The news industry is a resilient bunch. Newspapers, in particular, represent some of the United States’s oldest and most respected companies. So far they have weathered storms of significant social, economic and technological change by figuring out how to transform themselves and what they produce. The creation of the telegraph, for example, had doomsayers frothing, but instead newspapers turned a disruptive technology into a tool for better reporting.

During periods of massive change, the death of the newspaper has always been greatly exaggerated. So given the industry’s survival skills, why worry now? One reason might be that the burst of the dot-com bubble during the late ’90’s made many think they had overestimated the impact of the Internet. But in retrospect, the news media might have completely underestimated the influence of this new medium.

A Recipe for Radical Change

The Internet is a unique phenomenon that has delivered not just technological innovations but become a conduit for change, accelerating the rate, diversity and circulation of ideas. It affects nearly everything from culture to competition. It has also altered the economics of media in two important ways. First, it enables nearly limitless distribution of content for little or no cost. Second, it has potentially put everyone on the planet into the media business, including the sources, businesses, governments and communities newspapers cover.

Add other ingredients—easy-to-use, open-source publishing tools, a generation who finds it more natural to instant message someone than to call, a greater demand for niche information, and a rapidly growing shift of advertising dollars to online media—and you have a recipe for radical change in the news media landscape.

Likewise, the list of online competitors is seemingly ever expanding. Search giants, such as Yahoo!, MSN and Google, continue their expansion and encroachment into the news business, siphoning ad dollars and eyeballs from traditional media Web sites. Craigslist, Monster, eBay and countless others have taken a more direct bite out of newspaper’s bread-and-butter, classifieds.

But the greater threat to the longevity of established news media might not be a future that’s already arrived—it might be their inability to do anything about it. Bureaucratic inertia, hierarchical organizational structure, and a legacy mentality have paralyzed many news organizations from developing a meaningful strategy in this dynamic information age. And their real Achilles’ heel might be what made media companies a favorite of Wall Street until recent years—an ability to consistently garner operating profits double that of your average Fortune 500 company. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2005 observed, “If older media sectors focus on profit-taking and stock price, they may do so at the expense of building the new technologies that are vital to the future. There are signs that that may be occurring.”

Some have suggested that such behavior is a sign of an industry in a death spiral. Cost cutting with no investment for the future limits chances of an encore. Only a few exceedingly rare exceptions of online news operations are profitable, such as The Wall Street Journal, but most are still unwilling to engage in a different relationship with their audience.

In October, Bill Kovach, former New York Times editor, Nieman Foundation curator, and journalist for 43 years, told the Society of Professional Journalists Convention and National Journalism Conference that “… too many journalists, especially journalists of my generation, remain in a state of confusion about the challenges of the new media environment and remain dangerously passive about the opportunities presented to traditional journalism by the new communications technology.”

Perhaps it’s this simple: Traditional news media are not yet willing to adopt the principals of the environment in which they find themselves. Consultant and media critic Jeff Jarvis frames it this way: “The Number One lesson of the Internet, whether you’re Howard Dean or a media company or a marketer, is that you have to give up control to gain control.”

Graphic by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis.

The Blogosphere and Shifting Authority

The venerable profession of journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history when, for the first time, its hegemony as gatekeeper of the news is threatened by not just new technology and competitors but by the audience it serves. Citizens everywhere are getting together via the Internet in unprecedented ways to set the agenda for news, to inform each other about hyper-local and global issues, and to create new services in a connected, always-on society. The audience is now an active, important participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information, with or without the help of mainstream news media.

In the past two years, citizen media has grown from a promise to a legitimate presence in today’s media sphere. Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections, and increasingly powerful digital and mobile devices, citizen journalists are contributing many varieties of information and news: first-person, grass-roots reporting, not only in text but with photos, audio and video; commentary and analysis; fact-checking and watchdogging, and filtering and editing the ever-growing mass of information online.

Citizen media is a trend that mainstream news media clearly recognize. With great trepidation and reluctance, mainstream media are beginning to learn how to evolve their business from an authoritarian “top-down” approach to integrate and report on user-generated news, as well as establish ways to collaborate meaningfully with their audience. However, they still have trouble letting go of control.

During Hurricane Katrina, many mainstream news sites like CNN, MSNBC, and The New York Times made an effort to solicit stories, photos and video from citizens. But despite the tremendous amount of content generated by citizens, only a small fraction found its way onto large online news sites, where it was clearly segregated from the main coverage.

