Saturday, February 20, 2010

AOL Revisits the Citizen Shovelware concept with (and why it won't work)

Some time back I wrote a scathing post about "citizen shovelware": that's when an "if you build it, they will come" philosophy is applied to the idea of citizen journalism, and some wise corporate dude puts up a site and expects the citizenry to populate it. It appears now that AOL is taking on the idea of citizen shovelware as it plans to expand to "hundreds" of sites, as was reported yesterday in Silicon Alley Business Insider.

As the more-or-less press release-y report notes, there are going to be bunches and bunches of empty pages put into Patch for local, probably citizen-generated, journalism--but where's the journalism going to come from? Are they going to pick up local blog feeds (as did?) and then are they going to ask the local bloggers if they can do this? or are they just going to scrape and aggregate the content (as did?) Are they going to then simply expect people to use their site because it's too-cool-for-school? or are they going to take the press releases and public announcements and other minutia from communities, slap the "citizen journalism" label on it, shove it into their CMS, and call their site a form of citizen journalism??

And I can't believe that the internal communication quoted in the SAI story said that AOL is planning to be "To be leaders in one of the most promising 'white spaces' on the Internet."

Honestly, given the ways in which people use social networking sites to communicate with one another and pass around hyperlocal news in the form of tweets and status updates, and given how hyperlocal sites are starting to pop up more frequently (mostly because of the downsizing of journalists and other news producers who actually liked their jobs and want to keep doing them) I have a hard time believing that this "white space" is going to get populated at all....

Oh, but there's a strategy! Recruit journalism grad students!! I wonder what the pay's going to be? Wonder how the grad students are going do the reporting, or if they're going to go around to Chamber of Commerce and BNI meetings to try to recruit local businesspeople? are they going to try to find the "superstars"--as did in the early days of their online news sites (going way, way back to about 2004...long history, won't get into it.)

The thing about hyperlocal journalism is that it seems to grow best when people who are rooted in the communities get the projects going. I've been watching this with both the Springfield Intruder and the new Northampton Media. I know both Bill Dusty of the Intruder and Mary Serreze of No'Media, and know their deep connections to their respective communities. One doesn't grow those kinds of connections by showing up one day and announcing that you're going to be building a local news site.

The thing that gets me about all these corporate sites getting into the local journalism space and some of the folks who write so glowingly about how corporate projects might work,is that they don't know too many people who've actually put together local sites, esp. local sites in SmallTown USA. Life in SmallTown is very different from life in or near large urban areas. There's less of an acceptance of "outsiders"--that doesn't mean that it's like the movie Deliverance. What it means (if you've never lived in a small town) is that people don't warm up to you because you have a bright idea to fix their local news problems...

But when it comes to the folks that are indeed connected--well, they are really, really connected. And I don't envision too many of them working to prop up corporate run sites--or at least for all that long. Corporate owned news organizations, whether online or not, are seen as something that should be toppled. The reasons for that vary as much as the people who start the sites and the regions where they are started. But corporate news in small towns is seen as inept and slanted. Oftentimes it is. People who start local journalism sites are looking for fresh, new, independent perspectives. They're not looking for a corporate home to host their work, because that would represent another level of "the man..."

Sure, some local businessfolks might be persuaded to contribute to a new corporate site--as some of the local businessfolks have done at they don't stay over the long haul. Their commitments are more to their businesses, and if the citizen journalism interferes with their business, they have to decide which is more important.

Another aspect of having businessfolks as citizen journalists is that use might their citizen columns to, essentially, promote their businesses rather than actually report. A citizen column in a local newspaper may be seen as a form of business promotion rather than as a service to their fellow citizens. So, readers then get what might be called "sponsored content" rather than news.

Apparently, my sentiment is that AOL's idea is wrongheadded, and whether or not it has the Patch label isn't going to make a difference. I'm not surprised that they think this--one of Patch's advisors (advisory-only role) has been Jeff Jarvis, who designed Advance's pioneering "citizen" blogging efforts, and Jeff's had lots and lots to say over the years about citizens helping corporations to keep afloat (a point he and I vehemently disagree on.) Sure, there are a few citizens who want to help the newspaper stay afloat, but the ones who have the real commitment to reporting in their regions aren't going to be contributing to corporate sites: at least that's what I've seen here in Western Mass. The citizens are apt to want to topple the ailing newspapers. The sentiment is that the newspapers have fallen down on their jobs: they do not report accurately, and that there is bias in some of the reporting on important community issues. There is a feeling that the newspaper is disconnected from the people, and might be serving other interests.

And why should one corporate entity replace another in a local region? Because they can make money because they are a corporation? That's not necessarily true. I've seen a number of independent projects make good money. (but that's a topic I won't get into in depth here--that's another post....)

One of the tactics that corporate sites have taken with folks who want to start community sites is to tell them that their sites won't get found in search. Well, there's a grain of truth in that: Google's local search hasn't been all that good. Yet that was before the advent of social networking sites--where links are passed around quicker than a joint at a concert in the 1970's. And let's not forget that Google's actually working on improving geo-located search as it improves real-time search.

More than what Google's doing is what people are going to do on social sites--traffic will happen for local sites because links are posted and passed around among the people who need to read them. Local sites can also take advantage of syndication through e-readers: which they can do independently! Amazon's Kindle welcomes them, with just a working RSS feed! So the avenues for getting out there are not limited to Google search.

So, perhaps AOL should think a little further about putting up all that white space, as much as they think about what their brand, and what the Patch brand, might represent to people in a local area. Chances are that the local newspaper's brand is probably better than theirs. And that the independent local site's brand is even better.

Just a thought....

So while some folks might be


jeffjarvis said...

I am NOT one of Patch's principles. Please correct. They list me as an advisor because I gave - gave - them advice early on. I chose not to take an official role or remuneration. Patch has helped us with our new business models for news, sharing experience, as have many other local companies, large and small. We, in turn, shared our work openly with all. Again, please correct this.

Tish Grier said...

Corrected that Jeff--

Still, the idea of "white space" is an "if you build it, they will come" thing, and doesn't necessarily work all that great.