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Citizen Media

Citizen Media

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Heading into 2008, Web 2.0 and citizen media have taken root as significant elements in the news of the future. And they have become a true competitor to traditional media.

In 2006, citizens made it clear that they wanted a voice. In 2007, more ways of doing that began to emerge and that voice became stronger. Now, 2008 looks to be the year the mainstream press tries to lure citizens toward creating the content within their own outlets.

As with much of the Web, though, the growth in citizen-based content brings with it questions about the future. And, as with much of the Web, the answer to one fundamental question — financial viability — remains uncertain.

Web 2.0

A new buzzword in 2006, Web 2.0, or the second generation of the Web, has become common language and an accepted part of the online experience.

The term, put simply, refers to online media that operates as partnership, or interactively, with the consumer. Anything that involves users posting video, writing a blog, reviewing products or connecting with friends on a social network site is a Web 2.0 activity. YouTube, the video-sharing site, or Facebook and MySpace, the social networking giants, are among the success stories of Web 2.0. So is Wikipedia, the citizen encyclopedia site.

How many people are actively living in the Web 2.0 universe?

As of spring 2006, according to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 37% of all Americans who go online were engaged with user-generated content. Nearly four in ten adult Internet users had uploaded video or photos, blogged, posted comments to an online news group or Web site, remixed a song, or created some other form of media.1

The percentage is even higher for teenagers. According to survey data collected by Pew Internet in the fall of 2006, 64% of 12- to 17-year-olds say they have created content for the Internet, up from 57% in 2004.2

Is it News?

The technology of Web 2.0 has not only set new standards for community interaction among people online, so-called “netizens,” it is also challenging the definition of journalism as citizens take on the job themselves, often as publishers without editors.

Over the past few years, user-news sites like Digg have turned the tables on traditional media by allowing visitors to choose and share what they define as news.

Fans of these sites show a taste in news often quite different from what traditional media offer. A snapshot study by the Project in the summer of 2007 found the top stories on popular user-driven news sites – Digg, Reddit and – were very different than those of the mainstream media.

In the week studied (June 24 to June 29, 2007), the release of Apple’s new iPhone was the most popular story on Digg, while the mainstream press focused on the immigration debate in Washington. Coverage of the war in Iraq accounted for 10% of all articles in the traditional press that week, but across the three user-news sites that PEJ studied, it made up just 1% of all stories.

PEJ’s one-week study also found the sources for stories on these sites tended to differ from the mainstream press. Blogs by non-journalists proved to be the most popular source, making up 40% of the stories. Nearly 31% of stories originated on sites such as YouTube and Technorati that also offer citizen-generated content.

Mainstream media, by contrast, made up just 25% of articles on these sites. Wire services, such as the Associated Press Reuters, accounted for 5% of them.3

Indeed, citizens are playing a more direct role in making new media sites both competitors and partners with traditional online news sites. Let’s consider the types of citizen media one at a time.

Video and Social Networking sites

Perhaps no segment of online media underscores the growing role of citizens more than online video and social networking sites.

YouTube, founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim in February 2005 and purchased by Google in November 2006, is by far the most popular online video site, with a 28% share of the total video market , according to the most recent figures published by comScore.4

Though YouTube is ground zero for citizen-generated video, there are other video sites that attract significant audiences.

According to data from Quantcast, a Web analytics company that tracks the U.S. audience for more than 20 million Web sites, other popular video-sharing sites are,,, Heavy Networks, and Like YouTube, these generally showcase slick professional productions alongside homemade videos of all styles and lengths.

Select Video-Sharing Sites

Property U.S. Monthly Audience Site at a Glance
44 million
Launched in December 2005; acquired by Google in November 2006 for $1.65 billion; involved in continuing suit with Viacom for copyright infringement.
9.7 million
Silicon Valley-based site launched in 2003; specializes in short-form original content.
3.6 million
Founded in 1998 in Beverly Hills, Calif.; content focused mainly on males aged 15 to 35; holds partnerships with TiVo, NBC Universal and others.
2.1 million
San Diego, Calif.-based company founded in 2004; distributes video content in its original form; requires a software download, unlike YouTube.
Based in Los Angeles; regards itself as the first video-sharing site “powered by advertising,” with revenue split with users who submit content; as of September 2007, paid out $1 million to more than 25,000 amateur videographers.

