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Everyone’s making news

User generated content is giving newspaper groups the opportunity to get closer to their communities, says Mark Hargreaves

USER generated content (UGC) is one of today’s hot – and contentious – topics in the world of newspapers. For some, UGC opens up exciting new opportunities for newspapers, while for others it is seen as a way of simply sourcing free news stories and photography.

It can be likened to the early days of desktop publishing and the first Apple Macs when everyone suddenly had the ability to produce their own artwork and literature. Back then, many said this would sound the death knell for professional graphic designers and would lead to the demise of good design. Happily that prediction never came to pass and the early worries about UGC, provided its problems are recognised and managed appropriately, may well seem like a storm in a teacup in the future.

Some newspaper groups such as Archant are embracing and pioneering UGC as one of the most exciting developments for the future of news media outlets, providing a new, fresh way of delivering news – a way of making newspapers even more relevant and closely connected to the community they serve.Archant’s iwitness24 platform is designed to allow readers to contribute pictures and video in a quick and easy way. The slogan of iwitness24 is Your News Is The News and the project is part of a larger strategy of Archant’s to reinforce its position as a ‘community media business’.

The site and apps which went live in Norfolk in January, were developed with audience content specialists Citizenside over the course of nearly two years. The original aim was to build a platform that makes it easy for readers to connect with their local newspaper titles. Ultimately, the technology will allow Archant’s readers to better connect with the group’s 64 local newspapers across the UK.Richard Willner, pictutred right, audience relations developer for Archant Norfolk, says: “The aim of iwitness24 is to not only capture reader content but to make our audience genuinely feel a part of our news-gathering process.

“iwitness24 comes in a web platform and also on iPhone and Android apps. This mobile aspect is vitally important as it allows our audience to share images while out and about.

“As soon as it was launched readers began sharing geotagged photos, videos and text articles directly with their local newsrooms.”Richard Willner: “iwitness24 is a powerful and potent mix of media brands, readers and new engagement channels which is so exciting for the future of local newspapers … it’s about growing and offering new and exciting content”.

On launch, then editorial director of Archant Norfolk, James Foster, said: “This is about getting news and pictures we wouldn’t otherwise get and also using our readers to send us stuff we would miss. “Whether it’s a picture from a community groups activity or a fire, we know that by engaging with our audience and telling them how much we value their contributions, we can add to the richness of the material we produce.

“It’s not about replacing existing content but about adding to our huge mix of reader content – community news exists in every newspaper. This  puts it into the digital age and tells our readers how serious we are about them.”

As early as the first week of iwitness24 in Norfolk, readers shared a photo titled ‘Distressing Wensum’ depicting a fly-tipping scene by the city’s river. One of the newspaper’s reporters took the story on for a print front page and many follow-ups as other iwitness24 users shared their photos on the dedicated iwitness24 section.“Arguably one of the most powerful tools within iwitness24 is the ability to set users on challenges – a process we call Call for Witnesses,” says Willner.

“This allows the newsroom to contact all of our iwitness24 members in Norfolk – we had nearly 700 after four weeks following launch – and asked them to share their pics and videos.

“A great example of this was seen in  London when, following the news of the collapse of a major building in Ilford, we were unable to despatch a photographer. We decided to send out a Call for Witnesses to the database of users within the vicinity and received a number of photographs and iwitness24 testimonies which we used online and in print with recognition given to the users who supplied the content.”

In addition to news gathering, Archant is using iwitness24 to take newsmaking out into its local communities and opening its newsrooms so their audiences can feel part of the decision-making process. The group is also planning sessions with its professional staff to provide reporting and photography advice.

Archant has marketed iwitness24 in print and online and has had nearly 2,000 submissions, and by the end of week four had nearly 1,500 comments as users discussed each other’s work.“iwitness24 is a powerful and potent mix of media brands, readers and new engagement channels which is so exciting for the future of local newspapers,” says Willner.

“We regret that in some quarters we have seen criticism levelled at us which accused us of attacking professional journalists and photographers. That is certainly not the case. This is all about developing a strong, loyal readership base that will stick with us into the future because it feels totally engaged with our newspapers. “This is not about replacing professional content with articles and photographs from amateurs. It’s about growing and offering new and exciting content with our audience.”

Citizenside international co-ordinator Garrett Goodman reports on the engine behind iwitness24IN September of 2010:

I was watching Archant chief executive Adrian Jeakings speak at the 9th WAN-IFRA Newsroom Summit in London. He was emphasising how Archant was shifting its positioning to become a ‘community media business’. As he listed off his three priorities for this new strategy (increasing volume, broadening reach, and driving engagement), it was clear to me that Citizenside could play a fundamental role in helping him achieve these things.

The initial idea with iwitness24 was to launch a two-year pilot community in Norfolk, to analyse the results, and then to assess rolling it out further. The platform was fully prepared and the Norfolk team was weeks away from launch when a meeting was held with a number of editors from Archant Regional to present the project internally.

There was sufficient interest from other regional operations to go back to the drawing board. Citizenside custom-built a regional hierarchy for the platform, where there could be multiple sub-communities that all shared one brand and a national-level landing page. The iwitness24 site has seven regional communities, each one managed editorially by a team comprising members from that region’s local titles. In this way readers get the sense that they are interacting in a real local environment, and able to discover news shared by their neighbours and friends.

The iwitness24 platform runs on Citizenside’s Reporter Kit platform, which includes a proprietary CMS specifically designed to receive, fact-check, and publish user-generated news. Along with the back end comes the community-facing website, which includes an array of advanced features designed to build strong social ties within the community and reward participation with highly effective game principles like points, rankings, and missions.

Archant also chose to roll out Citizenside’s Community Reporter mobile applications for Android and iPhone, which allow readers to share their news photos and videos directly with their regional community and their local newsrooms at the same time. The apps are even being used by some of Archant’s journalists when in the field as a way to quickly and easily upload content on the go.There is no doubt that this platform has fostered an impressive amount of engagement for Archant, and allowed the group to reach out to get deeper connections with readers from across many different interest groups. 

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