the news frontier

Citizen Journos Level Up

Racking up points for participation
October 24, 2011

Video games are one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment. They’re interactive, competitive, social, and have the power to keep a person glued to a screen for inordinate lengths of time. A player’s success or failure is straightforward, mirrored back with a new level, a score, or the dreaded “game over.”

At Citizenside, a four-year-old platform for citizen journalism, this concept is applied to news production. A small army of members, almost 70,000, upload photos and video to Citizenside’s site as events unfold around the world. The content is sold to news outlets, so quality is key. Rather than give personalized feedback on every single submission—a nearly impossible task—Citizenside uses game mechanics as a quality control process.

Contributors earn points for supplying content. Upload a photo, points; image gets approved for the homepage of Citizenside, more points. Every time the photo is viewed, the point tally continues to rise. The homepage even has a scoreboard listing all of the current month’s top users. Using game design gives a steady stream of recognition to those that participate in the most productive way, and tries to motivate them to continue. “The points insure members have some idea of how they’re doing in following our editorial values,” says editor-in-chief Philip Trippenbach. “We’re focused on true, interesting content.”

But there is another side to the points system: the information gathered helps Citizenside evaluate the trustworthiness and reliability of individual members. “When we have five or six contributors sending content from one event, we can streamline that process. The person with a higher level is more likely to have sent in quality content,” says Garrett Goodman, the international coordinator for Citizenside.

At Digital Journal, over 30,000 contributors from some 200 countries contribute not only photos and video, but also report and write stories. Chris Hogg, the CEO of Digital Journal, says they introduced a point system one month ago, and people are responding. “It’s led to a big upsurge in how active people are and how engaged they are,” says Hogg.

Users are ranked on a general leaderboard as well in separate category rankings, such as top photographer and top commenter. “Exposing what people are doing in their reporting and rewarding them for that has shown the staff which individuals are attracting the most engagement,” says Hogg. “They may have always contributed a lot, but this system has showcased them.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

After an application process, approved contributors, dubbed “Digital Journalists,” or “DJs” are paid monthly from part of the site’s ad sales, and the larger the proportion of comments and likes the article has garnered, the more money that person makes. Digital Journal makes no claims to pay a lot—Hoggs says the average active user makes a few hundred dollars a month—but being featured as a top contributor only ups that persons chances of getting noticed. At a user-generated site, motivation is key. “We’re using game theory to incentivize people to participate more,” says Hogg.

The Bay Area News Group is using this same principle to stimulate participation on its map-based news app, TapIn Bay Area. While the actual news stories come from professional journalists, points are awarded to readers who upload photos, comment on articles, or submit reviews or blog posts. “It’s sweat equity. They’re putting in effort, just like we are, to make the app better,” says Jeff Herr, vice president of Interactive at California Newspapers Partnership. The app came out in July, but is still in beta. (Read a Q & A with one of TapIn Bay Area’s founders here.) It has been downloaded by some 1500 people so far, and is supposed to be formally released this week. For now, Herr says, these points will be redeemable for concert tickets or t-shirts, but readers may soon be able to exchange them for pre-arranged deals with local businesses. Herr and his staffers are brainstorming how game gaming theory can be applied to the Bay Area News Group websites, as well, working with some of the people behind Guitar Hero and other video games. “It’s about stimulating behaviors and getting rewards,” says Herr.

For Citizenside contributors, the ultimate reward is getting your content purchased and published, which is reflected in the site’s incentive system. A minority of members have climbed to the level of Certified Member, which gives them clearance to post their content directly to the site. Later, the content is verified as thoroughly as all the rest, but in breaking news events, the faster post can translate into dollars. This is particularly true in right-place-right-time scenarios, like a natural disaster, a protest, or a celebrity sighting.

The most lucrative example came from a video of John Galliano, the former head designer for Dior. In December 2010, a man with a cell phone at a Paris café recorded Galliano as he spiraled into a drunken, anti-Semitic rant, thus violating a French law against making public racial insults. The video went on Citizenside and sold all over the world, playing a part in Galliano’s eventual firing. Trippenbach declined to give the exact amount the contributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, was paid, but said it was enough to “buy a really nice car.”

These methods are becoming the norm on citizen journalism platforms. NowPublic is another user-generated news site that uses points and showcases top scores, and is the largest participatory news network in the world, with over 85,000 contributors. It is owned by Clarity Media, which also owns, a locally focused site, which calls its citizen journalists “examiners,” and, unlike NowPublic, has an application process and pays approved contributors from a portion of its ad revenue. According to general manager Justin Jimenez, Examiner is looking into rolling out its own “game inspired” feedback system soon.

But the term du jour earlier this year, “gamification,” has already fallen out of favor. All of the people I spoke with were careful to not use the expression, with Trippenbach even saying he “loathed” the word. Ian Bogost, one of the co-authors of the 2010 book Newsgames, says that gamification has become an ambiguous buzzword. “It lets you imagine that there is this power that you have captured, and you can just sprinkle it on your website like fairy dust and then watch the magic happen,” he says.

Bogost is wary of game structures which aren’t chiefly concerned with the journalism’s quality. “We know that people respond to certain kinds of incentives, but we don’t know what that means for the product that comes out the other end,” he says. It’s not that he thinks those structures are useless. Bogost says that using points and badges could help with a site’s efficiency, and sees them as more “business analytics” than a game. But like many things in journalism now, Bogost says it’s hard to come to any definitive conclusions about what game design is going to mean to journalism in the long run. “Designing the future is happening by accident, and it’s a very reactive domain,” he says.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.