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Comparative Analysis of Audience Generated Content in Two Newspapers

Technology has always been a harbinger of change. Every major development in technology has affected the way human beings work and live on this planet in some way or the other. Whenever the development in technology has been revolutionary, the changes brought been all encompassing and far-reaching. The recent revolution in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has brought about radical changes that have affected the way we work, the way we live, the way we play and even the way we think. The Digital Revolution has been all-pervasive. ICT has found application in all walks of life and in all spheres of activities.

The computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web and all the assorted peripherals and paraphernalia have become ubiquitous in modern society. And unlike with past technological advancement as in the Industrial Revolution, the ICT revolution has travelled with lightning speed to encompass of the entire world, and turn itself into a global phenomenon. Computers and the Internet have together interwoven the world into a Global Village of netizens who can be in touch with each other almost on a constant and uninterrupted basis if they so choose to.

The endeavour to generate, handle, manage and disseminate information has been right at the heart of every ICT development. In fact, the goal of making the right information available to the right user at the right time has been the driving force behind the broad ICT initiative. It is therefore obvious that the impact of ICT development would have been by far the greatest on a field of activity that has everything to do with the collection and dissemination of information – the field of journalism or media. ICT effect on the Media

The coming of the World Wide Web has radically changed the way that information is collected, edited, stored, disseminated and accessed. The Web has been instrumental in changing the very orientation and alignment of the writer-reader or news provider-news reader relationship. The reader or the public is no longer the passive component of the relationship. Gone is the ‘we write, you read’ dogma of modern journalism (Deuze, 2003, p: 203-230). New digital technologies increasingly enable users of the Internet to develop, create, rate and distribute Internet content and applications (O’Reilly, 2005).

Readers or users of information can become active participants in the creation of the media landscape and no longer have to be passive consumer of media (Economist, 2006). The Web is a free digital world and cannot or do not as such differentiate between professional journalists and non journalists per se. This unique impartial characteristic of the Web has resulted in many telling manifestations for the media. The greatest consequence has been that anybody can put up a web site and host any information on it. If someone so desires, he or she can even glean news off newspaper and put them on personal websites.

There has been a proliferation of news websites, and almost all news is now available in websites that are not strictly the web representatives of offline print newspapers. All a reader has to do is use a search engine to type in the keywords and find the information required. Why would the reader than prefer to stick to the comparatively more laborious routine of carrying the hardcopy of a newspaper, turning its pages manually and scanning through it meticulously to find the same information? Out of long-developed habit?

Habits, no doubt, die hard; but what of the new digital generation with access to all conceivable modes of mobile devices? “Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful mobile devices, the online audience has the means to become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information” (Lasica, 2007) The impact of digital media has been no less than devastating on the traditional hard print newspaper. “In recent years, newspapers (in America) have been experiencing declines in both print readership and circulation.

Specifically, daily circulation losses have totaled 6. 3 percent over the past three years, and daily readership declined by nearly two percent in 2006” (Bivings Group, 2007). Decreasing circulation and readership had in fact lead many media experts to comment that the coming of digital media may have sounded the death knoll for print newspapers. It was time for introspection, a time to find out how exactly the situation could be saved. A number of studies took on the tasks of analyzing the examining the relationship between the new digital media and traditional print media.

The findings turned out to be quite contrary to expectations. The Bivings Group (2007) argues that “the Internet does not have to be solely a threatening competitor for newspapers. Certainly, newspapers are facing competition from online news outlets. However, as newspaper websites differentiate themselves from their printed counterparts, websites can be a tool for newspapers to expand their reach and revenue. For this to occur, however, newspapers need to develop new business plans. ”

During the initial days of the web, it was assumed that a web copy of the print newspaper was the most viable representation that could be. Most newspaper publishing houses were initially hesitant in even putting up web replicas of their papers for the fear of losing circulation, and frequently opted to restrict access through passwords and registration processes. The development and release of additional multimedia web publishing features such as Web 2. 0 tools has however made the scope of complementing the hardcopy newspapers with additional inputs from the web version crystal clear.

User Generated Content (UGC) perhaps holds the highest potential for utilizing the Web to make the business of news and newspapers far more interesting, appealing and lucrative. User Generated Content The Internet and the Web have made interaction possible between the providers and users of information, online and in real time. This boon of interactivity had in fact been bestowed since the very embryonic days of the Web. Once the Net was in place, readers could read a story and send their feedback to the writer through a email. As early as in 1980, Usenet was recognized as a global discussion network.

