J-Lab Survey: Citizen Journalists in for Long Haul

In the wake of the hard knocks reported by community journalism sites such as Backfence, and social review sites such as Judy’s Book and Insider Pages, it seems to be a good time to reassess the category, starting with a survey of what the 500+ sites are actually doing.

The University of Maryland’s J-Lab has done just that. With financing from the Ford Foundation, it has thrown 60 questions at 191 citizen journalism participants. The survey follows up on more in-depth interviews among 31 sites earlier in the year.

It’s a great project, and J-Lab did a great job  even though no social review sites appear to have been included in the mix. This probably reflects the self-centered myopia of the journalism community. Still, there is plenty of meat to ponder here. This is what the survey found.

1: Do the hyper-localites think they serve a real purpose? Eight-two percent said they provide local information “not found elsewhere.” Seventy-seven percent said the sites supplement “what local media can provide.” Seventy-four percent said the sites “build connections to the community.”

2: Do they think they impact their communities? Eighty-two percent said they provided opportunities for dialogue. Sixty-one percent said they “watchdogged” local government. Thirty-nine percent said they helped the community solve problems. Twenty-seven percent said they increased voter turnout. Seventeen percent said they increased the number of candidates running for office.

3: Do they think they are directly competitive with local media? Forty-five percent said they compete with local dailies. Forty-four percent said they mix it up with their local weeklies. But according to J-Lab, “others say the competition is every other web offering  from neighborhood listservs (21 percent) to social networking favorites that define community as the world.”

4: Do the sites think they are “successful” enough to stick it out? Of the 110 respondents answering J-Lab’s question, 73 percent said they were already successful, profits or not. Fifty-one percent said that continued operation of their site did not require revenues. Asked how long they would stick with their efforts, “82 percent of the 139 respondents bypassed ‘1,’ ‘2’ or ‘3’ to ‘4 years’ and instead assert that they were in the game ‘indefinitely.’ ”

My own sense, readers know too well, is that citizen journalism is struggling to gain footholds; that most citizen journalists are “me” journalists; and that the citizen journalism community is a little delusional about what is successful and how best to serve communities. With these sites, we’re definitely not seeing the disruptive equivalent of a Craigslist on classifieds.

But then, there are notable exceptions, like Westportnow and Baristanet that make me think there is a purpose in citizens’ journalism. And there’s also a slew of promising, newfangled community models that are more Web 2.0 oriented (i.e., effectively using blogging, maps, calendars and photos) and driving their locales differently from the newspaper of yore. These include Hyperlocalmedia (i.e., BuffaloRising) and Pegasus News in Dallas. Placeblogger is also really interesting, and I think it will have an impact.

Getting past the use of technology, what all the good ones have in common is good journalism, good conversations and realistic aspirations. In fact, I learned from the J-Lab report that WestportNow founder Gordon Joseloff, a retired CBS correspondent who understands what makes a good story, is planning to franchise his lean-and-mean model to other “similarly demographically impressive communities” and “find someone like (him) who will edit it professionally and wants to make a business of it.” But first, the report notes, Joseloff needs to move the site into the black; this year he hired the site’s first ad salesperson.

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