Source: Data according to Quantcast, December 3, 2007

Social networking also continued to grow in both variety and audience size in 2007.

In June, according to data from comScore, the total worldwide number of unique visitors 15 and older to MySpace grew 72% over the same month in 2006, to 114 million unique visitors. Facebook had less than half that audience, with 52 million globally, but grew 270%.5

And there are other players now, as well. As an example, Twitter, launched in 2006, combines traditional social networking features and micro-blogging, a feature that allows users to publish short postings from either a computer or phone. These postings can then be seen by the general public or restricted to certain users. According to Katie King, lead digital strategist at of Marsteller Interactive’s Washington D.C. office, Twitter, along with Facebook, is being extensively used as a news distribution platform as well.

These citizen-based Web sites began largely as places to post compelling material, much of it from the mainstream media with added content from users. As popularity grew, these sites began rivaling news sites for breaking news. Newsmakers themselves, from the Pentagon to the presidential candidates to humanitarian and activist groups, began placing content directly on YouTube and MySpace as a way of countering what might be in the mainstream press or even beating the press to the punch.


The most well-known form of Web 2.0 activity, blogging, appeared in 2007 to be growing as quickly as ever. But the evidence suggests most Americans are not turning to blogs for news.

Data from Technorati, a blogging search engine, found in the spring of 2007 that the number of blogs was doubling every 320 days. According to the research, there were 70 million blogs produced worldwide at that time.6

Despite the proliferation of blogs, survey data suggest most Americans have yet to accept them as significant news sources. According to a winter 2007 Zogby Poll, blogs were the lowest on the list of “important” sources of news, coming in at 30%, well after Web sites (81%), television (78%), radio (73%), newspapers (69%) and magazines (38%). More Americans, 39%, chose friends and neighbors over blogs as an important informational source.7

Other research found that Americans appeared to be more interested in blogs for their entertainment value than their importance as a news source. According to August 2007 data published by the marketing research firm Synovate, 49% of all Americans read blogs because they find them entertaining, 26% because of a particular hobby or interest and 15% for news and information.8

That appears to jibe with citizen bloggers’ own interests. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2006 that most bloggers wrote about issues other than news. Nearly four in ten (37%) said they blogged mainly about their “life and experiences,” with issues of public life (11%) cited as the second most popular topic area. Just 5% said they concentrated primarily on news and current events.9

If citizens are gravitating to blogs more for personal pleasure, traditional media are working to connect them more to the news. Fully 95% of the top 100 newspapers included blogs from reporters in March 2007, up from 80% in 2006, according to research conducted by the Bivings Group.10

This increase is interesting given the controversial editorial issues surrounding blogging in traditional newspaper circles only a few years ago. But blogging appears to have become a compelling way to attract new audiences online.

In 2006, the latest year for which data are available, traffic to blog pages on the top newspaper Web sites surged. According to data from Nielsen//Net Ratings, the number unique visitors to blog pages on the 10 most popular newspaper sites grew 210% from December 2005 to December 2006. Collectively, those visitors made up 13% of total traffic to these Web sites.11

These readers are part of a growing overall audience for blogs.

July 2007 data from Synovate suggest that nearly half of all Americans report ever having read a blog, but the numbers are growing rapidly.12 That is notably higher than the 39% the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in the winter of 2006. And that number was up from the 27% Pew Internet found a year earlier.13

And that universe appears to be much larger among the young. According to Synovate’s data, 78% of adults 18 to 24 years old have read blogs. These younger adults also were more likely to notice ads on blogs, 61% compared to 43% over all.

Only a small core of all adults, however, are regular blog readers, according to Synovate’s research. Just 15% read a blog daily and only 5% more than once a day. In comparison, three in ten (28%) were monthly visitors. And the largest group of blog readers (39%) visited them less than once a month, according to the research.14

The Financial Future of Blogs

While loyal blog readers generally go elsewhere for their news of the day, that may well change in the future.

