Welcome to 2012, the year citizen journalism mobile apps will fail

More than a few spins on citizen journalism were released as mobile apps as of late, and with good reason: it is an excellent idea. So before I discuss the limitations I see in the current iterations, here’s why the market is ripe.

People are posting breaking news, photos and videos to their networks on Twitter and Facebook already. There’s an intrinsic incentive already there, for regular people to report the news, and one lucky app just needs to capitalize on it.

Next, there’s a clear need — as citizens begin reporting, whether in Egypt or at Occupy Wall Street, we’re realizing that there’s more news that needs reporting, and fewer pro journalists. Plus, the cameras on mobile phones just keep getting better.

And last — we don’t yet have a network based on location. All of our social networks are based on social connections, either through friends or work or family, and apps these days take advantage of using Facbeook or Twitter to authenticate and further push the norm that these existing networks are the only networks a person will identify with. An app that uses relationships based on location would strike an unseen chord with users. At a moment in time, you have more in common with the person sitting in traffic with you than anyone else, and this relationship thus far has been ignored.

Here’s a use case: Wanda is driving home from work and sees a car get T-boned in an intersection. The cars behind her are backed up in traffic for 20 minutes, until emergency workers come to clear the road. Within an hour, the scene is totally clear, as if nothing happened, save a bit of debris. This story is relevant to people living in the community, who might sign a petition to reduce speed limits, or people stuck in traffic behind Wanda, who can’t see what happened or know how long they’ll be held up. This relevance, based on time and location, is not currently dealt with in existing digital networks.

With this clear opportunity for a mobile citizen reporting platform, it’s not surprising that many such tools are emerging. Here are a few:

  • Rawporter: Appeals to photographers wanting to make money, off their smartphone photos. Depends on media parters to put out calls for specific photos. Plans to capitalize on “the right person being in the right place at the right time” — the first part of that is crucial, because the right person would already have to have installed Rawporter to get the right photo at the right time.
  • Meporter: Will license citizen photos to media organizations, and the content creators might get paid. Uses a Foursquare-like badge approach to encourage gamification and interaction between users and brands (which is also a revenue stream). So far Meporter is limited by critical mass, as the purpose of scanning reports in your neighborhood is not useful until many of your neighbors become Meporter users.
  • Bambuser: Already active internationally, Bambuser was used to broadcast live during news events in Egypt and Syria. Some people use it in live-but-not-breaking situations, such as a personal show, almost like a video podcast. Users get credit for their videos but not payment and in a partnership with AP, user videos might go further and AP journalists might make use of Bambuser themselves.
  • Stringfly: Blends the Rawporter model with a corporate branding use case. A news organization could ask for a photo, but so could a brand. Or, a brand could send out a survey, with rewards or monetary compensation for the user. It’s has pop-culture appeal, as you can imagine teens taking pictures of a Pepsi for the brand’s website in exchange for a free soda.
  • Signal: Mixes citizen journalism with Reddit, and is getting ready to launch its minimum viable product, which is limited to photos. Users can vote up stories submitted by other users based on what they think is newsworthy. The heavy emphasis on geolocation and world events inspired the product to take precaution with privacy.

The core value propositions of all these services is similar: geotagged media posts that can be used in C2C news reporting, but also used by media organizations. One major difference is the business model of each, and that will prove a defining factor not just in success, but in user acquisiton.

As I mentioned, there is an intrinsic incentive for regular (non-journalist) people to report news, manifested in two ways: The “I saw it first” and the “Helpful neighbor.” Offering micropayment for user-submitted content devalues the service. That’s why people aren’t submitting to content farms for fun, but they are posting LOLcats. Posting content must serve the user experience.

Also, making money off the news is the greatest challenge for media companies right now, so there’s going to be a fine line between working with them and competing with them, when it comes to revenue streams. Plus, offering a viable revenue stream might diminish interest from investors — who are better able to control valuation when there’s little science involved. Building a fantastic product for an acquisition might frankly be better worth everyone’s time than building a long-term business.

Design is said to be the biggest differentiator in Silicon Valley right now — but the aforementioned services still emphasize tech. In all fairness, their offering is heavy on tech and getting that right might seem to be the biggest challenge up until the point of launch. But that’s when the battle for users begins, and a product that wasn’t designed for users from the beginning will struggle.

When it comes to user acquisition, all these services deal with the same issue: Why download an app for reporting news when you don’t know that you’ll walk by something that is newsworthy? News is, by definition, time-sensitive. Stringfly incentivizes non-time sensitive use with brand interaction while Bambuser’s livestream offering allows for non-news use cases.

To look at some historical examples, Facebook acquired users who wanted to interact with college classmates, and Twitter acquired users who wanted to follow thought leaders and icons. Both these services mimicked an existing network and just gave it more architecture by making it digital.

The silver lining is that with a specialized network, users can start from scratch in deciding which contacts they’d like to share news with. But does news need its own network? Mobile-first Just.Me is getting ready to launch, and will be a competitor to both Path and Facebook, with privacy controls that allow for personal journal-type entries as well as more public posts.

If a non-specialized app is able to get this right — serving as an effective location-based C2C network, and also surfacing UGC news to news media organizations — all these citizen journalism apps may fall flat. Since their design and launch strategies have not acquired the mass users necessary for network dynamics to be put in play, they all still hold a weak grip on the pain point they aim to solve. Trying to monetize right away will only slow down the development of the product.

Perhaps the market is simply not ready for an idea that, in theory, seems so crucial and in demand. Time will tell if any of these services hit gold, and I can guarantee more similar platforms are underway in development. But if these companies do not arm themselves with the flexibility to fail a few times, they will not be able to discover the model that will work.