The near-ubiquity of Internet access, combined with the development of inexpensive tools for publishing and sharing content, has helped spark the rise of sites devoted to what is variously called “citizen journalism,” “public journalism,” “we media,” or “participatory journalism.” The sites generally divide into two major segments: those devoted solely to hyper-local news (e.g. Baristanet.com, focused on Montclair, NJ, and surrounding towns) and those with a national focus (e.g. AssociatedContent.com, Newsvine.com, NowPublic.com, and news.MySpace.com). The primary focus on news is what differentiates these sites from those such as the HuffingtonPost.com and DailyKos.com, which essentially are blogs that feature opinion that sometimes takes news as a jumping off point. On a local level, there are more than 2,000 so-called “place blogs” in the United States that offer hyper-local opinion. There are at least 200 hyper-local news sites.
Recently I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at the national news sites, and here’s my quick take on them:
Content for the national sites comes from users, although most content that could be characterized as “news” is copied from mainstream media such as the New York Times, the Associated Press, and MSNBC. Two of the major national sites derive their income from banner advertising and classified ads supplied by Google. It is unclear how NowPublic earns income because there are no ads on the site.
In North America, AssociatedContent.com is the leading national site for user-generated content, according to Alexa.com, which ranked it on Nov. 6, 2007, at 2,386. U.S. users account for 56 percent of AC’s users. That compares with rankings of 4,871 and 13,165 for Newvine.com and NowPublic.com, respectively. U.S. users account for 50 percent of Newsvine users and 39 percent of NowPublic users.
Associated Content, which was launched in 2004 and has received $5.4 million in funding from SoftBank Capital, differs significantly from the other sites in that it actively recruits people to write or submit video or audio about specific subjects -- not all of which would be considered “news.” It calls itself a "user-driven information portal" whose articles are "optimized for discovery and revenue generation." In other words, Associated Content’s goal is to create a database that will attract Google searchers and the revenue associated with them rather than serve as a destination site in and of itself. Associated Content also licenses its content to other online publishers. Contributors are paid based on keyword optimization and the quality of their work (generally $1.50 per thousand page views). AC’s content is almost entirely user-generated, in contrast to that of NowPublic and Newsvine, which consists to a great degree of stories copied from mainstream media outlets.
Newsvine, founded in 2006, recently was acquired by MSNBC Interactive, a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal. The majority of its content is copied by its users (“seeded,” in Newsvine parlance) from mainstream media such as the New York Times or MSNBC with users comments appended. Newsvine’s top contributor of actual user-generated news is a penny-stock promoter whose handle is QualityStock.net and whose contributions are press releases about obscure stocks. Interestingly, on a recent day when MSNBC headlined a school-shooting massacre in Finland, the top story on Newsvine was an Associated Press feature about bananas washing onshore in the Netherlands. Newsvine, which carries little advertising, offers banners at various rates, with a CPM on the low end of $10 for a 125X125 unit and on the high end of $20 for a 300X250 unit.
NowPublic.com was founded in 2005 by Michael Tippett, founder of one of Canada’s first Internet companies. It has raised a total of $12.5 million in funding, with $10.6 million of that coming this year from Rho Ventures/Rho Canada, Brightspark, and the Working Opportunity Fund. NowPublic, which claims 131,678 contributors in 4,458 cities, eschews the local news approach in favor of what its CEO, Len Brody, calls “hyper personal” content. Brody also refuses to characterize NowPublic’s contributors as “citizen journalists.” Instead he refers to the site as “crowd powered.” As is the case with Newsvine, most of NowPublic’s user-generated content consists of stories copied from mainstream media and posted on the site with comments by the posters. NowPublic does not pay its contributors. In February it announced a deal with the Associated Press in which it makes its original content available to the AP. It seems likely that it has made little revenue from that deal because most of NowPublic’s original content consists of commentary on news sourced from mainstream outlets such as wire services and newspapers.
Of these three sites, I believe Associated Content has the best business model, although it isn’t really a site for user-contributed news. Much of its content is evergreen stuff (e.g. how to groom a cat, paint a house, etc.) I think Newsvine and NowPublic, almost all of whose “user-generated news” is really stories copied from mainstream media, are in a very risky place because of two developments. One is the imminent launch of Attributor, which will allow content providers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press to track usage of their content on sites like Newsvine and NowPublic and extract a fee or demand its removal. The other is the effort underway by the World Association of Newspapers in association with London-based Rightscom to create a different tool that accomplishes the same objective.
So, in sum, citizen journalism doesn’t seem to be happening on a national level, if you define journalism as reporting news and not merely commenting on it. I’m curious as to how the backers of these sites, many of whom are prominent in the so-called cit-j movement and quite arrogant in their advocacy of it over the so-called mainstream media, will explain away the fact that these sites couldn’t exist without the MSM stories their users cut and paste.