WARNING: This is a very long piece, written over several periods of time, looking at the power of UGC. In summary, its sets out why I think UGC has been good for the regional Press.
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The other week, former editor and Holdthefrontpage blogger Steve Dyson turned his critical (often very critical!) eye to the Pocklington Post, a Johnston Press newspaper which is at the centre of the project to increase the volume of user generated content in the title to around 75% of total content.
It’s a project which has drawn criticism from journalism traditionalists ever since it was launched in Bourne, a tiny town in the Lincolnshire which is home to the Bourne Local newspaper, and which was predictably dubbed ‘the Bourne Experiment’ as a result.
Surely, my darker side whispered, all this UGC palaver means it’s going to be full of badly-written tat, blurry cat pictures and superlative PR masquerading as news.
And he’s right, that’s the perception many have of UGC. But Steve was quick to note he liked what he found in the Pocklington Post. And, as he notes, readers seem to love it. That’s surely the most important thing – and often the most discomforting thing for journalists, that what we consider to be important, often isn’t as important to our readers.
I see the Bourne Local on a regular basis – it’s the sort of newspaper which appears in more shopping trollies than not on a Friday afternoon, a bit like my local newspaper, the Rossendale Free Press. It means something to appear in the Bourne Local, according to my in-laws who live there, so it’s not a giant leap to assume it means something to get the chance to write for it too.
From what I’ve seen of the UGC experiment so far, it’s working. The paper makes a point of flagging up what is user-generated and, overwhelmingly, it’s good content. As Dyson notes, the style guide somewhat goes west when you’re dealing with large volumes of user generated content, but to me that’s not a bad thing. You can’t ask people to be themselves in your publication and then dictate their style, can you?
For me, the Bourne Local and Pocklington Post join a growing band of publications which demonstrate that UGC isn’t just a nice thing to have, it actually makes regional news stronger. The company I work for, Trinity Mirror, has a number of newspapers which are largely made up of UGC as well. They’re very different newspapers to what they used to be, but for my money, they’re better for it – reflecting their communities by pursuading a large number of people to get involved.
Here are five reasons why UGC actually makes our industry stronger:
1. Changing priorities
The thing I like about the Bourne Local the most with its new UGC focus is the stuff in there which previously wouldn’t have made the pages of the paper. To some journalists, that may sound like proof that UGC damages what we do. I disagree – the opposite is true.
In one of its early weeks as a born-again (geddit?) evangelist of UGC, the Local ran a brilliant piece by a local man dissecting what the local census revealed about Bourne, including the stat that Bourne was home to more cars than adults.
Regular features by an author make compelling reading, while the local schools get far more coverage than they used to. But it doesn’t stop there either.
By throwing open the doors and asking for ideas, newsrooms are able to dodge the dreaded ‘we’ve always done it this way’ argument. Sourcing UGC is an experiment in new types of content, and it encourages newsrooms to think differently.
Without a UGC approach, the Birmingham Mail would probably never have discovered the huge popularity of school prom pictures appearing in the paper. The supplements were so popular that people actually rang up to ask if they could buy photos of the pages their pictures appeared in.
Other newsrooms I work with have discovered now much parents want to see their children in the paper dressed up for Halloween, or in football kits, while one found at the assumed popularity of an appeal for pictures of children dressed up for the school nativity was just that – assumed.
As the priorities and favourites of readers change, UGC is the only way we can be sure our newsrooms are reflecting that.
2. Creates better engagement
An open approach to UGC also creates a better form of engagement. When I first worked on a free weekly, UGC didn’t go much further than pictures sent in through the post that might be used. We didn’t call it UGC back then, and we also didn’t talk to the people who sent it in much either.
Sustaining UGC requires a commitment to engage with the community. If you don’t, they won’t keep doing it. When Alison Gow and I launched the Liverpool Daily Post’s Flickr group, we learnt very quickly that people submitting pictures expect a say on how their pictures will be used, how they will be captioned, when they will appear … and given notice of other opportunities to appear in print.
It’s a message anyone who has seen Jo Kelly, Trinity Mirror’s head of audience engagement, speak will be familiar with: Feedback is all important to sustain UGC. That means listening … and the content we published being more relevant as a result.
