can't get there from here." It never made sense to me until I started applying it to the media industry's transition to a digital business model.

How do we improve the economics of the media industry so that it doesn't destroy itself trying to make the transition to an online business model?

This is one of the most important questions we face as a society. It's important because without a quality media industry we will be faced with garbage content. How will we make important decisions?

Software engineers have a phrase: garbage in, garbage out. That's what we face. We are faced with so many important decisions: on the economy, education, employment, environment, energy ... and those are just the subjects that begin with "e." What about all the others?

Ted Nelson, an early computer pioneer said, "Like fish live in water we live in media." We have more media now than ever before. How will we get the quality media we need to make the right decisions? (By the way, quality media includes citizen journalists -- the future is about a holy trinity of sorts: professional journalists, citizen journalists and smart machine media (search algorithms).

This is the Gordian Knot of our times, figuring out how to create the economics of quality media. Whoever manages to slice the knot open will get the glory, but more than that, we all win because we can all follow the model. If it's Rupert Murdoch with his paywalls, or some other combination of paywalls, ads, lead gen, or what I call the "Heinz 57" media business model, we all benefit from a media industry that rises above the garbage media that is currently flooding our lives.

- - -
Please see:

"Google Devalues Everything It Touches" - Wall Street Journal Chief

Non-Profit News Funding - We Need A Sustainable Business Model Not Handouts

Cherry picking advertising and not paying for the journalism

We need a Google AdSense on steroids: The Grand Challenge of Internet 2.0

Topics: Data Centers, CXO, Hardware, Storage

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  • If the Business Model Doesn't Work...

    Many professional news content providers are hanging on to a bloated, obsolete business model which simply doesn't work anymore. <br><br>Do we really need to pay for professionally-produced news-content? I'm not sure. On one hand, sites like ZDnet gather a lot of tech news and don't charge me a penny; so why should I expect to pay for some primadona reporter at the NY Times to go get me my political news? On the other hand, a full-time investigative reporting staff doesn't come cheap, and maybe ad-driven news outlets simply can't afford to retain such assets.<br><br>I know one thing for certain; I don't need all of the "fluff" that comes with many of todays online news sites. I don't need the NY Times to give me five great uses for club soda or a recipe for 30 minute chicken Kiev; I can get all of that elsewhere on the Web.<br><br>The simple and obvious answer is that, if people want paid news content, they'll pay for it; if they don't, ads will have to pay for it; if the ads don't pay for content as we currently know it will disappear.
    • Yes, it is a matter of competition. If a site can check the reputation of

      contributors, and keep the quality "sufficiently" high, they will do well on advertising. The ZDNet model to limit the journalist to a select group, and pay them based on performance measures seems to work rather well. Sometimes there are behind the scene things that ZDNet does to maintain quality, and they change out some of the columnists, or reprimand them, etc. In any case it is a lot cheaper than maintaining their own staff, and "good enough"
  • First the surgeon comparison is not fair. If you get the wrong news, it is

    NOT as serious as operating on the wrong leg.
  • There are many ways to aggregate reputation. Some people, like yourself

    have individual reputation, and we just have to determine it was really you. For others, we look to a web site for reputation, and we expect them to pull content, etc, and be a guardian of the content. We tolerate that they every once in a while let in some bad content and have to pull it.
  • Hey ZDNet. Talking about reputation and crowd sourcing, you should allow

    people to gain reputation and then automatically and immediately delete things they have marked as spam. You can then do random samplings of their markings to make sure they are still not cheating and trying to get opposing views deleted.
    • They can't even control the lone spammer who bothers this site


      That points to a serious lack of technical ability, so I doubt they will be implementing new features anytime soon.
      terry flores
  • My! Don't we have inflated opinions of ourselves

    So you think a "professional journalist" is on par with a neurosurgeon? You've gotta be kidding me.<br><br>So, have you ever heard the name Thomas Paine? As in the great philospher and writer who went to school only until the age of 12?<br><br>Probably the best thing to happen to journalism would be to replace all the "brain surgeons" with citizens who actually know their derriere from their elbow.
    • RE: Citizen journalism is code for

      @Takalok , I happen to agree with you. I'm offended by the notion that to be a good writer/journalist, means one would need to get the proper education and/or training. Just because you get training in something, doesn't make you good. It's a skill, you either have or you don't and there are many "citizen journalists" who have it and those who give voice to the stories that the mainstream doesn't report on, especially stories about underrepresented groups.
  • RE: Citizen journalism is code for

    <quote>Probably the best thing to happen to journalism would be to replace all the "brain surgeons" with citizens who actually know their derriere from their elbow.</quote>
    Too true. Based on a lot of what I read from what passes for professional reporters these days I don't have a high degree of trust in what they are printing. What they don't like about Citizen Journalism is that it may cost them their jobs and more than that, the gatekeeping power they used to possess.
  • Several serious flaws in your thinking

    The analogy of the surgeon is not relevant in the way you mentioned; would you hire a top-notch surgeon to put a band-aid on a paper cut? You left out the relative value of the product or service from the equation.

