Anyone following the rapidly changing world of media has noticed citizen journalists are increasingly playing some sort of role in the news-gathering process. Be it tipping-off pro journos about issues, working independently to dig through government documents or joining citizen journalism networks such as Digital Journal, citizen journalists are an increasingly active group.
As citizen journalism grows, more and more people are looking at its relationship with mainstream media. According to a study in the spring edition of the Newspaper Research Journal
, citizen journalism complements rather than substitutes commercial news sites.
Researchers at Michigan State University, the University of Missouri, and the University of North Carolina examined content from 86 citizen blog sites, 53 citizen news sites and 63 daily newspaper sites in June and July 2009. Research evaluated which sites publish content on a daily basis, and how similar content was between citizen and mainstream sources.
"Like weeklies, citizen news and blog sites can serve as complements to daily newspapers," the study notes. "They can provide opinion and hyperlocal news that large dailies do not. Dailies have more resources, but they tend to concentrate those resources on issues that affect larger geographic areas in their markets. The dailies are less likely to cover details of a neighborhood than are citizen news and blog sites, unless they actually imitate these citizen sites. Perhaps serving as a complement better suits these citizen sites."
The study also indicates citizen journalism sites were further divided into "citizen news" sites and "citizen blog" sites. Researchers classified each by examining the "About” and "FAQ" sections on each site.
"The citizen news sites and citizen blog sites appear to be very different," researchers note. "The citizen news sites resemble daily newspaper sites more than do blog sites, which indicates clearly that blog and news sites are not necessarily substitutes for each other within a local community."
When it comes to timeliness of reporting, the researchers noted citizen blogs sites are not typically as up-to-date as daily newspaper websites. Their findings indicated 27.1 percent of the 85 citizen blog sites evaluated had published news on the day researchers visited the site. Furthermore, 55.3 percent published during the past week and another 10.6 percent had published within two weeks.
"Citizen news sites were slightly timelier than citizen blog sites, but the vast majority was not timely if daily posting is the standard for timeliness," the study indicates.
From a technological and interactivity perspective, researchers say newspaper sites are more "sophisticated technologically than citizen blog sites," as they often host more interactive content such as polls, forums and the ability to upload content.
One distinction, however, is that daily newspaper sites allowed more uploading opportunities than citizen blog sites, but not more than citizen news sites.
When it comes to linking to external sources, the study notes that citizen blog sites typically have more links to local websites than newspaper sites. Citizen blogs also link to other citizen news and blog sites more often than newspaper sites.
Researchers say data indicates citizen journalism sites (news and blog sites) are generally not substitutes for daily newspaper websites because they're not as timely or not updated as often. Researchers say that is likely because news sites have greater financial resources to run a newsroom.
"Timeliness requires a newsroom that interacts with the community on a regular basis, and, as a result, news stories typically require greater investment of time than do opinion pieces," the report says.
That said, the report indicates citizen news sites are more like weekly newspapers, and could pose as a better substitute for a weekly.
The study was financed with grants from the Knight and Pew foundations and authored by Stephen Lacy, Margaret Duffy, Daniel Riffe, Esther Thorson and Ken Fleming. The entire study can be found online here
(opens in PDF).