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News websites' uneasy relationship with user-generated content revealed

26.02.2008
Major news websites are struggling to make the most of readers' contributions due to factors such as the costs of moderation and the varying quality of user-generated content (UGC), whilst in return readers are not fully engaging with the UGC initiatives.

In research published this month, Neil Thurman of City University London reveals that, despite the seemingly heavy emphasis on UGC at mainstream news websites, questions remain about the extent to which users are interested both in participating themselves and viewing other readers' contributions.

Thurman spoke to editors at Timesonline.co.uk, Telegraph.co.uk, the BBC News website, FT.com, Independent.co.uk, Scotsman.com, TheSun.co.uk, and Associated New Media, and gained first-hand insight into the popularity and failings of UGC across household name news websites.

In this in-depth study, Thurman found that 'popular' debates on the BBC News website's 'Have Your Say' attracted contributions from just 0.05 per cent of the site's daily unique audience, and one fifth the page views of 'popular' news stories.

The research showed that the slow uptake of UGC by some editors was due in part to worries over legal liabilities. Furthermore most publications insisted on moderation because of concerns over: spelling, grammar and decency; duplication; unbalanced views; and a lack of newsworthiness amongst contributions. These issues had caused some websites to drop UGC altogether.

Although contributors were found to be avid consumers of their own material, some publications were struggling to commercialise reader contributions due to low participation rates (at the Independent.co.uk) and insularity (at DailyMail.co.uk).

Cost was also an important contingent factor. Reader participation was found to be expensive, mainly because of moderation - 80 per cent of the user generated content initiatives launched by the publications surveyed for the study were edited or pre-moderated. These costs have not yet been fully off-set by the revenues generated.

Despite this Thurman found no fundamental prejudice against the form and several publications intended to expand their provision in this area as time and ability allowed. The editors interviewed understood that secondary benefits existed as user generated content initiatives could provide a source of stories and content for stories.

The findings have implications for both readers and editors of news websites showing the very practical problems publications face when implementing UGC initiatives.

Thurman says: "By becoming gatekeepers of UGC, editors are on familiar territory and can protect their brand's value - a key aspect of their job. But it is a delicate balancing act. Too much filtering and control could frustrate the supply of UGC - something that is not in the interest of editors or users."

Neil Thurman | alfa
Further information:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444807085325

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