    Also to call this "one of the most important questions we face as a society" is completely brainless and self-centered. Society benefited greatly from the advent of information freely available to all via libraries, cheap printing, and now the internet. But "media content" in the form of entertainment is a discretionary luxury, not a necessity.

    Even in printed form under the old economics, the vast majority of works were inaccurate, opinionated, distracting and generally unhelpful. Ever buy a newspaper to read one article, and pay for pages of filler and ads? Yep, people did it every day, but now the game has changed. The words "subscription", "filler", and "word-count" should disappear from your lexicon, because that is what has to change in the media business: value for money. The media business never matured like many other industries, partly because the distribution model was artificially constrained. That constraint has now lifted. Just like the manufacturing industry which now has a global distribution model, it forces competition and efficiency in many new ways, and it "slims down" the potential suppliers in a ruthless drive towards the only the best ones. Everyone else goes broke.

    There are still markets for the truly creative, innovative, or skilled media creators. iTunes proved that piecemeal sales can work for good content, even content that is available for free in other delivery modes. But traditional media suppliers who *still* can't grasp the underlying reasons and make the necessary changes will ultimately fail. "Citizen" or amateur-generated content has existed forever, but the new ultra-low-cost distribution model matched with the ultra-low-cost generation model makes it a killer for mediocre professionals to compete against.
    terry flores
    • Well said....

      "...the new ultra-low-cost distribution model matched with the ultra-low-cost generation model makes it a killer for [b]mediocre professionals to compete against. "[/b]
    • Inaccurate analysis

      The idea that the cream will rise to the top isn't realistic. It only works when competition is fairly limited. We see the same error in law (I'm a lawyer) and broadcasting in general. The total user base does not substantially increase just because there are more content providers. That means that each provider winds up with an ever-shrinking "customer" base. A smaller customer base means less revenues. Like it or not, many "customers" use price as their main consideration. Companies that try to provide a high quality product at a premium price find that there just aren't enough customers willing to pay. They either cut quality WHILE RAISING PRICES to make up for their shrinking customer base or they leave the business. The end result is LOWER overall quality in the field as a whole, with slightly increased prices. Look at the quality of TV in the 1970's before the explosion of content providers, versus today. Nowadays most broadcasting involves sticking cameras in front of an event that would occur anyway or unscripted "talk" programs that don't require hiring writers, rehearsing, or paying more than "scale", and most of the guests are basically there to push some product such as their latest movie, CD, etc.
      • RE: Citizen journalism is code for

        "The idea that the cream will rise to the top isn't realistic."

        I'm not sure your examples follow your assertion, and you state quantitative measures without any backup. People often hearken back to "the Golden Age" of TV when there were only three networks, but usually neglect the fact that local affiliates used immense amounts of filler and reruns, and that failed shows still largely outnumbered the good ones.

        Also, you mention that "The total user base does not substantially increase just because there are more content providers." This is true, but you forget that the internet allows for a much wider and cheaper distribution model, which vastly increases the user base. I am no longer constrained to purchase from a limited number of suppliers, and suppliers are no longer limited to selling to a geographically limited customer base. And when the market size increases overall, it does allow a range of price/quality combinations to exist. Walmart, Zales and Tiffany's all manage to coexist in their respective price/quality niches.

        I agree with you on one major point: competition does not guarantee the highest quality product, merely one of "sufficient" quality. Value is in eye of the purchaser, and quality is only one of the measures of value. As you note, price and affordability are often the primary criteria. So Walmart sells a lot more quantity of jewelry than does Tiffany, because that is what consumers want and are willing to pay for. The free market at work ...
        terry flores
  • Another

    Economics may be part of the reason for the shift but once again he is missing the point as is the person who the author quoted. First, journalism isn't brain surgery. Second, there is no quality in today's journalism. It is a joke. To say that we cannot expect the quality from non-professionals is simply not true because there is no quality in today's journalists. I'll take a poorly written factually correct article over a well written article that is full of lies and half truths.

    If journalists would return to being journalists and stop pushing personal agendas we citizens may start reading their work again.
  • RE: Citizen journalism is code for

    Free media is a critical control in any democratic society. When large corporations (ref Murdock's highly political News Corp) controls large portions of the media landscape, society suffers and the media loses it's freedom (Reiner Luyken, based in London, described Murdoch as a "cultural Chernobyl"). Citizen journalism for all it's faults is relatively free and needs to be nurtured. The question isn't how to make news pay, but how to encourage more people to become active and engaged contributors to the this new free form of media.
  • Big Media needs a sustainable model more than &quot;we&quot; do

    When journalists criticize citizen journalism as beneath them, they act as though journalists, paid by their media employers, are all noble people of integrity when in fact it has been proven time and again that big media can be had by government or the profit mandate of the corporate shareholders; society needs the checks and balances of a truly free press.

    Having said that, we do need a discipline for good journalism, and as such, some way for good journalists to make a living.

    That's a conversation worth having, but headlining it by pitting "real journalists" against "citizen journalists" only serves to polarize these two groups that need each other.
    Non-techie Talk