Like turkeys voting for Christmas: the rise of user generated content and the fall of local newspapers

Last month, a local media group offered a cash incentive for whichever of its newspapers could demonstrate it had published the most “user-generated content”. The £9,000 on offer from Newsquest, to be split over the top three centres, is not to be sniffed at, given the generally woeful level of local newspaper editorial pay. But it’s a bit like offering a prize to the turkey who can fatten itself up the most in time for Christmas.

User-generated content, or UGC to give it the clunky initialism being batted with ferocious enthusiasm around media group boardrooms up and down the country, means simply getting your readers to write and illustrate your newspapers and associated websites for you.

The appeal to the owners is obvious; on one level it helps to engage what we used to call readers (and now must refer to as users) with the product. On another, it’s free. And if there’s one thing the bosses of our local papers like, it’s getting something they don’t have to pay for.

On yet another level, it’s another few jaunty steps down the road of not having to employ those troublesome journalists at all. Chris Morley, the Newsquest group co-ordinator at the National Union of Journalists, said that the latest scheme was “a perfect example of the company appearing to do all it can to undermine its journalists in the hope of putting them out of work”.

Newsquest, of course, denied the charge, saying in a rare statement to the trade website HoldTheFrontPage (Newsquest notoriously does not offer comments on trade press stories about the organisation) that “professional journalism rightly continues to be the bedrock of local newspapers, content from the local community complements this, and has done so for years. For the NUJ to say that community content doesn’t have a place in local newspapers is just plain wrong and shows how out of touch they are”.

Except that’s not what the union was saying at all. Why would it? “Community content” not only has a place in local newspapers, it is the very foundation of it, and has been since time immemorial. For Newsquest to offer a prize to the newspaper that publishes the most content provided by its readers betrays a singular and fundamental lack of understanding of its very own business. Everything in newspapers is “user-generated” in some way. The press release from the local company. The council committee agendas. The photographs sent in by a school proud of its sports day achievements. The telephone call from a resident about unemptied bins. The tweet from the local police about a burglary. The family album opened by a grieving mother who has lost her son in a car crash. All of this comes from the community in which the newspaper is embedded.

The crucial point is that it is all filtered through the journalists who have the skills and training to ask the right questions, find the angle, and present the information in a readable way.

And even published content…

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