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Not paid to play: A case study of online community participants and the effects of non-monetary motivation upon public journalism
Unformatted Document Text:  NOT PAID TO PLAY 8 It  is  important  to  note  that  in  such  research,  is  it  understood  that   participants’  answers  –  and  the  researchers’  interpretation  of  those  answers  –  may   not  provide  generalizable  insights  for  experiences  outside  that  project’s  scope.  However,  the  use  of  ethnographic  research  in  this  particular  study  can  provide  a   rich  description  of  experiences  and  perspectives  of  those  performing  public  journalism  and  contribute  to  the  larger  body  of  knowledge  surrounding  this  topic.       Motivation:  Writing  For  Themselves,  Not  To  Further  Democracy      To  understand  the  purpose  and  motivation  of  community  participation   through  the  use  of  blogs  and  columns  and  the  writers’  perception  of  their  role  in  the  community,  one  of  the  most  important  questions  for  the  columnists  to  answer  was   why  they  decided  to  write  their  blogs  and  columns  –  for  free.  Writers  tended  to  focus  their  answers  around  the  benefits  that  they  received  personally,  such  as  notoriety  in  the  community  and  the  ability  to  develop  stronger  writing  skills.  One   writer  who  had  served  a  short  stint  on  the  city  council  said  that  her  column  and  blog  helps  her  to  “keep  my  hands  in  lots  of  different  pots”  within  the  community.  She  and  other  writers  said  that  they  enjoyed  their  perceived  position  as  community  opinion   leaders.  They  also  perceived  to  receive  legitimacy  as  a  local  expert  by  maintaining  a  newspaper  column  and  web  presence.   While  participants  said  that  they  believed  that  their  writings  could  influence   public  opinion  on  topics  within  the  city,  few  discussed  their  role  as  providing  a  democratic  outlet  to  engage  the  public  in  debate,  information-­‐gathering,  and   connecting  the  media  institution  with  public  needs  and  desires.  What  the  columnists  write,  one  contributor  said,  “might  actually  influence  [the  public],”  but  he  said  that   he  writes  mainly  to  “express  my  own  thoughts,  my  own  feelings,  express  my  own  values  about  something.”  Indeed,  another  writer  said  that  he  wrote  because  of  “ego.”     One  writer,  EJ,  said  that  he  wrote  to  garner  attention  from  the  community  for   his  comments.  He  said  that  he  wrote  about  controversial  topics  in  part  because  the  newspaper’s  “reporting  is  always  going  to  be  fairly  dry.  They  are  reporting  on  racial  issues,  but  they  just  can’t  deal  with  it  in  a  substantive  way  in  the  way  an  op-­‐ed  piece   can  deal  with  it.”  He  added  that  when  he  started  writing  his  blog  he  thought  that  his  controversial  opinions  would  spark  dialogue  with  readers  in  comments  which   appear  below  their  columns  and  blog  posts  on  the  newspaper  site.     However,  EJ  and  other  writers  agreed  that  the  user  comments  rarely  result  in   readers  discussing  local  issues  with  the  writers  –  or  other  users.  Rather,  the   community  participants  said,  more  often  than  not  many  of  the  online  comments  focus  on  the  readers’  perceptions  of  the  columnists  as  being  either  too  political  or   controversial,  not  on  the  topics  being  discussed.  At  some  point,  then,  EJ  said,  his  blog  became  an  outlet  “so  that  I  am  not  just  writing  a  diary  to  myself”  about  issues.  More  on  the  writers’  interactions  with  readers  will  be  discussed  below  as  another  theme.   Before  we  move  on,  though,  it  is  worth  noting  one  element  of  the  online   comments  that  the  writers,  as  a  group,  did  seem  to  appreciate  –  the  ability  for  users  to  “recommend”  or  “approve”  blog  postings.  “Recommending”  a  blog  post  or  column   places  it  on  the  news  site’s  homepage  as  a  featured  story  and  increases  the  readership  for  that  piece.  One  writer  said  that  this  validation  reflects  her  role  at  the  

Authors: Gutsche Jr, Robert. and Arif, Rauf.
