Case Study: Revamping MSNBC

As I’ve said all semester long, I’m going to examine a few case studies about user-generated content and television. First up, NBCUniversal’s recent acquisition of MSNBC.com. With that acquisition, they now have iVillage, something that NBC Digital Chief Vivian Schiller promises to make a more prominent part of NBC’s revamped online presence.

The purpose of the iVillage is to give users an outlet to voice their opinions as well as to peruse content already posted. Social media is a great way to reach out to your audience, and a great way to hear back from them as well.

Schiller seems to hint that iVillage is really aimed at all types of content, as it aims to re-launch as a “community-driven platform surfacing the most important perspectives on topics that matter most to women.” An important thing to remember with blogs and user-generated content sites that are similar is that it’s okay to exclude people, as long as you narrow down your focus but execute it well.

Looking at iVillage, their about page says they reach 30 million different visitors per month- a lofty number for a website that has just revamped itself completely. This isn’t citizen journalism for television in the traditional sense, because it’s not just a website where you submit stories or photos and that’s it. Their main idea of connecting is through message boards. There are many different conversation topics that you can choose from by just simply creating an account and joining the conversation.

Looking at MSNBC.com, one of the most prominent features is a “Speak Out” tab at the top, which immediately indicates to viewers they have the ability to vote in polls and discuss things going on in the news. By voting in a poll, these numbers often show up in MSNBC’s news broadcasts, so this is just one outlet where people can express their opinions. There is also an option to join a group and discuss current situations going on. Currently, the three most popular groups listed are “American Progressives,” “Up to Here,” and “UP to Politics,” which you can join by creating an account.

The top of MSNBC.com, showing where viewers can join the conversation. Photo credit: Eva Buchman

The top of MSNBC.com, showing where viewers can join the conversation. Photo credit: Eva Buchman

MSNBC is really putting in a lot of work to revamp their online presence and including more people in their conversations and appeal to a wider audience.

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How do you even start?

Journalism isn’t for everyone—we know that. We see it every day. There are good cases and bad cases of citizen journalism. If someone gets accused of something, and they turn out to be innocent, it becomes a case of “we jumped the gun.” If something happens, and no citizen steps forward, it turns into “why didn’t anybody say anything?”

I’m sure a lot of you don’t know how to even get started in citizen journalism. It’s such a daunting task, I’m sure. So what can you do? I mentioned previously, start small. Don’t fret, however. There are many, many resources out there to help you get started. Tips for how to piece together a story, how to use online software and equipment for audio/visual, you name it. It’s out there waiting to help someone.

There are more platforms than just the CNN i-Report that citizen journalists can use. In fact, some of these sites in growing in popularity daily. Each one may operate a little differently, but in the end they all strive to work for the same purpose—to give citizen journalists a voice.

If you’re not sure how to properly tell a story, don’t worry! There are resources for that as well. These tips are great for writing, and the overall act of citizen journalism—the ethics behind it, and what’s important in telling a good story.

Especially in television, it can be difficult to understand how news spreads to quickly. If you start reporting on and submitting content, you can quickly become fairly well-known, even if it is just in your own community. It’s a cool thing to think about, though, because what’s better than talking about the things that are important to you?

Seize the opportunity

As discussed in my last post, I talked about the CouncilStat program in New York City, in which citizens can write in make city officials aware of different problems happening in their neighborhoods. This is a great way to include citizens in city discussions, and is an easy way for citizens to start gaining a voice, and some ground, in their own neighborhoods. We’re seeing this pop up more every single day, although the thought can seem daunting.

In general, it seems like a broad, out of reach idea that citizen journalism can actually have an impact on a national scale. Sure, we’ve seen it when a breaking news situation occurs… you know, when one photo gets shared, shared again… and the next thing you know, it’s on CNN? How often does this actually happen though? More than likely… not very often.

