Citizen Journalism and the tmc

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Citizen Journalism and the TMC:

User content as a driver for a free-circulation print newspaper

Submitted to the Newspaper Division

INMA Special CallCompetition for Industry-related Research

AEJMC 2007 Annual Convention

Washington, D.C.

Aug. 9-11, 2007


A random-digit-dialing survey was used to test the impact of citizen journalism content on a weekly total market coverage (TMC) edition of a Midwestern daily newspaper. Regression analysis of the data showed high interest in and readership of the user-generated content supplied to the TMC by a citizen journalism Web site was a major driver of the overall readership of the publication.


While academic and professional discussion of the newspaper industry often focuses on the paid-circulation daily newspapers, another type of publication plays a vital economic role for the newspaper industry. The Total Market Coverage – known in the industry as the “TMC” fills the economic gap left by the declining paid circulation of newspapers.

The TMC is a free-circulated print publication usually thrown from a carrier’s car into the driveways of all residences in a specific area. Its normal function is to give advertisers the distribution numbers unavailable via the paid newspaper. It is often a “wrapper” for the pre-printed advertising circulars known in the vernacular as “inserts.”

The importance of what some journalists called a “shopper” is well-recognized by the business side of newspapers. Dan Potter, general manager of The Missourian in Columbia, Mo., said the paper budgeted the TMC to provide a quarter of its advertising revenue, but in 2006 it provided a third.

What’s deceptive is that much of the daily revenue that comes from the TMC agreements is a forced buy, so even more of our revenue is the result of our TMCs. Also, we will do about $230,000 with the Real Estate This Week magazine this year. That would not be possible if we did not have the Saturday TMC for distribution purposes. (Potter, 2006).

But is the TMC just an advertising vehicle? Certainly the logistics of newspaper-style layout have long forced TMCs to publish some non-commercial text to fill the space on the page left by the stacked display ads.

In 2004, a team of researchers and experienced journalists at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia re-examined this norm while exploring the possibilities of the then-new citizen journalism phenomenon. The non-advertising space in TMC published by the school-affiliated Columbia Missourian community newspaper was filled with days-old copy from the daily newspaper – a traditional practice to entice residents to buy a subscription to the full newspaper rather than rely on the old news in the TMC.

For the research team, this seemed a poor marketing strategy. It was, they reasoned, much like a bakery offering passersby stale bread crumbs to entice them inside to buy fresh bread. Citizen journalism – content produced by non-journalist who otherwise would be classified as readers – offered content that the researchers felt was compelling but did not duplicate the efforts of the paid newspaper.

Their test of this theory was complex. First, a Web-based publication was created to both gather content from users and to provide a new information outlet in the community. was designed as a sister publication to the daily Columbia Missourian, but not as a replacement for it. The primary function of the site was “writership” rather than readership.

It took a year for the site to produce a stable source of citizen-generated stories and photographs. In 2005, the research team took over the responsibility for providing non-advertising content for The Columbia Missourian’s decades-old TMC – the Saturday Weekly Missourian.

This paper reports on the continuation of that practical research into the TMC content. If citizen journalism was as compelling as the Missouri School of Journalism researchers believed, then logic dictated that the new content would have an impact on the readership of the TMC product. A telephone survey sampling the of the residents in Columbia, to whom the Saturday Weekly Missourian was aimed, provided evidence that citizen journalism provided by a free TMC was not only read, but was a driver of readership of the entire product.


Total Market Coverage (TMC) editions

Free-distribution newspapers might be as old as the newspaper itself, but they have become more popular since the Great Depression. Known as “shoppers” or “Total Market Coverage” (TMC) editions in the industry, they are advertiser-heavy and generally distributed either by delivering one to every home in a defined circulation area or by making them available on sidewalks via free news racks. (Tsao & Sibley, 2004) The editions are attractive to advertisers because they reach every household in a targeted circulation area compared to 50% or less for a sales-driven newspaper. They also were an enormously profitable revenue source by the latter half of the 20th century, (Ferrell, 1998) with circulation of free newspapers jumping from 30 million in 1968 to 88 million by 2000. (Tsao & Sibley, 2004) In scholarly research they are defined as a local newspaper that contains ads and is circulated free to the general public. (Stone & Trotter, 1979)

