User-generated content supports South China Morning Post’s hard news production

By Mat Booth

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong


User-generated content (UGC) has come a long way. Once the preserve of cat videos and exploding whales, it has been coveted as one of the most important primary sources of news video for a number of years now.

The ubiquity of mobile phones with high-quality cameras has meant an explosion of good-quality video from anywhere in the world. The first images we see of news events are now, more often than not, from UGC sources. Our understanding of what happened is often shaped by those images shot from the sidelines with mobile phones.

If you think about the evolution of UGC, it is interesting to try and think of where it first appeared. One of the earliest examples is probably the Zapruda film — the grainy 8mm film shot on a home movie camera that accidentally captured the assassination U.S. President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Houston by Abraham Zapruda. You can only imagine how much more footage would have been available by the crowd if mobile phones existed then.

User-generated content allows South China Morning Post to cover more stories quickly, even when its reporters are not on the ground. Copyright: South China Morning Post
User-generated content allows South China Morning Post to cover more stories quickly, even when its reporters are not on the ground. Copyright: South China Morning Post

Jump forward nearly 60 years — UGC has come of age.

We’ve overcome the obstacles of quick access and iron-clad verification. With eyewitnesses able to share footage nearly instantaneously via messaging apps or file-transfer services, news agencies and specialty organisations have made it their business to license, verify, and distribute this type of content.

Storyful led the way in this regard. It recognised the potential of UGC to support mainstream broadcasters if the hurdles of confirming authenticity and distribution could be navigated. Other UGC-focused agencies have sprung up offering this kind of service to busy newsrooms such as our own. As more appear, we will continue to find new avenues to increase our access to video from around the world.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) holds accuracy sacrosanct and always authenticates data and material used in stories. Third-party material and information are gathered from respected publications and organisations, and double-checked.

With these UGC clearing houses gathering, sourcing, and verifying material, it allows our video journalists to focus more on the writing and editing of the story rather than spending most of their time tracking down footage. It also allows the UGC creator to be easily reimbursed for their content through a recognised system of licensing and payment. Both the creator and publisher benefit hugely from this arrangement.

We still try to source video ourselves, as it’s always good to have exclusive footage. But with the limited resources of a digital publisher’s video team, we wouldn’t be able to come close to sourcing the amount of video that our partners are able to provide for us. Hundreds of clips of UGC content are made available every day, and we have seen huge success across our distribution networks by taking advantage of it.

During the pandemic, UGC has had an enormous impact on news media and news reporting. News outlets were restricted from places like hospitals and quarantine facilities during the lockdown, but thankfully, the public was increasingly willing to film and share what they witnessed and experienced.

The absence of social interaction and the strong sense of social isolation over the past year has driven demand for the real-time viewpoint UGC often provides. One of the best examples was inside the locked-down city of Wuhan during the early stages of the pandemic, where information and video content was virtually out of reach for international media organisations. UGC personal accounts of what the situation was like in the city filled the news gap created by the lockdown.

UGC has become hugely important and extremely popular, but where does this popularity come from?

While it’s true that UGC video holds an authenticity and accessibility that viewers will recognise from their own phone recordings, the attractiveness of video that looks like it could have been shot by viewers themselves as a selling point for UGC is a bit overstated. Far from being a question of style, it’s the unique perspective offered by some of these clips that resonates. If the same thing was shot by a professional, would the interest be the same? Probably.

As a digital publisher, our newsroom offers a range of content that can appeal to many different people. UGC helps to support our hard news content, but it also allows us to create more entertainment or quirky offerings.

At the SCMP, one of the areas we decided to stake a claim on the enormous pool of UGC coming out of China. With 2020 figures showing 847 million mobile Internet users in China and the explosion in popularity of video apps like Kuaishou and Douyin, much of life in China is recorded and uploaded.

We decided to make it part of our offering to translate this digital existence to an English-speaking audience while offering context and background to the issues we see. This is one of the newsroom initiatives that drives our mission to lead the global conversation on China.

Often amusing, sometimes heartbreaking, and always revealing, these videos based on UGC from within China have become one of our most important strands of content with a very substantial viewership, particularly in the United States.

With availability increasing and the quality of UGC rising, its importance and visibility within newsrooms and video teams will certainly expand within those teams willing to embrace UGC’s many strengths.

About Mat Booth

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