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background image
It  is  important  to  note  that  in  such  research,  is  it  understood  that  
participants’  answers  –  and  the  researchers’  interpretation  of  those  answers  –  may  
not  provide  generalizable  insights  for  experiences  outside  that  project’s  scope.  
However,  the  use  of  ethnographic  research  in  this  particular  study  can  provide  a  
rich  description  of  experiences  and  perspectives  of  those  performing  public  
journalism  and  contribute  to  the  larger  body  of  knowledge  surrounding  this  topic.    
Motivation:  Writing  For  Themselves,  Not  To  Further  Democracy  
To  understand  the  purpose  and  motivation  of  community  participation  
through  the  use  of  blogs  and  columns  and  the  writers’  perception  of  their  role  in  the  
community,  one  of  the  most  important  questions  for  the  columnists  to  answer  was  
why  they  decided  to  write  their  blogs  and  columns  –  for  free.  Writers  tended  to  
focus  their  answers  around  the  benefits  that  they  received  personally,  such  as  
notoriety  in  the  community  and  the  ability  to  develop  stronger  writing  skills.  One  
writer  who  had  served  a  short  stint  on  the  city  council  said  that  her  column  and  blog  
helps  her  to  “keep  my  hands  in  lots  of  different  pots”  within  the  community.  She  and  
other  writers  said  that  they  enjoyed  their  perceived  position  as  community  opinion  
leaders.  They  also  perceived  to  receive  legitimacy  as  a  local  expert  by  maintaining  a  
newspaper  column  and  web  presence.  
While  participants  said  that  they  believed  that  their  writings  could  influence  
public  opinion  on  topics  within  the  city,  few  discussed  their  role  as  providing  a  
democratic  outlet  to  engage  the  public  in  debate,  information-­‐gathering,  and  
connecting  the  media  institution  with  public  needs  and  desires.  What  the  columnists  
write,  one  contributor  said,  “might  actually  influence  [the  public],”  but  he  said  that  
he  writes  mainly  to  “express  my  own  thoughts,  my  own  feelings,  express  my  own  
values  about  something.”  Indeed,  another  writer  said  that  he  wrote  because  of  “ego.”    
One  writer,  EJ,  said  that  he  wrote  to  garner  attention  from  the  community  for  
his  comments.  He  said  that  he  wrote  about  controversial  topics  in  part  because  the  
newspaper’s  “reporting  is  always  going  to  be  fairly  dry.  They  are  reporting  on  racial  
issues,  but  they  just  can’t  deal  with  it  in  a  substantive  way  in  the  way  an  op-­‐ed  piece  
can  deal  with  it.”  He  added  that  when  he  started  writing  his  blog  he  thought  that  his  
controversial  opinions  would  spark  dialogue  with  readers  in  comments  which  
appear  below  their  columns  and  blog  posts  on  the  newspaper  site.    
However,  EJ  and  other  writers  agreed  that  the  user  comments  rarely  result  in  
readers  discussing  local  issues  with  the  writers  –  or  other  users.  Rather,  the  
community  participants  said,  more  often  than  not  many  of  the  online  comments  
focus  on  the  readers’  perceptions  of  the  columnists  as  being  either  too  political  or  
controversial,  not  on  the  topics  being  discussed.  At  some  point,  then,  EJ  said,  his  blog  
became  an  outlet  “so  that  I  am  not  just  writing  a  diary  to  myself”  about  issues.  More  
on  the  writers’  interactions  with  readers  will  be  discussed  below  as  another  theme.  
Before  we  move  on,  though,  it  is  worth  noting  one  element  of  the  online  
comments  that  the  writers,  as  a  group,  did  seem  to  appreciate  –  the  ability  for  users  
to  “recommend”  or  “approve”  blog  postings.  “Recommending”  a  blog  post  or  column  
places  it  on  the  news  site’s  homepage  as  a  featured  story  and  increases  the  
readership  for  that  piece.  One  writer  said  that  this  validation  reflects  her  role  at  the  

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