NBC News last week announced its acquisition of Stringwire, a digital startup that will allow anyone with a smartphone to stream live video content from the scene of a breaking news event straight to NBC news staffers, who will vet the material before publishing or broadcasting it. If well-executed, Stringwire could become one of the more seamless tools for connecting user-generated video content directly to professional news organizations.

The purchase of Stringwire is part of a growing trend—complete with CNN’s iReports and Fox News’ uReports—in which legacy news companies are trying to harness the video reporting power of ordinary citizens. How much potential content could be available through a smartphone-empowered public? Pew Research data on user-generated news content from perhaps the biggest citizen video portal, YouTube, offers some hints.

  • Citizen videographers can prove invaluable in providing images of breaking news events, such as natural disasters. In the seven days after the March 11, 2011 Japanese tsunami, the 20 most viewed YouTube videos were watched a total of 96 million times. Most of that footage was produced by ordinary bystanders. A separate Pew Research Center analysis of the tornado that struck Moore Oklahoma on May 20, 2013 found that seven of the 10 most popular YouTube videos posted in the first 24 hours were from the public. The most popular video—drawing nearly 600,000 views—came from the smartphone of a local resident.
  • Citizen eyewitnesses are already producing lots of popular video content. A Pew Research Center study of 260 of the most popular YouTube videos over the course of 15 months (January 2011-March 2012), found that more than a third (39%) of the most watched videos were clearly identified as coming from citizens. Another 51% bore the logo of a news organization, though some of that footage, too—with its characteristic shaky camera and audible bystander commentary—appeared to have been originally shot by amateurs rather than professional journalists.
  • Citizens are already doing more than simply pointing and shooting. The YouTube study found, not surprisingly, that news organizations were more likely to edit footage than ordinary citizens. Of the most viewed videos produced by news organizations, 65% had been edited. But a substantial number of videos coming directly from ordinary citizens—39%—had also been edited. That suggests many of these eyewitness reporters have other skills that legacy news partners might find valuable.

There is one other clear incentive for traditional news organizations to enlist an army of citizen eyewitnesses working for little or no pay. (NBC has not determined yet whether it will compensate its public contributors). In a memo discussing round of layoffs back in 2011, CNN Senior Vice President Jack Womack cited the growth of citizen-generated video in explaining why some photojournalists were losing their jobs in the organization. In an era of tightening news resources, media outlets may increasingly view citizen video producers as both a source of valuable content and of bottom-line relief.

Jesse Holcomb  is a former associate director of research at Pew Research Center.