Early versions of Prodigy and AOL had facilitated user discussions and comments in the late Eighties. The ‘rating sites’ of the late Nineties enabled users to rate subjects on the basis of different criteria, and had in fact led to many controversies. Then there were the website ‘forums’ in which people participated in discussions on topics hosted on the website concerned. Many such forums are active till today. The inherent interactivity of the Internet and the Web has evolved and developed to such an extent that it has lend hitherto unforeseeable characteristics to the modern media landscape.

Technology improvements now enable users not only to participate and interact but also to be a part of the media world itself. Users are now able to generate content that can be meaningfully utilized by any publication to further its own professional and business goals. Such content is known as User Generated Content (UGC) or Consumer Generated Media (CGM) and has been defined as “any material created and uploaded to the Internet by non-media professionals, whether it’s a comment left on Amazon. com, a professional-quality video uploaded to YouTube, or a student’s profile on Facebook” (Interactive Advertising Bureau, 2008).

The old dogmatic model of the media in which the information provider held the reins of monopoly is fast fading away and is being replaced by the new media model based on the shared, collaborative, collective and customized approach between the publishers and the readers. The consumer is well capable of assuming the multiple roles of the creator, consumer as well as the distributor of content. This has been made possible largely due to affordable but sophisticated technology and the unprecedented acceptance and popularity of UGC and social networking sites.

“In 2006, UGC sites attracted 69 million users in the United States alone, and in 2007 generated $1 billion in advertising revenue. By 2011, UGC sites are projected to attract 101 million users in the U. S. and earn $4. 3 billion in ad revenue” (Verna, 2007). Objectives and Scope The primary objective of this paper was to examine and analyze two leading newspapers on the web for the extent of participation of their respective users in generating content. The mechanisms or technologies which readers were provided with to facilitate their participation in content generation were examined in details and analyzed for their efficacy and value.

The advantages and disadvantages of user generated content as a whole as well as with reference to the ways and means by which they are developed were also examined in detail. The paper was sought to bring out the value and worth of user generated content as well as to underscore the many obstacles and pitfalls of generating such content. The end objective of the paper was to highlight the change in the media environment with the coming of the digital revolution, and to exemplify how the great potential of user participation in media and user generated media was being harnessed by the leading media houses.

The two newspapers were taken up for analyses basically because they represented two different approaches to participation of users in the process of generating or developing content. The Independent has always adopted a more or less conservative approach to user participation whereas The Guardian has been rather outgoing and aggressive in its overall approach. “The survey of 12 UK newspaper websites conducted in November 2006 revealed that only one, Independent. co. uk, was not providing any tools for reader participation” (Hermida & Thurman, 2008, p. 3).

By any reasonable standards, 2006 was quite late into the era of the Web and the Internet. For even between 1999 and 2005, readers has contributed 64,77,984 messages or ‘posts’ to the ‘News’ message board hosted by the Guardian. co. uk (Thurman, 2008, p. 2). Moreover, while the Guardian at http://www. guardian-series. co. uk/ would provide a perspective of the application of the concept of user participation or user generated content more in the context of a newspaper oriented towards regional or local news; the Independent at http://www. independent. co.

uk/ would provide a different perspective of the same issue as applied to a newspaper with a broader national scope. Research Question The research question being raised in the paper is: In the light of the recent development in Information and Communication Technology and their application in the media, how can user participation be promoted and User-Generated Content be best utilized in the media? Tools for User Participation Tools for user participation have acquired a much higher degree of sophistication than the humble email which was perhaps the precursor of them all.

Neither the online user nor the Web is now treated as passive entities, the web providing information and the user retrieving it. The present trend is more towards a participatory and reactive model in which the online user participates interactively and the information provider tries to customize the information in response to the interaction of the online user. Extended a step further into a business model, this translates into consumers and providers participating in the virtual world in a synergistic endeavor which results in products that are more suited to the requirements of the consumer.

In the field of journalism and media too, a number of innovative interactive tools have made it possible for users or consumers to not only interact meaningfully with the providers of news and information but also to in turn contribute in developing or generating the very content that is marketed. Readers of newspapers are now able to participate in the process of collection and presentation of information because of this collection of online tools. Among this array of online interactive tools are Polls, Message Boards, Comments, Q&As, Have your Says, Blogs, Reader Blogs, Your Story and Your Media.