Instead, citizen journalists should start small. Start writing for a community newspaper (or newsletter, if you have one), attend a City Hall meeting and share your ideas and opinions, things like that. Writing about things happening around you, from your point of view, is what’s going to draw attention. A blog written by Ron Ross gives more good tips for being a good citizen journalist, but the one that stuck out to me the most was passion. Be passionate about what’s going on, be passionate about where you live, and be passionate about what you want to see happen in your area. If you’re driven, you can make it happen. Citizens provide a different perspective than a reporter who is assigned to write a story, and that’s exactly what makes citizen journalism unique.

There are several news stations around where I am, in Morgantown, that are already looking for citizens story ideas, tips, photos, audio, etc. We’re finally seeing an expanded use for user-generated content beyond breaking news. While these are just a few news stations (and opportunities) out of many, it should give people an idea of the opportunities that are available. So what are you waiting on? Go take advantage!

Not your “expected” citizen journalism

We’ve talked enough about breaking news, and what happens when anyone with a smart phone is in the right place at the right time, so today we’re switching gears a little bit. I must admit, the idea for this blog spawned from a discussion we had in my class a few days ago. After seeing the iHollaback app, we started talking about another form of citizen journalism- the CouncilStat program that is currently running in New York City. It could be hard to understand how this is citizen journalism because it’s not breaking news- but it is reporting an issue. That’s what journalism is. Talking about things going on within communities— good or bad.

NYCPhoto_4

NYC is utilizing CouncilStat, a great way for citizens to keep city officials in the loop about what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
Photo Credit: Whitney Godwin

As you can see based on their website, their main goals are two-fold: to better respond to community needs, and to identify trends in order to best address the problems. At first glance, some people may not think this is citizen journalism, but quite the opposite is actually true. No, many of these things aren’t ever going to make it far beyond the website (potholes that still aren’t fixed more than likely aren’t going to make the national news).

What will though? What if higher crime rates are being reported in one specific area?

In cities as densely populated as New York City, this could always be a possibility. This is incredibly valuable information to city leaders. Specifically related to the CouncilStat website, city leaders are informed on what is happening in the several boroughs. CouncilStat’s website shows statistics for several boroughs dating back to June 2008.

The Bronx is one of five boroughs in New York City that is represented on CouncilStat. Photo credit: Whitney Godwin

The Bronx is one of five boroughs in New York City that is represented on CouncilStat.
Photo credit: Whitney Godwin

Some of these e-government tools are new, but research, from places like The Business of Federal Technology are showing they’re quite effective. Thanks to newer communication channels, citizen satisfaction is rising within the government. While these statistics only represent the federal government, they certainly show hope that local government will jump on board with this new form of interactivity! Something like this would be very useful in Morgantown!

Having a dedicated website where citizens can go report problems, talk to each other about neighborhood issues and events, and get some type of interaction back from the local city leaders, I think, would be a great way to increase the two-way communication and get people involved in solving issues within their community—not just talking about them.

A little bit of theory never hurt anyone…

Let’s take a step back and look at one of the many theoretical frameworks that can help to explain citizen journalism a little bit better. Most of us have grown up in a world that always had the internet.  I know personally, I don’t really remember life without it. I even survived life through dial-up! Thinking about it though, the internet has kind of become a one-stop shop for us. As citizens, we can shop, pay bills, read news, share news, look at photos, work, send e-mails and a slew of other activities all from a computer screen. With this though, comes the extreme power of shaping the public reality in which we live. What do I mean?

Think of it like this: every time I share news online, report news of my own, or read a news outlet’s story about any given issue, I’m helping to shape the public reality. You may not think of it like that, but it’s entirely true, especially for citizen journalists. The idea of inter-media agenda building studies the relationship between the mass media and the mass public. This is something that citizen journalism has a big hand in. If there is a news situation that happens to be covered by a citizen journalist, and it gets posted on YouTube and goes viral, this suddenly becomes what the country is interested in. This is a great example of inter-media agenda building. Not that you came here to read about theory, though, so what does this really mean in layman’s terms? Essentially, this:

You may not think you have a voice. It’s like when people don’t vote in a presidential election, because they don’t think their vote counts. What if everybody thought like that? We would never get anything accomplished as a society. This works the same way for citizen journalism. If everybody was afraid to share their story, or a story going on around them, society would suffer quite a bit. There’s more  to the world (heck, even to the country) in which we live, and citizen journalism is a great way for people to find out what’s going on that doesn’t deal with government, or a terror attack, or something else catastrophic. I believe it’s our job, as a society, to understand one another. That’s what citizen journalism does- it goes way beyond the scope of just breaking news. We can learn things, find people who share similar interests, find emotional support, or just learn about a good deed someone did in a state hundreds of miles from where we live.

