The rise of professional-quality user generated media

The launch of Blogger in August 1999 opened the door to anyone and everyone creating media. Since then platforms to share writing, photos, video and more have enabled an extraordinary volume of content to be made available to the world. The media world has at least doubled in size this decade, adding many new content formats to the existing professionally produced media on channels such as TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers.

Despite cries from many that all user generated content is crap, that’s not true. It’s just that most user generated content is crap, and a small proportion is outstanding. Anyone who has browsed through the best photos on Flickr, for example, will see some extraordinary images they never would have seen otherwise. The best industry blogs are certainly considered on a par with mainstream reporting and analysis.

There are now some compelling examples of businesses that are based on professional-quality submissions from their users. A great article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle titled Everywhere, JPG – magazines for the future describes how these glossy magazines are compiled from people submitting their travel stories and photos, with the promise of being paid $100 and a year’s subscription to the magazine if their contributions are published. The selections are in fact made by the readers by voting on the site.

I first came across JPG a couple of years ago, so it’s great to see that it is doing well, with a circulation of 35,000 (and massively lower costs than a traditional publisher), while Everywhere has a circulation of 50,000. Halsey Minor, who founded CNET and owns the magazines’ publisher 8020, says that this approach to magazine publishing requires a circulation of 20,000 to break even.

Clearly true professionals – as in people who make a living from their work – won’t submit to these magazines, as it won’t pay the rent for them. However there is a layer of very talented people who make their living in other ways, who are thrilled to express their talents and have them appreciated by many. Money is subsidiary for them. In other cases, as explained in my Creative Career framework that appeared in my book Living Networks, people are using exposure to build a professional career. Since so many are happy to share their creations for no or little compensation, new business models become possible.

The article also discusses how CNN’s iReport initiative, which for two years has been accepting user created images and videos, is more frequently using the sometimes very high-quality submissions on air. In fact 915 user submitted programs were aired last month. Of course CurrentTV, which I first wrote about in 2005, is still creating a high-quality 24/7 cable TV channel using entirely user generated programming. The model is similar to JPG and Everywhere in that users are paid just a little, but the video creators benefit from exposure and kudos, sometimes building a career from their early start.

Expect to see professional-quality user generated media to grow as a sector. It will never be massive, but it will be a significant part of the media landscape.