This UGC research – what next then?

Blimey – that was a big undertaking. Last Friday, after 8 months of research, we launched the final report into our study on user-generated content (UGC) and how it is integrated into global news – on TV and online. You can read the full report here. You can also read an excellent round up of the research by Mathew Ingram at GigaOm here.

The report was launched as part of a day-long conference at the Tow Center of Digital Journalism. The title of the day was Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation. You can watch the whole day here, but just in case you don’t have 7 hours to spare and actually just want to watch our bit, I’ve embedded the video to start at the point when we hit the stage. (For info it’s at timestamp 5:35:23)

Last summer I started thinking about how much I wanted to get back into research and my time with Storyful was proving how much newsrooms were relying on UGC in their news output. But we had no concrete figures about how much was being used, or during which events it was being used most. So I wrote a proposal and sent it to Emily Bell at the Tow Center. Amazingly, she said – “yes, let’s do it” and with incredible support from the amazing Sam Dubberley and Pete Brown, we did do it.

We watched 1,164 hours of television news, analysed 2,254 webpages, and interviewed 64 people at 24 newsrooms in 38 countries. The final report is 37,000 words. We did all of this in 8 months, while also doing other projects.

And while it is of course a report about all things digital, I’m not going to lie, I was very proud to bring home a copy of the report that actually looks like a book, that I can put on an actual shelf.

Ultimately, the question has to be – what do we do next? One of the reasons I left academia in 2009 was a frustration that I didn’t feel connected enough to the industry. That I was writing articles that I knew weren’t being read by the people with whom I wanted to engage.

This report ends with 14 recommendations. But there’s no point this report sitting on people’s bookshelves, or in people’s Pockets, their ReadLaters, or their Delicious accounts which they no longer look at. We want this report to be a call to action.

In 2008, I finished a big report, with the help of colleagues at Cardiff University, into UGC at the BBC. For reference, that report had just one mention of one social network: Facebook. When I’d finished writing up the report, I remember talking to my Mum about how I feared no-one at the BBC would read it. In fact people did read it at the BBC and I was offered a 6 month secondment/attachment. It was that opportunity that meant I was at the BBC when that plane landed in the Hudson River and BBC News asked me to develop a training programme on social newsgathering and verification. Over 3000 journalists took that course. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d still been sitting in my office at Cardiff University.

I have the same concerns about this report. It’s wonderful to see people tweeting about it, and talking about it at events (something I was very happy to see on Monday at a YouTube event). But we have to move beyond talk, and actually do something to make these recommendations a reality. How can we develop an ‘Uploader Bill of Rights’ so that people know what they should expect when they are contacted by newsrooms? How can we start thinking about a 24 or 48 hour public license for news content so newsrooms aren’t ‘scrapping’ over content that has a place in history? How can we ensure that ethical newsrooms who do credit uploaders, are careful about how they word calls to action to prevent uploaders putting themselves in danger, are differentiated from agencies with no ethics, paying people to put themselves in harms way? How can we ensure newsrooms are putting guidelines in place to prevent social journalists from suffering from the vicarious trauma now documented as a risk from prolonged exposure to graphic UGC? How can newsrooms work more closely with social networks to improve the way that UGC is discovered, verified and integrated into content?

As I look into my UGC crystal ball, I believe we have about 18 months to sort this stuff out. If we don’t, something major will happen. Dodgy agencies will continue to pop up, realising there is a business in ‘licensing’ news content, with no regard for the ethics of paying people to put themselves in danger. There will be a class action lawsuit by an uploader who knows their rights, and understands that multiple newsrooms using their video without permission under the false premise of ‘fair use’, is wrong.  Someone will die, filming content for a news organisation who made it clear they would love to use more of his ‘great pictures’.

So while it’s nice to talk about the report, we have to do something. We have some ideas about what we need to do to make things happen, but if you can think of ways to make these recommendations turn into reality in today’s pressured newsrooms, please let us know.