The Daily Kos
Major news events such as Hurricane Katrina continue to bring more citizens into the journalistic fray. And with them, a tangible indication that authority is shifting from once trusted institutions to communities or individuals who have discovered how to earn credibility and influence online. Some of the top Weblogs and citizen media Web sites have traffic and online reach that outpace mainstream news media destinations. They include:

  • The Daily Kos, a Weblog that offers political analysis on U.S. current events from a liberal perspective, averages more than 700,000 visits per day.
  • Technorati, the real-time search engine that tracks the blogosphere, measures linking behavior as a proxy for attention and influence. According to their August 2005 State of the Blogosphere report, Glenn Reynolds’ political and current events Weblog, Instapundit, has more authority in the blogosphere (based on inbound links) than the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio [NPR].
  • The Wikipedia phenomenon has taken off. Wikipedia is the international, free content, collaboratively written and edited encyclopedia launched in 2001. According to Alexa, Internet users are twice as likely to visit Wikipedia as The New York Times. Since 2003, it has grown from 200,000 articles to amass more than 800,000 articles in English as well as more than one million articles in 100 other languages. Overall, approximately 55,000 Wikipedians are writing more than 4,500 articles per month. Wikipedia now has 4.5 times the number of articles and nearly 2.5 times as many words as Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Weblogs are now an established, though rapidly expanding, force in news and marketing. They will continue to disrupt and challenge with a staggering pace of growth and influence. According to Technorati, the number of Weblogs is doubling every five months. The blogosphere is now over 30 times as big as it was three years ago, with approximately 70,000 new Weblogs created daily. As of October 2005, Technorati was tracking 20.1 million Weblogs. However, some reports estimate the number of Weblogs created worldwide as being between 50 and 100 million. According to Forrester Research, 10 percent of online consumers are reading blogs once a week or more.

What has emerged in this new media ecosystem is a stark contrast between the entrenched forces of big media doing what it knows and the rest of the Internet informing itself—reporting, discussing and vetting the news.

Source: Based in part on “Blogosphere: The Emerging Media Ecosystem” by John Hiler, Microcontent News. Graphic by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis.

New Media Forms Emerge

“Reconnecting With the Audience”
– Clyde H. Bentley
In the ever-evolving citizen media world, new community Web sites designed to fill the gaps or augment the coverage of local and national media have begun to carve out a delicate but important niche in both rural and urban communities. These so-called “hyper-local” sites represent a fertile ground where citizens contribute to the unique and specific information needs of the community. These sites look to engage citizens not only as readers but also as coproducers and see themselves as facilitators to the community.

Talking with publishers and readers of sites such as Baristanet, iBrattleboro, MyMissourian, and The Northwest Voice, it is becoming clear that these efforts are giving a new identity to the communities they serve.
Here’s what the most successful citizen media efforts have learned:

  • Most citizens don’t want to be journalists but do want to contribute in small and meaningful ways. Citizens are interested in participating and contributing to subjects that traditional news outlets ignore or do not often cover. Clyde Bentley, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, notes, “The main difference between traditional journalism and citizen journalism is that traditional journalists are sent out to cover things they don’t really care about; in other words, the next city council meeting isn’t going to make or break their lives. But a citizen journalist is not out to cover something, but to share it. For them, they want to tell everybody about their passion.”
  • It’s easy to underestimate what it takes to be successful in an online community. It’s more than Web sites and tools. Communities will not survive on the “Build it and they will come” ethos. They require constant attention, involved leadership and, most important, nurturing.
  • Advertising revenues suggest that such ventures could become a small but viable business
  • All are seeking to add greater interactivity. More powerful tools and platforms (i.e. Google Maps) will provide engines for citizen media innovation such as “public service hacks” like those found on,, and the Katrina Information Map.

The democratization of media has leveled the competitive landscape and forced dramatic change in the news business. Collaboration is the driving force behind the explosion of citizen media, with new forms being regularly blazed by passionate, motivated individuals.

The Wikipedia project has spawned more open-source, collaboratively written projects. Wikibooks is an attempt to create a comprehensive curriculum of free textbooks and manuals. It has more than 11,000 titles so far. Wikinews aims to “create a diverse environment where citizen journalists can independently report the news on a wide variety of current events.” In its first eight months, it accumulated more than 2,000 articles. RSS, the XML-based technology used to syndicate headlines and other information, was the province of Weblogs in 2003. Now it’s a fixture of mainstream media Web sites. As well, RSS gave birth to a new form of participatory media—podcasting.

Podcasting, the creation and distribution of audio recording online, went from the fringe to the mainstream in about 18 months. In its infancy, podcasts were produced by the same folks writing most Weblogs, the everyday citizen. Then Apple integrated podcasting into its popular iTunes software, with CEO Steve Jobs calling it “a TiVo for radio: you can download radio shows and listen to them on your computer or put them on your iPod anytime you want.” Now everyone from major radio and TV news outlets (CNN, NPR, ABC), to newspapers and magazines (The Denver Post, The Philadelphia Daily News, Forbes), to book publishers such as Simon & Schuster, is experimenting with podcasting.