An example I heard at the Society of Editors Regional seminar summed it up for me last week. Derby Telegraph editor Neil White revealed how his picture editor runs Tog Squad, a regular meet up of would-be photographers at a local arts centre. In return for her knowledge and experience being shared, the Tog Squad take loads of pictures, and can be called on when something special happens, like a beautiful sunset. That’s the sort of engagement which UGC requires to be brilliant, and which makes us more connected as a result.
3. Brings in more ‘real’ news
UGC isn’t just there for the nicer things in life, to nick and abuse a well-known advertising slogan. Some of the most remarkable news-related images, video etc of recent times fall under ‘UGC.’ Think the Hudson River plane crash, the woman jumping out of the burning window in the riots of 2010 …. even Cat Bin Lady was UGC.
People take the pictures, shoot the video and their thoughts without a second thought thanks to social media – getting them to share it with the media is the challenge. It’s a challenge half-won if people are already aware you regularly deal with UGC. Getting people to think about us and send stuff to us is a much more rewarding relationship than just scouring social media looking for something which might be newsworthy – for all concerned.
A silly example from Valentine’s Day from the Chorley Guardian hopefully backs up this point. It’s about a man who couldn’t find a restaurant with a spare table in Chorley to take the love of his life out, so he took her to McDonald’s, complete with a candle and ‘romantic’ table cloth. Staff took pictures (doesn’t she look happy!) and they found their way to the Chorley Guardian. Ok, so it’s a fun story but it’s a story which would have been missed had the Chorley Guardian not been known to welcoming UGC. And it’s also the only story three different people mentioned to me from that week’s Guardian. To me, that’s real news.
4. Allows journalists to focus on other content
What would you rather be writing? Nibs or a page lead? The Bourne Local is an example of a newspaper where a rise in UGC has freed staff up to focus on other stuff, such as an incredibly in-depth piece about the need for a new crossing in a remote village. UGC just slapped on a page without a care in the world will damage trusted news brands (a point my boss Neil Benson made at the Society of Editors conference), but carefully curating the best stuff – and feeding back to people when something can’t be used – not only improves the mix of content, it saves journalists time.
This also goes back to the better engagement point. From bitter experience, I learnt that the man supplying cricket reports at 700-words a pop was as frustrated at seeing them cut back to 250 words as I was having to lop out two thirds of what he wrote. The time saved had I spoken to him doesn’t bear thinking about.
At the Birmingham City University Rethink Media event last month, Trinity Mirror chief executive Simon Fox (disclaimer: In case you didn’t know, I work for TM) described a world where community content supported regular journalism, arguing that journalists can’t be everywhere, covering everything. The problem is that in the past we’ve either tried, or tried to give the illusion that we can.
The reality is that if people can’t share their information through us, they’ll do it somewhere else. Much better they share it through us as well as somewhere else if we want to be relevant going forward. But it always needs to be checked.
5. It works in ‘big’ titles too
I smiled when I read one of the reader comments at the foot of Steve’s blog which spoke in horrified terms that they might be using UGC in the Yorkshire Post soon. The horror! It’s as insulting to the audience of such big beasts of the regional Press as it is to the ‘small papers’ to suggest UGC only has a place in weeklies.
Alastair Machray, editor of the Liverpool Echo, rightly boasted at last week’s conference that he has managed to chop a raft of national sport from the Liverpool Echo because of real push to generate UGC from niches and minority sports fans. Dozens of sports are now re-appearing in the Echo, or appearing for the first time. People are just more comfortable sharing content, and more aware of how to.
The Echo not alone. The Manchester Evening News sources well-informed opinion columns through UGC, while the Birmingham Post led the pack in working with academics and city luminaries to deliver agenda-setting opinion columns. Some of those people are among the most respected in their fields.
Any media source – be it print, digital or broadcast – which considers itself above UGC is effectively telling the audience they shouldn’t have a view.
The audience does have a view, it also has knowledge. Crucially, it has the ability to share both. That’s why UGC had made the regional media better. We have to be part of the conversation … and listening never did anyone any harm.