Marrying television and the web

I must admit, I drew inspiration for this blog from Bradley Howard, and his discussion on the televisual web. This got me thinking—what does that even mean?

We already know that user-generated content is making a name for itself, as we see it used more and more every single day in television newscasts across the country. But here’s something I’ve never thought of before (until today!): television itself is becoming more personalized, from the moment you turn it on. Two months ago while I was in Dallas, I stayed at the Omni Hotel, and when I turned my TV on in my room, it said “Welcome Eva Buchman!” I remember being completely blown away by this—my TV knows who I am! This is becoming a very popular practice, however. People want exclusivity and convenience.

This personalization, however, as writer Ryan Lawler discusses, could pose a very serious problem for television networks. Through the use of DVR machines alone, people are able to watch what they want, when they want. No longer are the days of just watching one program because it was the only thing on. Thanks to DVR’s, and many other services and programs, content is constantly new and fresh. It’s hardly a worry anymore that you might have to watch re-runs (unless you want to!) How does this relate to citizen journalism, though? Good question.

Personalization certainly levels the playing field quite a bit, wouldn’t you think? If there’s a blog you really enjoy reading in the morning, more than CNN or CBS news, you can set that as your default homepage and never think twice about it. The same is true with TV. Say, for example, you’ve become a big fan of a show that is produced and just posted online (a new show, that hasn’t gotten its footing yet); consumers still have the ability to link YouTube up to their television sets to watch it! It’s getting easier and easier to not be a big name television network, news station, or media figure to make your media presence known—a good thing for citizen journalists.

This personalization takes away control from media companies and television networks, as they cannot control what people DVR or if anyone even still pays attention to what’s in the prime time slot on any given night.

A new found respect

Every day this week I’ve been asked to post a blog pertaining to my topic, and I must say—wow that was hard! I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into this assignment, but I survived! It was much harder than I was expecting in the beginning. I’m a planner, and I had already had most of my topics planned out that I wanted to write about, but finding the time to actually sit down and write a substantial post was difficult!

Over the course of this week, I feel that I’ve definitely gotten better at finding ideas to write about. I know it sounds silly, but I found often times that when I was looking for sources, I came up with new and different ideas that I hadn’t previously thought of. This was incredibly helpful, just to see what others had previously been talking about, and putting my own spin on it, being able to offer a college student’s perspective.

I would definitely say I’ve developed an entirely new respect for full-time bloggers, who use this medium as their income and way of life. It’s incredibly different to always come up with a new, fresh idea that keeps both you and the readers interested. It’s so laborious to write about something you have no interest in. Sometimes, there just isn’t anything readily available to write about, and this is where the real work comes in. Digging deep and doing research to come up with something meaningful and helpful to your readers is so difficult, because nobody wants their blog to be boring. I can see why experts indicate it is best to update your blog a few times a week. It’s certainly possible that blogs could lose quality because they’re trying to increase their quantity.

While it definitely got easier to come up with new ideas over the course of the week, by no means would I call this assignment “easy.” I learned one of the best things you can do is plan ahead! It was so much easier to sit down and type one or two blog posts a few days before they were due, because it gave me time to look back over them and make corrections, add a new idea, etc. I couldn’t imagine writing a blog post on the day it was due. I kind of approached this assignment like I would writing a paper—I would write it, and then go back and re-read it to make sure everything was coherent and I truly was expressing what I wanted to.

I have a whole new level of respect for professional, full-time bloggers! I didn’t realize the amount of research that was required to do this full-time, but bloggers should certainly be commended for the amount of work they do!