‘Polls’ can be defined as a means of gauging user response to a topical issue or question. The user has to choose one out of given multiple or binary response options. Such polls can be very effectively used to produce instantly quantifiable user responses. They can be set up to run automatically on the web, are cheap to implement and operate, and carry almost zero-risk from all journalistic, legal and technical aspects. Their inherent disadvantage is that interaction through them is severely restricted only to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses.

‘Messageboards’ are web applications that enable readers to take part in threaded online discussions or debates on topics that are usually initiated by the readers. However in the case of newspapers, such topics usually have reference to content already covered by the newspaper or to content that could be of very high news value or potential. Messageboards are usually reactively moderated. While Post-moderated Messageboards publish the comments of users without initial moderation, Pre-moderated Messageboards publishes the comments only after vetting them initially.

Messageboards are also often simply referred to as ‘discussions’ in many newspaper websites. Web versions of newspapers usually invite readers’ comments to the stories that are published. A comment box comes at the end of the story, and readers can write in their own responses to the story concerned. While many newspapers require readers to register on the site before they can submit their comments, other newspapers let readers respond with their comments without any form of registration.

Comments are usually posted directly on the website, but there are publications which vet the comments before publishing them to keep profanities and other unrelated disturbing matters out of the site. ‘Q&A’ or Questions and Answers are interviews with journalists or other invited guests on the basis of questions submitted by readers. Q&A sessions are characteristically moderated. However, since Q&As are usually disseminated over the web in the form of audio or video, or are transcribed as live, they portray a feeling of interactivity and real time contact.

‘Have your Say’ is a web application in which journalists post topical questions for their readers to respond to. The Have your Say is usually open to user response for a limited period of time. Journalists can then select the responses, edit them and publish them. The published responses are either fully or reactively moderated. A blog, which is a short form of a web log, is a web-based communication tool that enables two-way interaction. A blog is essentially a web application where people can enter their thoughts, ideas, suggestions and comments.

A blog is a form of multimedia communication as it can contain all the media including video, audio, graphics and animations. Blogs are however primarily textual. They may contain links to other blogs and web pages, or to other media related to their topics. A blog written from a mobile device such as a pocket PC or a mobile phone is known as an mblog. Real-time blogging is known as liveblogging. A community or social-network of blogs is known as a blogosphere. Several unique characteristics distinguish blogs from other forms of electronic communications such as email, instant messaging, and multimedia message service (Scoble & Israel, 2006).

Anyone can publish a blog post easily and cheaply, and any viewer can comment on the blog post. Both the blog post and the comment are instantly available on the Web. Blogs are easy to find by any search criteria based on subject and author using blog search engines such as Technorati (http://www. technorati. com) and Feedster (http://www. feedster. com). A blog post can be linked to other blog posts to create a network of interconnected blogs of people with similar interests. This leads to the formation of communities.

Finally blogs can be syndicated by blog readers so that updates are immediately available to the user through the user’s website or email. Since 2006, news websites have started including blogs. In blogs the posts or entries are displayed in reverse chronological order and users are allowed to comment on the entries. Blogs can be authored by reporters or editors associated with the interests or opinions reflected in the blogs. News websites nowadays allow readers to have their own blogs within the site.

‘Reader blogs’ were launched in 2006 by the website of the UK’s best-selling daily newspaper, The Sun. http://thesun. co. uk allows readers to create a blog and have it hosted on the news organization’s web servers (Hermida & Thurman, 2008, p. 4). ‘Your Media’ are galleries of photographs, audio, video and other media that are contributed by readers and published in news websites after being vetted by journalists. Valuable exclusive media are sometimes contributed by readers who happened to be present when some event or incident occurred.

Similarly, ‘Your Stories’ are web facilities which invite readers to send in their stories. These stories are then edited and vetted by journalists before being published. The efficiency and utility of these diverge types of tools which can be used to promote user participation in the media has been complimented by other supporting web utilities such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) which is a family of web content feeding or updating formats used to publish works that are frequently updated, including blog entries, news headlines, video and audio.

“An RSS document (which is called a feed, “web feed, or channel) includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place” (Wikipedia, 2008).

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