Newsworthy: An app to grease the wheels of citizen journalism

newsworthyI work for a news organization that covers the entire state of Alabama. That’s a lot of news. We’d love to be able to get a reporter to every single significant event, but it’s simply not possible. We’d have to employ almost every resident in the state.

… But there’s an idea. What if we could easily organize and utilize photos, videos and the basic facts from the people all over Alabama who were there for each of these significant events — whether it’s a traffic accident, a planned event or a spontaneous celebrity sighting?

Citizen journalism is not a new idea, and news organizations are already collecting these things by mining social media. But the multimedia must be shared publicly (by the user), and then news organizations must either embed it (if that option is available) or ask the user for permission to use it. And believe me, chasing down the photographer is not always easy. Some news organizations already have easy ways for people to submit content — like CNN’s iReport.

But what if you, as a citizen journalist, want to share your story/photo/video with more organizations than just CNN? Do you research different news organizations and figure out how to submit to each? One might prefer an email, while another asks you to download their app and submit through it. But just how many apps and email addresses is the average citizen journalist willing to use?

Enter Newsworthy — an app that makes it easy for citizen journalists to get their photos, videos and news in front of a number of verified news organizations for publication consideration. Before I decided on too many details of the potential app, I asked for some feedback.

The survey

Here's how the survey looked on my iPhone. There's some vertical scrolling involved, but no horizontal scrolling or pinching to zoom required!
Here’s how the survey looked on my iPhone. There’s some vertical scrolling involved, but no horizontal scrolling or pinching to zoom required!

After seeing the limited survey-building and analytics options offered in the free version of SurveyMonkey when creating a survey earlier this semester, I decided to use Qualtrics for this survey. I was pleased to see more question and results options, as well as a clean mobile presentation.

Although I didn’t use SurveyMonkey, I did attempt to follow some of their wise tips, including keeping the survey short with almost all closed-ended questions. I know I dislike being required to answer open-ended questions in order to complete a survey, so while I required answers to all multiple choice and ranking questions, I let the one short-answer question be optional. I also saved it for the end so it didn’t discourage respondents from taking the rest of the survey. I kept the whole thing as simple and straightforward as possible and attempted to order the questions in a way that would make sense to the survey taker.

I started off asking a few basic personal questions: Age, gender, education level and basic news media preferences. Then, respondents were asked if they ever had shared photos, videos or information with news organizations and if they would use an app that allowed them to easily do so. At this point, I employed skip logic to direct anyone who answered “no,” they would not use such an app, to the “thank you” message at the end, because all the following questions asked about specific preferences for a citizen journalism app.

I shared the link to my survey multiple times on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, and unfortunately I did not receive a large response on my final survey – 20. Earlier, I crafted an initial survey that received 37 responses, but I left out the important basic personal questions and I learned from the open-ended and “other” responses that I needed to word some of the questions more clearly. I’ll focus on the results from the final survey here.

Results

The majority of my final survey respondents fall into the 18-34 age range at 55 percent, followed by 50 and older at 30 percent and 35-49 at 15 percent. The gender breakdown is 55 percent female and 45 percent male. All but one respondent said they check news on at least one medium daily. The other said she checked 2-3 times a month. “Online – desktop/laptop” and “Smartphone/tablet” overwhelmingly took the top two spots on the question that asked respondents to rank news media in order of most to least preferred. Desktop/laptop got eight votes for No. 1 and eight votes for the No. 2 spot; Smartphone/tablet got seven for No. 1 and seven for the No. 2 spot.

In my very small sample, age and gender did not appear to have a significant effect on media preferences. Higher education has long correlated with a better grasp of what’s going on in the news, according to Pew Research Center and as again was proven in their 2013 News IQ quiz, so I decided to specifically examine citizen journalism participation divided by education level.

Of the four people with at least one post-graduate degree, two said they have submitted content to news organizations before and would use an app like Newsworthy to submit to their news organization(s) of choice. The other two had not submitted content and were not interested in the app. I think it’s worth noting that the two who were not interested fell into the 18-34 age range, while the two who were interested selected 50 and older (again, no strong age patterns when the survey was viewed as a whole).

