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Social Networks and the Citizen Journalist

The popularity of social networking sites like MySpace and user-generated content sites like YouTube are inducing traditional news organizations to rethink their approach to the Web.

Outfits like Fox News, CNN, USA Today and MSNBC have begun to incorporate social networking tools into their sites, as well as actively soliciting content from their users.

“For some news sites, there’s a great deal of interest in providing social networking tools to their audiences,” Howard Finberg, director for interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a research and training organization for journalists, told TechNewsWorld.

Mindset Shift

Embracing the philosophy behind the user-generated content movement requires a significant mind shift for mainstream news providers, he asserted.

“These sites are enabling conversations,” Finberg explained. “They are not controlling conversations. That’s a big mindset change for a lot of news people.”

Even if news organizations start incorporating social networking tools into their Web sites, the question remains whether or not they’re going to be used by significant numbers of people compared to places like MySpace and YouTube.

However, established news sites have advantages that they can leverage to attract Web surfers to use their social networking tools, Finberg contends.

“There’s one area where they absolutely have an advantage, depending on their relationship with their local community,” he observed. “They are a trusted convener of conversation in their local community. The fact that they are already in the the community is a powerful foundation on which to build social networking applications that they can then let their audience take and develop,” he added.

Fox in the Henhouse

A recent arrival to the user content scene is, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which also owns the largest social networking site on the Internet, MySpace. This week, Fox News pulled the wraps off its UReport service.

Like CNN’s I-Report and MSNBC’s First Person, UReport is Fox’s attempt to tap into the desire of users to create and share content on the Internet.

UReport allows users to upload photos and videos to Fox from a computer or cell phone and not only share them with others on the Net, but have a chance to have them aired on the Fox News TV channel as well.

Although only a few days old, UReport is already garnering momentum, according to Fox. “We’ve seen a lot of content already coming through,” Sylvia Borowski, director of’s project management office, told TechNewsWorld.

User Participation

UReport is part of efforts by Fox News to “give the users a feel that they’re connected and that we’re listening to them and we want them to be a participant of the Web site,” she noted.

“The mantra behind the Fox News Channel is ‘We report, you decide,'” Borowski added. “This is an opportunity to have people report, too.”

UReport is just the beginning of Fox’s efforts to beef up user participation at its Web site, she explained. “It’s early in the ball game for us right now,” Borowski observed. “This is the start. It’s going really well, but we intend to further develop our relationship with our viewers and readers.”

Asked what UReport offers its punters compared to established content trawlers like CNN and MSNBC, she replied: “We’re bringing our users, viewers and readers in slowly and having them get used to this. We will be offering them, bit by bit, these great new features through the Web site.”

Mainstream media’s flirtation with social networking and user-generated content is still a work in progress, according to Poynter’s Finberg.

“Many sites are still in the experimental stage,” he noted. “But I don’t think they have a lot of time to experiment with it.”

This story was originally published on March 23, 2007, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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