As is the case with most advertising, the question related to TMC editions becomes one of pickup. TMC circulation figures often are not independently audited because the editions are not sales driven, the operating assumption being that a person will read a product that they pay for. In addition, delivering the product does not guarantee that the consumer will pick it up and bring it home, much less read it. (Ferrell, 1998; Srinivasan, Leone, & Muihern, 1995) This makes readership a crucial issue for advertisers as they attempt to measure what they are getting for their money. Free newspapers tend to be attractive to local advertisers, but research has shown that the usage rate of TMC products is lower than it is for any other form of media. (Tsao & Sibley, 2004)

Newspapers tend to be protective of these circulation numbers involving readership and scholars have done little in the area to measure readership. One study found a 58% readership rate among those who receive shopper editions (Stone & Trotter, 1979) but the results are problematic for our current study for a few reasons. First, the study was done during a time when newspaper readership was far higher, and indeed the newspaper reading habit was more pronounced. Much has changed in newspapers, and indeed in media choices, since 1979. Second, the data showed that 10% of Stone & Trotter’s sample reported never receiving the newspapers at all -- and yet 8% of that group reported reading the content. The researchers said it was a sign of an edition being passed around in social circles, but they did not substantiate that assumption.

Proprietary TMC readership is harder to examine but more startling. A research director for a major national newspaper chain told colleagues that his 2006 study of TMC products in two cities showed that readership was 8.7% and 10.8%. (Federation, 2007)

A 2006 study by Belden Associates (Belden Associates, 2007) found that non-subscribers, the very group TMC products are trying to reach, do not find the advertising in TMC products useful. The recommendation based on these results was to redesign products in such a way that they are more attractive to users in terms of readership, that is make it such that the content draws the user into the publication to read it so that the value for the advertiser increases.

TMC readership and The Saturday Weekly Missourian

It is worth reviewing some past research related to The Saturday Weekly Missourian, which is the publication that we are analyzing for this research. The Saturday Weekly Missourian is the weekly TMC product for subscriber-driven regular newspaper The Columbia (MO) Missourian. Because The Missourian publishes only six days a week and does not have a paid-circulation Saturday edition, the TMC product is the only publication put out that day by the company.

Before the current research was launched, the last available data was gathered in was a student-conducted survey in 2003. Although the sample size was low, the survey indicated that regular readership rates for The Saturday Weekly Missourian was approximately 34%. The students – who supplemented their minimalist survey with journalistic interviews also found less than half of those surveyed said the TMC product’s news was relevant. (Corn, Dalsing, Mossler, Shellabarger, & York, 2003)

In 2005, the TMC product underwent an overhaul. Recalling earlier research that showed readership as being the true value for the advertiser, The Columbia Missourian executives decided to change the content source for the publication in an attempt to spur readership increases. Up to that point, the TMC was stocked with older content, consisting of features and news that already had run in the daily Missourian earlier in the week as well as older wire content from sources such as the Associated Press. The product was re-launched on Oct. 1, 2005 with content coming from, a citizen journalism Web site that was operated by The Columbia Missourian.

MyMissourian editors chose the best of that week’s citizen journalism submissions for the print edition, with the idea being that it would provide “fresh” content for the TMC publication as well as feed traffic to the Web site in hopes that this cross-pollination would increase the value of both products. (C. Bentley, 2005; C. Bentley, et al., 2006) Unknown was whether this type of content would lead to more relevance or readership. Answering that question is the purpose of this study. Before discussing that, however, one needs background information on the citizen jouralism concept.

Citizen journalism

“Citizen journalism” is a popular label used to describe a form of media that involves moderated reader participation. It generally starts off as a Web-based approach, but one of the long-term strategies is to develop a “best of” print edition that ultimately will serve as the medium’s revenue source. The Northwest Voice, which is the citizen journalism arm of The Bakersfield Californian, used material from the Web edition to revive its shopper edition. (Terdiman, 2004) The paper’s own research showed that readership of its regular shopper edition was low - this not pleasing information for its advertisers. Mary Lou Fulton, drawing upon an idea pioneered by OhMyNews in South Korea, guided the creation of a community Web site that was run solely on story and photo submissions from the community. As content increased, the material eventually replaced the stale material that often stocked the shopper editions. The use of citizen journalism has been credited for turning Bakersfield’s shopper around because it provided fresh content. (C. Bentley et al., 2005)

Citizen journalism reverses the sender-receiver process of traditional journalism. Whereas newspaper, television and Web media use the journalist as a gatekeeper in the process of selecting and presenting news, in the citizen journalism format the journalist is a “shepherd” in the process (Glaser, 2004). What this means is that the journalist’s role is to seek out community voices and encourage submissions; their only editing role is in making sure that copy is readable and does not open the publication to legal problems, such as libel or defamation, and then they make selections as to what goes on the main pages of the Web site (C. Bentley et al., 2005).

