New research from Cardiff will show that 4% of news website readers contribute online – i.e. leave comments, keep blogs, send in photos etc. – according to an academic at Wednesday’s journalism and democracy conference
at the British Academy (whose name I did not catch – if the person who said it reads this please let me know).
Though this was prefaced – by the Cardiff academic who made the comment - with an ‘only’, 4% is still four times higher than a couple of years ago.
Back in 2006 we were told that only 1% of the audience actually contributed to sites (e.g. see Paul Skidmore on the ’1% solution’
in Prospect in December 2006), while the other 99% simply read, viewed, listened.
In this context 4% sounds like a pretty significant increase. Especially when you look at what that 4% is able to produce. The number of comments on the BBC’s Russell Brand / Jonathan Ross Have Your Say, for example, reached 52,681 before they closed the forum. A healthy 10,699 have so far commented on whether John Sergeant was right to quit Strictly Come Dancing. And 2,200 people have made their views known on the MySun debate ‘Should smacking your children be banned?
Imagine if, in another 2 years, the number participating quadruples again. In the BBC’s case this would equate to hundreds of thousands of comments a day, thousands of photographs, and hundreds of citizen journalism videos. The equivalent of a few truck-loads full of post.
How are they going to cope with this? With considerable difficulty. Anne Spackman - comment editor at The Times – told the conference that it is already costing the paper hundreds of thousands of pounds to moderate comments, take in user generated content, and create systems to allow for engagement with readers.
So what should news organisations do? Well, they could start by thinking alot harder than they do about the sort of relationship they want with their audience and then work out the best way to develop that. Right now most news sites still work very much on the broadcast model. In other words, they’ll tell you what they think and when they feel like it they’ll let you comment.
This means their attitude to involving their audience often comes across as patronizing or parasitic – or both. Patronizing because just being asked to leave a comment is like being told you can ask questions after the speaker has already left the room. Or being given a space to shout without any indication whether there will be anyone around to listen. Parasitic because simply asking for content from the public (‘send us your photos and your videos’) makes you look like a wanton freeloader.
News organisations could learn a lot from social networking sites, particularly in terms of how people want to relate to one another, communicate and use information. Mind you, they’ll need to learn quickly if, by the end of 2009, 4% becomes 8%.