The majority of Americans expect blogs to play an increasingly prominent role in bringing them the news. According to the Zogby Poll, 55% believe blogging will be an important aspect of journalism in the future. An overwhelming number (74%) saw amateur citizen reporters, as opposed to established media outlets, playing a key role.15

If they are right, independent bloggers will have to figure out a way to finance their work.

Heading into 2008, there are mixed signs about an emerging financial model. Advertising — and therefore ad revenue — is becoming more common, but whether this trickles down to contributing bloggers is less certain. Let’s consider two of the more popular blogs in 2007, both of which showed signs of turning a profit.

The popular political commentary blog Huffington Post placed ads from CNN, the New York Times, Xerox, Audi and Discovery in 2007. Co-founder Ken Lerner expects the blog’s audience to double in the election year of 2008, suggesting more ad revenue to come.

But profit or no, Lerner has no intentions of ever paying volunteer bloggers, who numbered about 1,800 as of late 2007, many of them famous names who submit essays without expecting payment. “That’s not our financial model,” Lerner told USA Today in September 2007. “We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company.”16

In contrast, writers at Gawker, which focuses on media industry news, receive compensation for their blog postings. Gawker has more than 100 employees and contractors (many of them freelancers) and was estimated to generate $10 million to $12 million in profits annually, according to an article in New York magazine.17

Ad spending on blogs is expected to increase. According to data from PQ Media, a research firm, and MarketingVox, a marketing industry newsletter, marketers were projected to increase their spending on blogs by 730%, from $36.2 million in 2006 to $300.4 million in 2010.18

Wikipedia: A New Kind of News Source?

Perhaps no site reflects Web 2.0’s participatory nature more than Wikipedia, the free, citizen-written, online encyclopedia that relies on 1,000 volunteer administrators to create, edit and maintain its content.

Wikipedia was launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. With more than 2 million English-language articles as of January 2008, it has become a resource guide for many more, including journalists, despite questions and continuing controversy about its accuracy.

In 2007, there also are signs that Wikipedia is evolving into a new role: news source.

A number of media critics have noted Wikipedia’s popularity during major news events in recent years, most notably the 2005 terrorist bombings in London and the Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004. But the site generated perhaps the most attention in 2007 in the wake of the April 16 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va.

Wikipedia attracted more than 750,000 visits to its article on the tragedy in the first two days, an average of four visits per second, according to the New York Times. The Roanoke Times, the university’s hometown newspaper, described Wikipedia as “the clearinghouse for detailed information on the event.”19

Who uses Wikipedia? Survey research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 36% of Americans who go online have consulted the site, with nearly one in ten (8%) doing so on typical day in the winter of 2007. The same survey also found that Wikipedia’s highest use came from those with at least a college degree.20

The site also appears to be most popular among the youngest adult Americans (18 to 29 years old), as well as online adults with a broadband Internet connection at home. Younger Americans are among those most likely to consume news online or to have ever read a blog, according to Pew Internet data.

Wikipedia Users at a Glance

Do you ever use the Internet to look for information on Wikipedia? Percent of adult Internet users who say “yes”
English-Speaking Hispanics
Age 18-29
Age 30-49
Age 50-64
Age 65+
High school diploma
Some college
College grad +
<$30,000 household income
Dial-up connection at home
Broadband at home

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey, February 15-March 7, 2007.
N=1,492 internet users. Margin of error is +/- 3%.

Citizen Journalism Sites

Over the past few years, citizens have increasingly set up news Web sites to report on issues affecting their cities, communities and even neighborhoods.

Citizen-run sites like Newsvine aggregate news from around the country. Newsvine was acquired by MSNBC in October 2007 and has a monthly audience of one million unique visitors, the New York Times reported.21

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the University of Maryland’s Institute of Interactive Journalism, estimated citizen journalism Web sites in the U.S. at “more than 1,000, rapidly approaching 1,500” heading into 2008.22 Content on these sites varies, from breaking news to school closings to city council hearings. Mixed in are wedding and birth announcements or favorite recipes.