“Citizen journalism” is just one name for this medium, but it is the one with the most popular appeal. In its beginnings it was referred to as “participatory journalism” or “open source journalism” (C. Bentley et al., 2005), but it also has been referred to as “grassroots journalism” and more recently “user-generated content” (UGC) in the popular press (Gillmor, 2004; Schweiger & Quiring, 2005). Because most citizen journalism is done online, and indeed the citizen journalism content being studied in this research originated online, it is useful to examine it as an online phenomenon to understand what the content is and where it comes from.

Citizen journalism is partly built on the personal nature of blog writing. It can be written in first person or third person. If a person decides to weave opinion with fact, that is considered acceptable; the basic tenet is that community members are not trained to think or write in the artificial standard of media objectivity, and thus they often are not forced to adopt that standard (C. Bentley et al., 2005). Citizen journalism is more like a community blog in the sense that there are multiple authors, but unlike a typical community blog there are no limits placed on who is allowed to submit to the site (Glaser, 2004). One of the reasons this format works is the explosion in ownership of an array of cheap citizen journalism tools such as digital cameras, camera mobile phones, computers and iPods. With these tools affordable and broadband penetrating more homes in America than ever, the time is right for citizen journalism to make inroads into communities once dominated by a single newspaper or television station (Gillmor, 2004).

The notion that citizen journalism is moderated is what separates citizen journalism from a typical community blog, and in fact is what elevates the posting format into a news format. The editor running the site often determines what is placed on the front page, and thus the gatekeeper role still happens to a limited a degree (Glaser, 2004). Citizen journalism sites often are designed like a news site, not a blog, and thus there are layered pages in which there is a main front page and several topic categories.

Still, the gatekeeper role is greatly diminished from what it would be at a typical news site, because the editor would determine both what makes the front page and what stories make it onto the site. Unless the stories violate standards for submission, citizen journalism sites tend to publish anything submitted. These standards depend on the site, but they can be less restrictive than typical news sites. (C. Bentley et al., 2005; C. H. Bentley, 2004) The professional editor is not the only way to control content quality, though. Citizen journalism sites are often built upon a variant of the “wiki” concept in which software allows readers to help edit content but adds another layer of quality control to the process via programming or human intervention (C. Bentley et al., 2006; Semple, 2005).

Theoretical framework

Although several theoretical ways of knowing could be testable for the purpose of this research, uses and gratifications (U&G) works best because it focuses on the reader both from a needs and a uses perspective. U&G theory is an approach that looks at media in terms of how it met the social or psychological needs of the person using that medium. It assumes an active audience and states that an individual has needs and uses media to fill those needs (Blumler & Katz, 1974) Four audience needs generally have been consistently found in U&G research: information, personal identity, entertainment and a block consisting of integration and social interaction. (McQuail, 1994)

There have been studies that used U&G theory to examine TMC products, but most have focused on advertising as a way of providing information utility to the product user. (Hale, 1980; O'Keefe, Nash, & Liu, 1981) The potential weakness of this approach, though, is that it only studies part of the content contained in these publications and assumes that advertising alone is what drives readership of these publications.

One potential way to address this issue is to incorporate theoretical advances recently made in media research. The “communication needs-state model” incorporates elements of U&G theory and states that people first determine their needs and then choose media based on those needs (Thorson & Duffy, 2006). This model posits four needs satisfied by communication: connectivity, information, and shopping/consuming. Connectivity, the need to engage with other people, is seen in many online or purchasing behaviors that allow for individual expression among a group of similar-minded people. Information, the need to identify, understand, and cope with what is going on, happens in consumption of news as well as the information-seeking behaviors (such as using a search engine) that come with online use. Entertainment, the need for diversion or pleasure, is seen across many types of media. Shopping/consuming, the acquisition of good and services, also can be mediated from browsing ads to using the Internet in order to make purchases (Thorson & Duffy, 2006).

Once needs are identified, they are filtered through such demographic controls as age, gender, and race, as well as through what is called aperture, which defined as the particular point in time for an individual when exposure to a message would yield maximum results (Thorson & Duffy, 2006). The filter combination of aperture and demographics leads to a choice in the type of media product a person chooses by news approach (opinionated, created, authoritative), and out of that comes the media choice. The media choice is actually made from a list determined by the previous filters; thus, media choices that might ordinarily fill the need are pared down from the list by the filters of demographics, aperture, and news approach (Thorson & Duffy, 2006; Thorson & Thorson, 2006).

