It’s Almost Time to Pay Up for Citizen Journalism

We’re in the very early days of citizen journalism
(or grassroots media, or we media, or whatever you choose to call it).
Everyday people are taking photos of and writing about their
experiences in natural disasters and other news events, then submitting
them to news organizations, websites, and blogs. And most often,
they’re not getting paid for it.

Oh, sure, there are psychic rewards. The hurricane survivor who
submits a photograph to MSNBC.com or a text account of his personal
experience to BBC News gets public exposure and even maybe a bit of
temporary “fame.” The community member who submits an analysis of a
local zoning proposal to Backfence.com’s Reston (Virginia) citizen-news site gets some added community credibility, as fellow citizens perhaps perceive her as an expert.

But are exposure and doing it “for the good of the community” enough
to motivate citizen journalists over the long term? Or will it take
some form of compensation for quality citizen journalism to appear?

Some early indicators point to the latter. While up till this point
most “citJ” proprietors have benefited from a willingness of the public
to submit content for no compensation other than exposure, a handful of
new ventures are arising that attempt to change that.

While most citJ content will remain uncompensated — because its
quality isn’t high enough to get anyone to pay for it — the best of it
will have a price tag. And publishers may have to adapt to paying for
it.

The history of paying citizen reporters

Paying for citizen journalists’ work isn’t unprecedented. One of the earliest citJ websites, South Korea’s Ohmynews.com,
long has paid its contributing writers and photographers for good work.
Contributors are paid about US$2 if their story makes it onto the site,
$10 if the story is chosen to lead a section, and $20 if it becomes a
top story for the overall site. (There’s also a tipping system, where
Ohmynews readers can give money to an author in recognition of an
outstanding piece of work. The site boasts of one citizen reporter — a
professor — who earned more than $30,000 during one week, but that’s
clearly an anomaly.)

Such low payment rates wouldn’t impress professional writers, of
course, but they appear to help entice some citizen reporters to submit
interesting material. Ohmynews editors review, copyedit, and fact check
citizen submissions, so there’s incentive for contributors to do a good
job in order to get good placement on the site, as well as a little
extra cash.

But in the U.S., citizen-journalist compensation hasn’t caught on.
(Perhaps that’s in part because U.S. citJ initiatives are having
trouble enough figuring out a business model without the added expense
of paying for citizen content.) If you spend some time perusing other citJ websites, you’ll find that compensation is not in the playbook.

Most citJ websites seek submissions for free. At Backfence.com, a
venture capital-backed independent citJ initiative co-founded by former
Washingtonpost.com journalist Mark Potts, there are no plans to offer
compensation to people who submit news items to the company’s network
of local community-news sites (at this writing, all in northern
Virginia and suburban Washington, D.C.). Backfence’s only enticement
was a free t-shirt when someone made a first post to the website — a
program since discontinued.

“People like being able to show that they know something about a
topic and they like to be recognized for sharing that knowledge with
the community,” says Potts. “Historically, that’s motivation enough.”

Citizen-journalism expert Amy Gahran, who co-writes a blog about the topic called IReporter.org,
concurs: “Paying citizen journalists may help, but honestly I don’t
think it’s the ultimate answer. Nor do I think it’s feasible given the
fact that news organizations have been generally cutting budgets and
staff for years.”

I greatly respect the work of both Potts and Gahran, but I think
they’ll be proved wrong in time. Listen to the words of Chris Willis,
co-author of one of the first comprehensive examinations of citizen
journalism, the “We Media
report: “To get the best content, I do believe that people will have to
be compensated. News companies have had a chance to get a lot of
participation for free, but as blog networks begin to get bought up by
the likes of AOL, the New York Times, or News Corp., a value
for influential online voices is being set. That’s a genie that won’t
be going back into the bottle anytime soon.”

Another citJ guru, Northwestern University journalism professor and
citJ advisor Rich Gordon, suggests that news organizations benefiting
from citizen contributions be ready to open their checkbooks
selectively. “When a site discovers an authentic voice — someone who
has something to say and says it well — it makes sense to offer them
some kind of compensation to contribute something regularly,” he says.

The first volley: Paying for photos

It’s likely that the first citizen content that news publishers will
start having to pay for will be the best news photographs. News
websites have benefited considerably in the last year from witnesses to
big news events (the Asian tsunami, several hurricanes, the London
subway bombings, etc.) contributing powerful images — digital still
photos and cell-phone video — which have been published typically with
no compensation to the amateur photographers.

BBC News has perhaps gone furthest, actively seeking out witness
content and incorporating it into its news products. With the wave of
compelling witness photos and videos from last summer’s London
bombings, BBC News not only used that content prominently on its
website, it also showed it up front on TV broadcasts. In other words,
the work of citizen reporters has turned out to be important in the
overall news picture.

(Nevertheless, BBC News apparently hopes not to pony up. BBC News website editor Pete Clifton was quoted
in a BBC story recently as saying: “The BBC News site does not
anticipate paying for these contributions. My feeling is that the vast
majority of people simply want to join in our newsgathering process and
nobody has been talking in terms of making money when contacting us.”)

But now, if you’re a witness to a significant news event and you
happen to snap a good photo of it, there are alternatives to simply
handing it over to a news outlet for the public good. Three photo
agencies have debuted in recent weeks that attempt to gather the best
of citizen news photography and then market it to traditional news
organizations: Scoopt (U.K.), Spy Media (U.S.), and Cell Journalist (U.S.).