What is the business model for these sites?

While some citizen journalism sites are selling ads, there are little data about how much revenue they generate from them. What we do know is that most are not earning enough to finance their sites. According to 2006 research from the University of Maryland’s interactive journalism program, just 21% of those who run citizen journalism sites reported covering their operating costs.

In the absence of revenue, most appear to be running on the owners’ blood, sweat and tears. According to the Maryland survey, 51% said it was not necessary to generate revenue to keep sites running — 14% of citizen journalists reported it took less than $1,000 to launch their sites and another three in ten (29%) put that number at less than $100.23

But it takes more than direct dollars of investment — its takes time, which in the end translates into money. The collapse of Backfence, a two-year-old commercial network of local citizen-run sites, raised questions about the economics of citizen journalism. The site, backed by venture capital and launched in May 2005, ceased operations in mid-summer 2007.24

“Realistically, it’s going to take close to 10 years for the business models to be there and for there to be enough advertisers willing to give money to hyperlocal start-ups,” Vin Crosbie, managing partner of Digital Deliverance, a media consulting firm, told the Washington Post. “Backfence’s problem is that it was too early.”25

In the midst of the uncertainty that surrounds the business model for citizen journalism sites, nonprofits have become a more visible presence in online journalism. This is especially true at the hyperlocal level, where nonprofits have contributed money to encourage and support citizen reporting.

The biggest boost in 2007 came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which as of mid-June had awarded just under $4 million to various sites devoted to citizen-run journalism.

Other nonprofits have become more directly involved in online journalism.

In early 2006, Dan Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News columnist and author of “We the Media,” launched the nonprofit Center for Citizen Media in cooperation with Harvard University’s Law School and the University of California at Berkeley. The center was founded with three main goals, according to Gillmor:

Among others, the center has collaborated on the Citizen Media Law Project, designed to help citizen journalists understand cyberlaw. As of January 2008, the center’s Web site also hosts Gillmor’s blog on citizen media.27

Another group, the Sunlight Foundation, was founded in 2006 to help educate citizens about transparency in government, funding Web projects that combine both citizen journalism and activism. The site’s Exposing Earmarks campaign led to legislation that gives the public access to an online database of how federal money is spent The Sunlight Foundation also has helped establish Congresspedia, which calls itself the “citizens’ encyclopedia on Congress that you can edit.” Launched in April 2006, the site includes articles and research on members of Congress and the Senate. Content is written by citizen journalists, although, unlike Wikipedia, a paid editor supervises the site.28 Contributors are also required to register before submitting articles.

Though the foundation purports to be bipartisan, questions have been raised about its principals’ liberal leanings. MediaShift blogger Mark Glaser, for instance, pointed out in April 2007 that its chairman, Michael Klein, who had given the foundation $3.5 million, had donated far more to Democratic causes in the past than to Republican ones.29

Getting a Read on ‘Citizen J’

To get a better sense of citizen journalism Web sites, a team of researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Missouri and Ohio University have embarked on a two-part study titled Tracking and Analyzing Community News Models, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation. The first phase, conducted in late 2007, was an audit of various features on 64 citizen journalism sites in 15 metropolitan areas. Phase 1 examined the sites for such elements as the posting of outside material, the use of links and the extent of advertising. The sites studied ranged in their reach from covering an entire metro area to a smaller city to even a single neighborhood. (Click here for the full report).

The fact that 15 metro areas now include at least this many local citizen news sites and local blogs is something of a finding. The phenomenon is becoming more robust.

The other discovery was that, for all that citizen journalism might imply openness and interactivity, the majority of sites analyzed tended to demonstrate the instincts of “strong gatekeepers” who control the content and are somewhat more difficult to interact with than the ideals of citizen journalism suggest. Now, instead of professionals, those gatekeepers were the bloggers or citizens who ran the sites.