It might be tempting to think that The Saturday Weekly Missourian TMC product is an all-encompassing product for this type of model, because in terms of makeup the product embodies all four of the needs states that this model posits, but to think so would be to misunderstand the Media Choice Model. While it might be true that The Saturday Weekly Missourian offers connectivity through citizen journalism content, information through news, entertainment through content and advertising, and shopping/consuming through advertising, MCM states that a person has multiple media choices by which to fulfill a need, and recall as well that one of the assumptions of U&G theory to begin with is that needs can be fulfilled by competing media. To better fit The Saturday Weekly Missourian within the MCM framework, it is possible to test whether the product fills those four need states but it is much more complicated to predict that an individual will choose the product based on that.

Research Questions

Building upon MCM and U&G theory, this study asks what content, if any, will encourage people to read a newspaper that is given to them free? Both theories suggest that the information must fulfill a person’s stated need before they can actively choose it from among other competing sources. This research will specifically examine two of the most commonly identified needs in other U&G studies via three hypotheses:

H1: Respondents will report reading a TMC newspaper more often if it has content they find interesting.

H2: Respondents will report reading a TMC newspaper more often if it has content that fulfills their need for information better than another competing source.

H3: Respondents will report reading a TMC newspaper more often if it gives them the opportunity to connect with their community.


The researchers partnered with Pulse Research, Inc., to conduct a random-digit-dialing telephone survey of Columbia, MO residents. Pulse, which donated its services, is a national company that has conducted more than 3,500 surveys for publishing companies since 1985 (Marling, 2007). The researchers designed a short questionnaire that respondents could complete within 5 minutes to ensure the best participation possible. It focused on experience with the Columbia Missourian, and their familiarity with different aspects of the Missourian’s free Saturday edition.

All calls were made the week of Feb. 26 to March 2, 2007. The random-dialing procedure ensured a representative sample of Columbia residents. The three primary Columbia ZIP codes sampled have 45,554 residential addresses (Melissa Data, 2007). The margin of error for the 300-home sample in a 50-50 proportional split was 5.64 at the 95% confidence rate.

The sample had nearly equal percentages of respondents from Columbia’s three ZIP codes but a higher percentage of women (61 %) than Census data shows (51.6%) (Melissa Data, 2007). The sample’s average age was higher than the population average, but only 2 % of respondents were students. The area is not only home to the 28,253-student University of Missouri-Columbia, but also a women’s college and an independent college. Indeed, the demographics for the ZIP codes are heavily skewed toward college-aged residents. However, this survey was designed not to focus on students who mostly live in apartment complexes to which the TMC product is not delivered. In addition, students often have a cell phone as their primary telephone, whereas the researchers called only those with a land line. Respondents’ occupations mirrored the city’s non-student diversity. Only 27% were retired, 26% were professionals and 14% were blue collar.

A key business challenge for The Saturday Weekly Missourian was revealed with a question that asked how frequently the newspaper had been delivered. Almost as many respondents (44 %) said they had never received the TMC as those who said they received it weekly (48 %).

That lack of delivery also impacted the readership measures. Readership of the Saturday TMC - the independent variable - was measured two ways: first by asking if respondents were familiar with the Saturday paper and then asking them how often they read it on a “never” to “every week” scale. If respondents were not at all familiar with the Saturday paper, the survey ended. Of the 300 respondents, 180 said they were familiar with the paper. By contrast, 190 respondents said they were familiar with the Wednesday free edition delivered by the competing Columbia Daily Tribune. Those who said they never received the paper were eliminated from the analysis of attitudinal questions because their responses strongly correlated (r(1,169)=.47, p<.01) with those who reported never reading the paper. The Columbia Missourian has since significantly increased distribution of the TMC in the three primary ZIP codes.

Questions about the citizen journalism component of the newspaper operationalized the dependent content variable for H2 and H3 . Bentley et al. (2006) showed that people read online to find a sense of community and see what their friends and neighbors had to share. They also read the site to find information that was not available in any other media in town. Two questions measured that interest in citizen journalism on a five-point scale ranging from “no interest” to “extreme interest.”

This survey also measured respondents’ attitude toward the Saturday paper before the change by asking what their general impression of the paper was and how long they had been familiar with the Saturday paper. More than 72 % said they had known about the paper for more than five years.

The commercial utility of an advertising-packed TMC is a plausible alternative explanation for interest in The Saturday Weekly Missourian, so control questions about advertising were included in the survey. Respondents reported how often they read the TMC’s preprinted advertising circulars - the inserts - and what value they gave them compared to the stories in the newspaper.

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