User generated content: is it worth it?

The BBC College of Journalism just published the papers from a conference on the Future of Journalism (pdf). I can’t pretend to have read them all, however, I have read Dealing with User-Generated Content: is it Worth it? by Paul Hambleton, the Executive Producer of Television Newsgathering at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (starts p.32 – note to BBC, PDF is not the future of journalism).

The piece is frank, Paul’s position is that they’re still working out how best to do this:

“we still struggle to understand the
intersection point between our audience, our journalism, and their
feedback. ”

And that has to be right. We’re still pretty early on in this mass Internet participation stuff, and for every Wikipedia, there have been a thousand UGC projects that attracted a handful of users before they were shut down. And like Paul I can’t pretend that I have a magical answer to all this user generated content stuff either, however, I’ve worked on a number of user generated content projects over the years and I do know that if the addition of user generated content is done as a wholly cynical exercise to increase page impressions then it usually doesn’t end well, however, if it’s used to engage with readers/users in an authentic way, and managed correctly it’s hugely powerful.

And it’s engagement that’s the key. Media owners need to engage in the dialogue, they need to respond to people, to help manage that conversation beyond simply publishing something. A point that everyone’s favourite VC, Fred Wilson, makes in this recent post about managing conversations and comments.

Paul Hambleton concludes that UGC is worth it (I had hoped the paper would contain some kind of ROI model), but it needs some working out. I agree with him, however, I think, like Fred Wilson suggests, journalists and other content producers need to engage more with their audiences, manage the conversation, like people have been doing on the BBSs and IRC, etc, since the early days of Usenet, etc.

I know a lot of journalists who’d baulk at this suggestion, however, it’s worth noting that knowing your audience is no bad thing, like Stephen Fry and his army of Twitter followers.

Anyway, if you feel like leaving your comments below, I promise to respond.

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