The majority of sites did not allow users to post news and feature stories, information about community activities, letters to the editor, photographs or videos, the study found.

The one form of openness was that the majority, indeed almost all, did allow users to post comments about the material on the site, but the staff reserved the right to edit or otherwise screen the comments to meet its standards of civility.

Among other trends that emerged: Most offered only limited ways to interact with staff, were low-tech compared with mainstream media sites and had spotty advertising. Many of these sites were also very young, established only in the last six months, which may explain some of the lag in technological sophistication. One area where they seemed comparable with established media outlets was in direct links to additional information.

The researchers differentiated between citizen sites that post original news stories and those that operate as journalism blogs. They found over all that the news sites were more welcoming to other citizens than were blogs, although even here user-content was not the norm.

Just 27% allowed users to upload material to the site.

At the citizen news sites, four in ten allowed users to post text stories and half as many (20%) to upload of photographs. A little more than a quarter (28%) allowed the uploading information of community events; 16% provided for uploading of audio files; and 12% allowed uploading of video.

Blogs were even less open. A mere 10% allowed text-based posts from visitors, and half of that (5%) allowed photo or video posting. Not one of the blogs studied allowed audio posts of any kind by users.

What about at least commenting on the content or contacting staff? Here again citizen journalism seemed no farther along than (and at times behind) mainstream journalism. The 2007 PEJ Report included a content study of 38 news Web sites and found the participatory nature of the Web was more theoretical than tangible. Since then, many mainstream news outlets have taken additional steps to bring users and their original content into the news process.

All 64 sites allowed users to post comments, reserving the right to screen or edit as needed, but only 20% of news sites and a mere 8% of blogs offered reader forums. Another early tactic to give users a voice with an online poll proved no more popular than forums (20% of news sites and 5% of blogs).

When it came to contacting staff directly, nearly all (96%) of the news sites allowed e-mail messages to be sent to the site administrators, compared to 75% of the blogs. The vast majority of the sites did not provide a telephone number or address for the administrators.

Citizen-based sites also seem behind the curve in the methods of distribution they offer. As with most mainstream sites in the 2007 PEJ study, RSS feeds were extremely common. Only four blog sites and one news site did not have RSS feeds. However, the use of other distribution systems was rare. Less than 10% of blog sites (8%) or news sites (4%) offered podcasts, and only slightly more (13% of blogs and 8% of news sites) allowed visitors to e-mail stories to other people. And mobile delivery, the latest techno gimmick, existed only on one blog site and one news site.

One major shift in mainstream news Web sites in 2007 was in breaking down the “walled garden,” which allowed linking to outside organizations or stories both on their home pages and even more so inside stories [link to appropriate place in report]. With the idea that a new role of journalism is to guide people to the information they want, and that people are going to get to these other places anyway, many mainstream news Web sites are consciously choosing to help send people elsewhere.

According to this analysis, most citizen-run sites are working toward this model as well.

All of the home pages had one or more external links, but the types of link varied greatly. Forty percent of the blog sites and 24% of the citizen news sites had links to traditional news media. Thirty-four percent of sites linked to other news sites, but a larger percentage (58%) linked solely to citizen blog sites. Some of the citizen-run sites linked to commercial news sites (14%) and commercial blog sites (19%) that were not connected to a traditional news organization. These appear to be for-profit, stand-alone Internet news and blog sites.

Percentage of Citizen-Run Sites with at Least One Link to Various
Types of Sites

Blog Sites News Sites Total Sites
Link with traditional news organizations (newspaper, TV, etc.)
Link to citizen news sites
Link to citizen blog sites
Links to commercial news sites
Link to commercial blog sites
Number of sites

Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism

Looking at revenue streams, the picture was more varied. Advertising was much more common on citizen news sites than blogs. The majority of blog sites (58%) had no ads at all, while the majority of news sites (64%) had three or more display ads on the home page. Classifieds ads appeared on 44% of the news sites, most offered at no cost. (Only 3% of the blog sites carried classified ads.)

