As the web 2.0 movement rolled on, the excitable hype mongers were already reading media’s last rites. The zealots proclaimed that the publishing model had changed, pointing to examples like Wikipedia, digg.com and the blogging movement.
It’s now all about user-generated content and the wisdom of crowds, they say. The centralised gate-keeping media model is losing its relevance in favour of a decentralised model. Big Media, R.I.P. These so-called experts put used-car salespeople to shame. They operate on fear Ã¢Â€Â“ fear that media owners are not “getting it” or are being left behind. Everyone is looking for an angle in this ever-changing world.
Perhaps this is theirs? At the heart of these proclamations is the assertion that power is increasingly no longer centralised around a corporate media structure, but it’s now out there, in all of us Ã¢Â€Â“ the citizen journalists and the readers. Yes, it is happening Ã¢Â€Â“ but the reality is more complex.
The internet and, in particular, sites like Wikipedia or the blogging movement, are brilliant phenomena that have played a specific role in democratising publishing. But they are very far from causing the demise of media. If anything, combined with and applied correctly to a media model, they can dramatically enhance the media’s offerings.
The media’s unique selling proposition is that in a cluttered world of cheap, ubiquitous digital content, there is quality control and content selection. The more we advance into the digital age, the cheaper it will become to create and distribute content, which is just going to result in more information overload.
In this context, media companies will become more important, not less important. Media are gatekeepers and they should jealously, unashamedly hold on to this gate-keeping function. In fact, editors should shamelessly relish being control freaks about content in their publications.
I’ve tried both models: hands-off user-generated content with no controls and user-generated content with controls from a closed or select group of writers. It’s the latter that works the best.
The key to harnessing user-generated content is combining it with a traditional media editorial model. It is a way media can delve into the world of citizen media but still retain quality assurance.
The creation of the Mail & Guardian Online’s Thought Leader blog platform (www.thoughtleader.co.za) has been an example of this very theory in practice. This quasi-blog site has managed to generate almost 1.7-million quality words from contributors and 4.5-million words from readers in under a year on an editorial budget of exactly zero.
It now has around 70,000 monthly readers and is one of the country’s top 100 websites (Nielsen//NetRatings). Although the site doesn’t prescribe what its contributors write, editors serve as gatekeepers to check and edit the content and determine what leads or not. Even the comments on the site are moderated.
We are not ashamed to say we are ruthless about only publishing quality content. Racist, sexist content in the form of articles or comments, or even comments we consider to be “stupid”, are deleted with extreme prejudice. And it’s not only media that employ strict gate-keeping principles. The very poster child of web 2.0 and user-generated content itself, Wikipedia, may seem like a free-for-all, but a closer look reveals tight controls by a group of registered and trusted users that act as de facto editors.
Anyone can post, but it’s the core group of registered users that keep an eye on the content. And this is how media should look to embrace user-generated content. Do it, but never abandon your core editorial gate-keeping principles. They’re necessary Ã¢Â€Â“ that’s just life.
Matthew Buckland is the outgoing general manager of Mail & Guardian Online. To read his blog, go to href=”http://www.matthewbuckland.com/” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.matthewbuckland.com”www.matthewbuckland.com.
This column first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (August 2008).