Delving into the relationship between user generated content (UGC) and journalism for this post has got me thinking about "Transformers."
See, before the internet and social media, UGC took a familiar and simple form -- but in the last decade or so, it has turned into something so much bigger.
Today, the public can contribute information to the news cycle in a variety of ways -- blogs, videos, tweets, or even Snapchat stories.
We're going to take a look at what UGC is and three ways it continues to transform the relationship between newsrooms and their audiences.
What is User Generated Content?
User generated content is any content (photos, videos, audio, text, etc.) provided by members of the public. This content can be provided to news organizations directly or posted online via social media.
UGC isn't a new concept -- the public has contributed to the news since the days of writing letters to the editor. It's technology that has changed what that contribution looks like.
For example, The BBC used emails, texts, photos, and videos from the public when covering the London bombings that took place on July 7, 2005. As a result, it was able to report the locations of each attack only a half hour after the bombs had gone off.
More recently, U.S. journalists used UGC to help gather information during the Las Vegas concert shooting in 2017. According to Reuters, the content shared by members of the public during the attack allowed journalists to piece together the story in real time.
User generated content is a big part of the news gathering process. According to a study in Digital Journalism, being able to find and verify UGC are essential skills journalists need to learn and maintain.
Why UGC Matters
Below, we've broken down three ways user generated content influences the relationship between newsrooms and their audiences.
1. It helps create and power stories that are meaningful to the public.
UGC allows journalists to see the real world through the public's eyes. If done right, the resulting stories have the potential to connect with real people in a way that other content doesn't.
In "Why The Times Crowdsources Reporting," Katie Van Syckle writes about stories published by The NYT that were inspired by and created out of UGC.
"Over the last five years, Times editors estimate, they have put out nearly 600 calls inviting readers to share their stories this way," she writes.
She gives the example of a call that The Times put out during the teachers strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma, asking teachers to tell them what life was like in their classrooms.
The resulting story impacted readers, inspiring donations and bringing a far-away topic a little closer to home.
2. It promotes a sense of community between news organizations and readers.
These kinds of stories and "calls" for UGC establish a community between news organizations and their audiences. In an age of media distrust and fake news, establishing this kind of community could really make a difference for newsrooms.
In Neiman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2019, Lauren Katz, a senior engagement manager at Vox, writes, "Building connections between reporters and audiences before, during, and after the reporting process will benefit journalism in the long run, and that realization will become a focus throughout newsrooms next year."
The idea isn't new, she suggests, but now newsrooms are seeing community as a valuable way to stay relevant in the industry.
"What’s different now," she writes, "is an understanding of why paying attention to community spaces is crucial to the health of the industry: cultivating trust and loyalty."
3. It fosters loyalty between the newsroom and its audience.
Reporting relevant and community-conscious stories by using UGC helps newsrooms to keep readers coming back.
“The better you think about how you work with your audience to capture the content that you can add context to, the more likely they are to come to you rather than post it to a platform, or send it to a competitor,” said Fergus Bell, former AP editor for social media and user-generated content, in an interview with International Journalists Network.
This is why many news organizations have established departments and tools to handle UGC. The better they are able to handle this content, the more likely that the public will come to them.
The use and importance of UGC will continue to grow as technology advances.
While journalists need to use caution when verifying user generated content, it's important to realize what an asset it is -- not only for the news gathering process, but for the health and vitality of news organizations as a whole.