The second phase of the study will expand on the first by tripling the number of markets to be examined and adding an analysis of the content found on the citizen journalism site. In addition, some of the sites in Phase 1 will be examined to see if they have changed.

This study cannot answer why the sites were generally more restrictive than citizen journalism advocates might like, and several possibilities present themselves.

The nature of the sites might reflect their early development. Having an interest in citizen journalism does not guarantee knowledge of technology nor the funds to invest in needed software. Young sites also are likely to have fewer volunteers than sites that have established themselves. Another possible explanation is simply the lack of time to invest in the more complicated technology.

Or, it could be that these citizen journalists share some of the concern expressed by more traditional journalists in serving as hosts for information over which they have no editorial control.


1. Amanda Lenhart, et al, “Teens and Social Media,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 19, 2007. Cf. also Mary Madden and Susannah Fox, “Riding the Waves of “Web 2.0,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 5, 2006.

2. “Teens and Social Media,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 19, 2007.

3. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The Latest News Headlines —Your Vote Counts,” September 12, 2007.

4. “ YouTube Continues to Lead U.S. Online Video Market with 28 Percent Market Share, According to comScore Video Metrix,” comScore press release, November 30, 2007.

5. “Major Social Networking Sites Substantially Expanded Their Global Visitors Base During Past Year,” comScore press release, July 31, 2007.

6. David Sifry, “The State of the Live Web,” www., April 2007.

7. “Zogby Poll: Most Say Bloggers, Citizen Reporters to Play Vital Role in Journalism’s Future,” Zogby International, February 13, 2007.

8. “New study shows Americans’ blogging behaviour,” Synovate, August 30, 2007.

9. Amanda Lenhart and Susannah Fox, “Bloggers,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, July 19, 2006.

10. Marcelo Duran, “Study shows video playing big role for newspaper sites,” Newspapers & Technology, September 2007.

11. “Online Newspaper Blog Traffic Grows 210 Percent Year Over Year, According to Nielsen//NetRatings,” Nielsen//Net Ratings press release, January 17, 2008.

12. “New study shows Americans’ blogging behaviour,” Synovate, August 30, 2007.

13. Pew Internet & American Life Project Web site:

14. “New study shows Americans’ blogging behaviour,” Synovate, August 30, 2007.

In previous editions of the State of the News Media, we reported how many more Americans were reading blogs compared to the same time the year before. However, we were not able to collect data that tracked growth in 2007 compared to 2006.

15. “Zogby Poll: Most Say Bloggers, Citizen Reporters to Play Vital Role in Journalism’s Future,” Zogby International, February 13, 2007.

16. Huffington is reportedly staffed by 43 full-time employees. Jefferson Graham, “Huffington’s vision prospers on blog,” USA Today, September 25, 2007.

17. Vanessa Grigoriadis, “Everybody Sucks,” New York Magazine, October 15, 2007.

18. 2007 Fact Pack, Advertising Age.

19. Noam Cohen, “The Latest on Virginia Tech, From Wikipedia,” the New York Times, April 23, 2007.

20. Lee Rainie and Bill Tancer, “36% of online American adults consult Wikipedia,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, April 2007.

21. Brian Stelter, “MSNBC to Acquire a Chattier News Site,” New York Times, October 8, 2007.

22. Interview conducted by PEJ researcher David Vaina, January 10, 2008.

23. Jan Schaffer, “Citizen Media: Fad or Future of News?” J-Lab, February 2007.

24. Another citizen media initiative that struggled in 2007 was Assignment Zero. See Jeff Howe’s “Did Assignment Zero Fail? A Look Back, and Lessons Learned,” Wired, July 16, 2007.

25. Kim Hart, “For Local News Site, Model Just Didn’t Click,” Washington Post, January 15, 2007.

26. Mark Glaser, “Dan Gillmor Finds His Center,” MediaShift, January 31, 2006.

27. In January 2007, Gillmor became the founding director of the new Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreunership at Arizona State.

28. Mark Glaser, “Sunlight Foundation Mixes Tech, Citizen Journalism to Open Congress,” MediaShift, April 4, 2007

29. Ibid.