Of the 12 people with a bachelor’s degree, nine had submitted content to news organizations before, and all said they would use an app like Newsworthy, with seven saying they’d rather restrict their submissions to only their preferred news outlets.

Of the four who attended college but did not receive a 4-year degree, half had never submitted content, and one said he would not use the app, with the other three preferring to send content only to their choice of news outlet.

I found it interesting that those with bachelor’s degrees were most willing to engage in citizen journalism, but again, because of the small sample size, it’s tough to tell if that’s truly a wider trend.

While only 65 percent of the total sample have actually submitted content to a news organization before,  a total of 85 percent said they would use an app like Newsworthy — 25 percent said yes and 60 percent said they’d like the option to submit to a news organization of their choice. The frequency with which people would use the app varied fairly evenly from once a week to less than once a month.

I expected all citizen journalists to expect credit for their submitted content, but 41 percent said they’d be happy if their submission were published at all. Another 47 percent said they’d want to be credited by name. And two people (12 percent) said they’d have to be paid to submit. To be notified that their content was used, 41 percent said they’d like to be emailed, and 35 percent said they’d like a combination of choices from email, text and push notification. Also, one person said they would not want to be notified, so I think it’s important to allow full customization of notifications, including turning them off.

The majority of respondents (71 percent) wanted only verified news organizations to be able to use their content rather than having it visible and downloadable to the general public. Submitting specifically for use by verified news organizations was my original idea for the app anyway. I think this would be the easiest way to hold the publishers of the submissions accountable since news organizations should be easier to track down than private individuals. If a large number of users were to express the desire to have a more public profile in the future, the possibility of such an option would be examined at that time. But especially since several respondents expressed in the open-answer question concerns about having their content manipulated or taken out of context, restricting viewing and downloading to verified news organizations seems like the safest route.

Here’s the full report:

Newsworthy Survey

Survey Weaknesses

I shared the link to this survey on my personal social media accounts. That of course means all my respondents are at least somewhat active online, which is not representative of the general population. Also, because I work in the journalism industry, many of my friends and followers are either journalists or interested in the news — perhaps more so than the average person. Although the support for an app like Newsworthy shown through the survey is encouraging, I’m afraid that may be because many of my friends and followers would very specifically be its enthusiastic target audience. Perhaps one of my survey questions should have asked respondents to describe their line of work.

The app

Already, news organizations are increasingly connecting with their audiences thanks to digital tools. If you took the time to do the research, you could probably figure out how to get photos of a news event you witnessed to several news organizations. Maybe one prefers to have images tweeted to them, but the next one doesn’t really check Twitter as often as they should so it takes an email to get their attention. You want to get your photos in front of as many news organizations as possible, but you don’t have all day to track down email addresses, apps and Twitter accounts — much less each organizations’ submission preferences.

The Newsworthy app would grease the wheels of citizen journalism, making it easier for people to connect with news organizations without spending all day figuring out how to do it. There are two types of accounts, both free, for Newsworthy: citizen journalist accounts and news organization accounts. I will refer to them in the following descriptions as CJ accounts and NO accounts, respectively.

Citizen Journalist Accounts

When citizen journalists set up an account, they will agree to terms stating any contributed photos or videos are unaltered and were either produced by them or shared with permission from the creator and that any information they include is truthful. If they only have limited information, they would still be encouraged to submit that, and the professional reporters could track down the rest of the stories that they chose to pursue. The default CJ account settings would allow any verified news organization in the world to use the citizen journalist’s submissions. But because several survey respondents said they would rather only share their content with news organizations they approved, there would also be an option to set your CJ account to “private.”

Once a CJ account is set to private, the user must select at least one news organization that will be able to use their content. After that, the user can “enable” as many other news organizations as they’d like, and news organizations will also be able to send requests to view/use content. Think of it sort of like Twitter: The default is a public account (open to all verified news organizations), but you can tighten your privacy settings further if you’d like. When an account is set to private, a news organization can request to see and use CJ content (which a CJ can approve or deny), and users can also elect to share content with any news organizations of their choice (without news organizations sending a request).

When a CJ account is signed in, the user will first see the submit page, which allows them to take a photo or video as well as choose from their device’s photo/video library. An icon at the top allows the user to go to their profile page, which displays everything they’ve shared on Newsworthy so far. Each item will show how many times it has been downloaded by verified news organizations and by which ones.

