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It would be nice if the proprietors of KFTY-TV in Santa Rosa, California — a tiny pimple on the giant media corpus that is Clear Channel Communications — had decided that “citizen journalism” or “crowdsourcing” or “open source journalism” or whatever we’re calling it these days was a truly valuable thing to have, a worthy goal in and of itself for a media entity.

citizen media.jpgUnfortunately, that’s not what happened. What happened is that Clear Channel wanted to cut costs, so it fired all the news reporters at what appears to be a marginal TV station. And now the management are trying citizen journalism as a fallback position. And the guy in charge of the station, whose name is Steve Spendlove (I am not making this up), says that he prefers to think of what he’s doing as “local content harvesting.” Seriously.

This, of course, is very close to what Seth Finkelstein likes to call it, which is “digital sharecropping.” Although the San Francisco Chronicle article says that Spendlove is considering paying contributors, it’s not clear how — or how much. Presumably they will operate on the popular “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” model. And Mr. Spendlove admits that, in order to maintain a certain level of quality control, the station may have to hire more editors.

The Poynter Institute’s site has more, and Dan Kennedy at MediaNation points out that citizen journalism is often a euphemism for getting content for nothing, to boost a content producer’s bottom line. But Dan makes a good point: since the technology is cheap and plentiful, what exactly does a citizen journalist gain by giving their content to a TV station for free, when they can just upload it to YouTube? In the long run, TV stations like KFTY may be sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance.

Not surprisingly, many people think this is a dumb idea squared, including the TV critic from the Miami Herald (not surprising perhaps), as well as this guy and this guy. I think citizen journalism is an interesting idea — but this is not citizen journalism, it’s just financial desperation. Not a great motivator.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

5 Responses to “Is “crowdsourcing” just cost-cutting 2.0?”
  1. I blogged about a similar comment from the The New York Times executive Nicholas Ascheim, who said that
    “The most expensive thing is the journalists themselves. That’s why user-generated content is interesting.”
    Mainstream media will aalways be shackled by its own business model.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bronwen. That’s a very revealing quote.

  3. Business 2.0 did a story about this in December and mentioned how businesses are “crowd-sourcing” at MBA schools by hosting case competitions. It’s really funny how these work: a business provides a school with financial data and a problem; then says “GO!” Later that day, the exec has 10 possible ideas to take back to the board. I think it’s pretty clever in a time when budgets are being slashed and scrutinized. What’s more, if a team of students comes up with a great idea, you may have a recruit at your disposal who really “gets it.” I have never participated in one of those competitions but I know people who say they’re both fun and great networking events.

  4. That’s a great idea. Thanks for the comment, Rich.

  5. What these people don’t get is the contributor/user ratio. A site like Digg has millions of visitors, but only a tiny cadre of about 50 contributors make up the majority of the content.

    This works on universal UGC sites like Wikipedia because the size of the audience for each contribution is unlimited, but on local plays a contributor’s audience is geographically constrained. Thus you would need several contributors for each local segment, and the UGC formula just does not work this way.

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