Podcasts show that amateurs can gain mindshare in a new medium as, or more effectively than, pros. In less than a year, the popular comedy podcast, “The Dawn and Drew Show,” hosted by a husband and wife who describe themselves as “two ex-gutter punks who fell in love, bought a farm in Wisconsin, and share their dirty secrets,” has attracted an audience of more than 200,000 listeners. Their podcast is now simulcast on Sirius satellite radio.

Photo-sharing Web sites such as Flickr, acquired by Yahoo! in March 2005, are becoming hubs for citizen photojournalists. In a June 2005 report by, a Flickr spokesman said the service has 775,000 registered users and hosts 19.5 million photos, with growth of about 30 percent monthly in users and 50 percent monthly in photos. Since Hurricane Katrina, more than 11,500 images related to it were uploaded and shared. Even mainstream news sites such as the BBC have begun to use images from Flickr users to accompany their news stories.

The Future

Citizen journalism continues to be an evolving and frustrating concept for mainstream media. It offers the tantalizing idea of an active and engaged democracy better informing itself. It also can represent an evolving and reckless endeavor that might result in just the opposite. Yet citizen media is a world that is starting to mature and develop in interesting ways, with or without the involvement of the mainstream media. Proponents of citizen media point to the successful open-source software movement, which is mature by comparison, saying it shows the promise of the kinds of innovation that communities can produce.

Like the early days of the Internet, there is a palpable optimism driving experimentation and the idea that any effort could become the next big thing. Here are some emerging changes we see in the media landscape:

  • Successful news sites will discover the right mix of community, content, commerce and tools. There is tremendous opportunity to leverage the power of the many, and mainstream media will more tightly integrate citizen content with the core news offerings. Some media will begin to pay for the best citizen contributions.
  • The mobile Internet will proliferate (Nokia estimates two billion cell-phone subscribers worldwide by 2006) and bring about more dramatic change in how news is covered.
  • Citizens will demand greater transparency in reporting. As a result, more professional journalists will begin to blog, providing them a means to find a more authentic voice with their audience—a conversation.
  • Authority will continue to shift from once trusted institutions to communities or individuals who have earned credibility though hard-won public discourse and will directly impact news media.
  • Journalism education, like other institutions, has been slow to change. In the past year, change has begun and will continue to happen dramatically in the next five years. As well, expect media organizations to take a leadership role in educating its audience in becoming better news creators, such as the BCC has done with their free broadcast and new media online training and the forthcoming BBC College of Journalism.

“The BBC’s College of Journalism”
Citizen media represents not the end of journalism or news media companies but a shift in where value is being created. In the traditional broadcast model, value was created solely by the newspaper or TV station. In the future, more of the value will come from creating an infrastructure for citizen participation and nurturing trusted communities.

Google understands how powerful and profitable building infrastructure but not the end product can be. Google Maps, for example, offers an easy way to add sophisticated maps customized with whatever data and designed for whatever purpose on any Web site. Google AdSense is another variation that provides an easy means for people to make money from the traffic on their site without requiring too much control on how or where the ads must be placed. eBay earned $1.1 billion in the third quarter of 2005, yet it builds no products or houses any inventory. Instead it has created value by enabling a trusted community to transact in a safe marketplace. Both eBay and Google show that there is great value to be created if you are willing to embrace a different role in the value creation process.

Media companies and those starting citizen journalism endeavors need to understand that media are becoming more social entities. As in any social environment, there are participants who serve different roles in the creation, consumption, sharing and transformation. This is giving rise to information ecosystems, such as the blogosphere, which we are just starting to recognize and understand.

“Citizen Journalism and the BBC”
– Richard Sambrook
“Any media organization only exists on the quality and depth of its relationship with the public,” says Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC World Service and Global News division. “You’ve got to have a healthy and strong relationship for people to come to you. Technology is changing that relationship fundamentally.” Sambrook says the BBC’s role is shifting from broadcaster and mediator to facilitator, enabler and teacher. “We don’t own the news anymore. Our job is to make connections with and between different audiences,” he said.

With media companies still generating respectable returns on investment, the smart money will be on those organizations like the BBC that can integrate successful citizen journalism experiments supported by better staff training, equipment and practices that encourage reporters and editors to collaborate with their audience.

This display illustrates three ways in which media connect with people. Graphic by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis.

View larger image »

Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis are the coauthors of “We Media: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information,” a 2003 research report on the emergence of participatory journalism. An update to the report, commissioned by The Media Center and The American Press Institute, will be released online in January 2006. This article is adapted from the We Media 2.0 Executive Summary written for The Media Center. The report can be downloaded at

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment