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Just the Facts, Ma’am.

User-Generated Content: Don't Believe the Hype

Why you should care

Because there’s a clear role for mainstream media and dogs on skateboards ain’t it.

This may come as a surprise to all you Web surfers: User-generated content is not as popular as the hype suggests.

Amateur video is a part of daily news consumption. From winter ice storms across the country to spontaneous dancing and singing in the streets of South Africa at the funeral celebrations of Nelson Mandela, people turn to the Web to get firsthand accounts of events. However new research shows the appeal of user-authored content wanes significantly once respected online news coverage become available.

The appeal of user-authored content wanes significantly once respected online news coverage become available.

Examining what kind of online news captures the attention of the public sheds some light on this. Despite decades of calls to rethink what counts as journalism — from soft news to blogs to user-generated content — what most audiences want are matter-of-fact, straight news reports. Understanding this need is crucial for the sustainability of news organizations.

This is what we found in our analysis of more than 23,000 stories from six major U.S. news sites from 2008 to 2012. When contrasting the prevalence of user-generated content in the most prominent stories on website home pages with their presence in their most viewed stories, an interesting situation emerged: User-generated content was usually not present among the most prominent stories.

Screengrab of CNN website

CNN

Screengrab of Chicago Tribune site

Chicago Tribune

screengrab of Seattle PI

Seattle PI

 

What most audiences want are matter-of-fact, straight news reports.

In fact, on average, only 1 in 100 stories at the top of a site’s homepage were contributions from the public. But the picture of user interest in this type of content is 10 times bleaker. On average, only 1 in 1,000 stories of the most-viewed on these sites were user generated.

In contrast, straight news accounts by journalists were by far the most popular genre of stories preferred by readers. On average, they made up 52 out of 100 of the most viewed stories on the six sites during the five-year period.

So why is there such a contrast between the hype of user-generated news stories and the lack of interest in them?

Audiences gravitate to user-generated content on social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, where they keep connected to their social circles. But they continue to rely on credible reporting sources for news. According to the latest State of the News Media Report, 77 percent of people who first hear about news through email or social media seek out more information on the story via a traditional news site. There is some overlap between social media vs. news media but overall they remain separate information spaces in terms of how most people navigate the world of information.

Is user-generated content doomed as a major component of our news diet? Although it is possible that it will become a more prevalent storytelling alternative for online news in the future, the present level of demand suggests that this is not likely to happen in the short term.

This is not to say that stories contributed by the public do not have a role to play in the new media environment. These news contributions are often popular as initial accounts during major breaking news. But audiences interested in news then gravitate toward fact-based reports delivered by journalists on credible media sites.

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Allowing readers to contribute stories to mainstream news sites will not dramatically increase traffic. Nor will continuing to devote resources to the development and promotion of those applications help to counter media companies’ ongoing economic struggles.

Allowing readers to contribute stories to mainstream news sites will not dramatically increase traffic.

As traditional news media companies finalize their market strategies for 2014 and beyond, one issue looms large: profitability. Print revenue continues to fall, as print advertising revenue is now just 45 percent of what it was in 2006, while the growing online revenue sector goes mostly to non-news organizations. Already in a major growth trajectory, according to the latest forecasts, the digital market will amount to a quarter of global ad spending by 2015.

Ignoring this crucial distinction between the different kinds of information that audiences seek on social media and news sites, and devising a strategy by copying successful ventures like Facebook — instead of seeking to understand what the public wants from different types of sites — might prove a costly waste of resources for news organizations already under financial duress.

The bottom line: News sites should stop imitating other platforms and develop a sustainable business model by doing better what they do well: providing timely, precise and relevant information, produced by news professionals. 

Pablo J. Boczkowski is professor and director of the Program in Media, Technology and Society at Northwestern University and co-author of The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge with Eugenia Mitchelstein, a PhD candidate in the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at NU.

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