When submitting content, citizen journalists either type in the location or enable GPS on their phone to show where something happened. In addition to location and date, which are required fields, users will be required to submit a description of what’s happening in the photo or video. A short list of suggestions for details to include will appear in small type above the description field for guidance. There will also be a tags field for key words, which will help news organizations locate items through basic searches.

In addition, users will set their “byline name” for crediting purposes when setting up a CJ account. Users will also provide a working email address (which will be confirmed as the account is set up) and an optional telephone number to be contacted by verified news organizations in case of questions. Users can choose to be notified by push notification, email, text message, a combination or not be notified at all when their CJ account’s content is downloaded by a NO account. I chose not to limit the notification type because I got such varied answers to that question on the survey.

News Organization Accounts

When a news organization sets up an account, they will agree to terms that state they will credit any citizen journalists by name when using photos or videos and use content responsibly by not taking anything out of context. In order to be verified as a news organization, anyone setting up a NO account must use use an email address with a company domain that matches the domain on which the Newsworthy content will be published (similar to what’s required when setting up Google Authorship).

When a NO account is signed in, they will see a screen consisting of thumbnails of the top-downloaded images and videos, with a prominent search icon and field at the top. News organizations can do a simple search with a few key words or an advanced search by filling in fields for key word tags, location, date and/or a specific user’s name. When they click on a thumbnail shared by a public account, they’ll be directed to a page where they can view the larger image, its associated details and download the full-size image. From here, they can also click on the content submitter’s byline to view more items they’ve submitted, on the user’s profile. Thumbnails from private accounts will have a lock icon beside them. When a news organization clicks a thumbnail with the lock icon, they’ll be prompted to send the CJ user a request to view and use their content, which the CJ user can choose to either accept or deny.

Addressing Potential Problems

Ideally, every news organization and citizen journalist using the app will respect each other and follow ethical practices. However, people are not perfect, and everyone can’t be expected to have high standards. In cases of objectionable behavior, there would be options for blocking and reporting.

If a user has noticed a news organization not following the rules (crediting properly or manipulating content), the user can block and/or report the NO account. Blocking will prohibit the NO account from using content from that CJ account in the future. Reporting will require a short message detailing the reason for the report of the NO account and will be submitted to the app administrators, who would decide whether the NO account is, indeed, being abusive and deserves disabling or further action. Repeatedly reported abuse from a particular organization (who had signed up with more than one email address) would result in a blocked domain. NO accounts would also be able to report CJ accounts — for false information or false identities.

Marketing

This app allows citizen journalists to get their news — quite possibly news that no professional journalists have captured — in front of major news organizations. But for the app to work, those major news organizations must “buy in.” If I were to create this app, I would actively recruit news organizations to sign up for verified accounts to give the app a try. Being able to tout big media names as possible outlets for publication would attract more and better content from citizen journalists seeking exposure for their interest or geographic areas as well as their names.
But it’s not just a win for citizen journalists. An app like this would make it much easier for news organizations to pull a photo or video, credit its creator, and legally use it — rather than chasing down social media users to gain permission to use their work, or worse, simply use it without permission. I’m sure that news organizations would still look to social media for content, but as Newsworthy grows, they would have to depend on social media for quality photos and video less and less. Newsworthy would be a place that news organizations could pull multimedia tagged by location and topic, knowing that they have permission to use it and how to credit it without having to chase down social media users.

Author’s note: Newsworthy is not a real app — at least yet. I haven’t decided yet whether I will develop it. If you have an interest/talent in app building and might like to partner with me on this, please drop a comment below!

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One thought on “Newsworthy: An app to grease the wheels of citizen journalism”

  1. You are brilliant Julie.

    If you host a contest to engage your CJ’s and pro journalists then you could generate legitimate user content. Perhaps you could feature one new byline or feature story daily. The winner would receive recognition plus a gift card to a local business. They might even get to meet the brains behind the operation. :-O That alone is worth the price of admission (the app) 😉 Attract sponsors to supply the gift cards and you are in business. Of course you have to encourage users to fact check and present unbiased news.

    If I can help you in anyway let me know.

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