A Research Report from the Reynolds Journalism Institute
Reported by Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.
With local online citizen journalism emerging as a new model for community news coverage, who are the owners of grassroots journalism sites and what are their motivations? A new University of Missouri School of Journalism study based on interviews with owners of citizen-journalism sites found that the owners highly valued democratic principles such as giving citizens a voice and helping their communities, and they felt they were successful in many ways at doing so. At the same time, most owners reported they were not highly interested in the business side of their operations nor did they report that they were particularly successful in that area.
The report, Who Is Creating Local Citizen Journalism News and Blog Sites and Why? Interviews with 91 Site Owners, was authored by Esther Thorson, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, School of Journalism, University of Missouri; Margaret Duffy, Associate Professor, School of Journalism, University of Missouri; and Ken Fleming, Director of the Center for Advanced Social Research, School of Journalism, University of Missouri. Researchers from the Center for Advanced Social Research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism conducted phone interviews with owners of 91 sites in 46 small, medium, and large U.S. cities.
Citizen journalist motivations
The citizen journalists interviewed reported that their two highest motivations for establishing their sites were to provide community information and to offer alternatives to existing media. Other motivations included strengthening community ties, fostering citizen sharing and improving the quality of life in their communities. Making money held by far the lowest importance.
The site owners gave themselves high marks for fulfilling their mission, driving traffic to their site, and providing quality news on important community topics, particularly politics and government. They said they felt moderately successful in covering local environmental issues, schools, and crime. They rated themselves least successful at generating revenue. Those surveyed hold idealistic civic views. They valued most highly giving universal access to information and fostering digital literacy. They also said their sites allowed them to report accurately and fairly about their communities, thus helping communities decide the best course of action.
In terms of the background of citizen-journalism site owners, 66 percent had worked as paid journalists prior to establishing their sites, with an average of 14.3 years’ experience. Four out of five were male. A third had paid staff, with the average number of paid staffers at 13. Two-thirds of their sites were blog sites, offering primarily opinion but little news.
Owners using their own money
When it comes to financing their sites, nearly half the owners indicated they were using their own money to pay for operations. About half said they received some advertising revenue, and fewer reported getting donations or private funding from outside organizations. Only 30 percent of the owners said they could support themselves based on their site’s revenues.
Even so, most site owners seemed less than eager to get help with their business models. They expressed only mild interest in learning ways to get more traffic and attract more volunteers, and even less interest in getting technological help, gaining more expertise about online advertising, or getting help from traditional journalists.
“It’s surprising that they were so uninterested getting help increasing revenues given they rated their success with revenues quite low,” the authors noted.
Not likely to replace legacy journalism
The report suggested that these citizen sites are unlikely to replace legacy news sites with professionally employed journalists. “Although these site owners were clearly dedicated to their work, they operate narrowly and with no clear way of making a business of what they do. These results cannot be viewed as encouraging for the power of citizen journalism to replace legacy journalism,” the authors concluded.
The authors concluded that most citizen sites seem to fit a “hobby model.” Citizen owners operate their sites because they find the work fulfilling, not because they are trying to make money. Their motivations appear to spring from the desire to contribute to their communities and offer important information. This suggests that, unlike most commercial legacy sites, longer-term sustainability of citizen sites may depend more on whether the owners continue to think what they are doing is important, rather than on whether their ventures are financially profitable.
The report also noted that citizen site owners place a high value on the need for news literacy among citizens. Given that, the report suggested that citizen journalists potentially may be strong supporters of literacy efforts undertaken by libraries, schools and other programs that help individuals understand news values and to navigate cyberspace. The study was conducted by Esther Thorson, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, School of Journalism, University of Missouri; Margaret Duffy, Associate Professor, School of Journalism, University of Missouri.
The study was conducted by Esther Thorson, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, School of Journalism, University of Missouri; Margaret Duffy, Associate Professor, School of Journalism, University of Missouri.