Scoopt focuses just on citizen news photography, and takes a
personal approach to selling to traditional media. The site’s editors
accept submissions of newsworthy citizen photos, grab exclusive rights
to saleable images, then make calls to editors who they think might be
interested in buying an exclusive photograph. Founder Kyle MacRae,
who’s made only a handful of citizen-photo sales to U.K. publishers
since Scoopt debuted this summer (splitting the fee 50/50 with the
photographers), says his service was founded on “the principle that if
you take a picture that’s worth publishing, you should get paid for it
whether you’re a professional or a member of the public.”

What kind of money are we talking about here? Said MacRae after
making his first three citizen news photo sales: “I can’t reveal prices
but I can assure you — hand on heart — that we achieved professional
rates and that we were very pleased with both the video (of a commuter-train fire) and The Sun picture (of British model Jodie Kidd’s wedding) sales.”

Cell Journalist takes a slightly more automated approach. Anyone who
has a cell-phone news photograph can submit it to the service, and
whenever it’s used get paid $50 per use. Media subscribers to the
service pay a monthly fee to have access to any number of the citizen
photos for publication. The company’s pitch is that a really strong
citizen news photo could get used by multiple media outlets; ergo, the
photographer can potentially get a decent payout.

Spy Media also is designed on an automated model, with members
submitting photos (for a small uploading fee, after a free trial
period) and media-company editors (or anyone, for that matter) using
the site to purchase rights to publish them. Spy is more of an open
marketplace, since photographers are allowed to set their own pricing
and licensing terms; the company takes a 35-percent cut of all sales.

Spy is interesting for a couple other reasons. First, the service
doesn’t focus exclusively on citizen photographers. Professionals also
can use the service; an example might be where a photojournalist would
sell his best shots of a news event to traditional photo agencies, then
post leftovers for licensing on Spy Media’s website marketplace. And
while Spy Media is currently pitching itself as a photo marketplace,
president Bryan Quinn says it also will accept citizen news articles.

Quinn, who started the company with his father, Tom Quinn, a former president of Novell,
says he doesn’t think most citizen photographers yet see the value in
their photos, and that’s reinforced for now by news organizations all
wanting citizen news photos for free. But when people figure out that
they have the opportunity to make money, he says, there will be no more
submitting quality news images gratis.

So how’s this citizen-photo business going? It’s too soon to tell;
all three companies mentioned above launched within the last few
months. Nevertheless, I think their existence is a harbinger of things
to come with citizens media.

Want money? It better be good

What we’ve been talking about here, of course, is the very best of
citizen reporting. The citizen photos taken at the county fair won’t be
worth anything to a publisher. But the eyewitness photos or personal
account of a citizen at the scene of a political assassination, for
example, will be a hot property that the witness would be foolish to
give away.

As Tom Curley, president of the Associated Press, said at the recent We Media conference,
traditional media have been utilizing citizen journalists for decades.
Some of the most famous news photos of our time were taken not by
professional photojournalists but by people who just happened to be at
the right place at the right time, camera in hand. Now, the ubiquity of
digital cameras and photo cell phones means more and more people will
be on the scene at the right time — when journalists aren’t — so
there is today a larger pool of important citizen news photographs.

Should news organizations assume that public generosity will
continue to provide them with important citizen/eyewitness news
coverage? I’d say that would be naive. The current period of
undervalued (free) citizen content is likely to come to a close when it
comes to the top-quality level of that content.

So here are some suggestions for news companies:

  • Monitor the new news agencies that are starting to trade in citizen content.
    In time, the content from these entities could be an important
    component in your overall news content stream, supplementing what you
    get from traditional wire services and agencies. The nice thing about
    such services is that they can be expected to do some of the vetting of
    citizen content, which can save you time in determining its
    authenticity. That’s something worth paying for, as it eases your
    burden.

  • When a big story breaks, be prepared to pay. A hard policy
    of “we never pay for citizen news submissions” can come back to bite
    you when a major news story hits and a witness has a killer photo or
    video. The marketplace will provide the amateur photographer other
    avenues for easily selling his content elsewhere.

  • Identify your best citizen contributors and figure out how to compensate them.
    As Ohmynews’ experience points out, paying citizen reporters can be
    highly motivating to people who don’t write and report for a living. To
    get paid for something that’s an enjoyable hobby can keep the
    enthusiasm brimming. Also, the prospect of being paid only when your
    work is judged by professionals as superior can encourage better
    quality of citizen submissions. And as Ohmynews demonstrates, the
    amount of money awarded doesn’t have to be great.

  • Consider non-cash compensation. I just don’t buy the notion
    that “people simply want to join in the newsgathering process” and that
    that sentiment will continue. For a citJ site to attract quality
    submissions, I think that there need to be some enticements. Obviously,
    money is nice, but think outside the cash box: t-shirts, mugs, free
    subscriptions, etc.

  • Run contests and award the best submissions. This is a great
    way to get quality content for specific assignments. A citJ site might
    announce a contest for the best photo taken when the president pays a
    visit, or best celebrity sighting, or best citizen editorial about a
    civic proposal. Or even a daily prize for best overall citizen
    contribution might work for encouraging everyone who participates to
    put forth their best effort.

  • Link content placement and payment. To avoid having a citJ
    site that’s full of community groups’ press releases and dull content,
    financial enticements can go a long way. Add to the enticement by
    rewarding the best submissions — as determined by staff editors — top
    placement on the homepage and section pages.
  • Work hard on finding a viable citJ business model. Obviously, the prospect of having to pay for some (not all)
    citizen submissions makes it more difficult to create a viable and
    profitable citJ enterprise or spin-off website. I’m planning to write a
    follow-up piece to this article on citJ business models, and hope to
    offer some suggestions that will support paying citizen journalists
    when necessary. So stay tuned.

CORRECTION: This article
was updated to reflect that Backfence.com ended its program to give
first-time content contributors a free t-shirt.

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