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User-Generated Content in Dutch News Sites

After the very fruitful EDEM 2009 in Vienna I've once again entrusted my life to the dubious abilities of KLM to deliver me to the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, where the weather has turned out to be unseasonably warm as well - seems like it's following me! Unfortunately I missed the opening keynotes, so if there were any brilliant new insights into the future of journalism there, we'll have to wait until the recordings become available.

The first session I'm attending today, then, starts with Piet Bakker, presenting on the role of user-generated content in Dutch news media. There's now already a lengthy history of work on such material, but while it tends to point through many good examples for user-generated content in journalism, the overall picture isn't necessarily as positive.

The overall model emerging here is that user-generated content is free (and it can be used to save costs) - this includes both news and discussion, which may be attractive for readers, lead to more visitors, and thus attract more advertising; it may also be interesting for journalists as it connects them more closely with their readers and thus creates a more loyal audience.

However, the quality of user-generated content is not necessarily so good, requiring moderation; journalistic standards may be lower in such content; and not that many users actually participate, so the high hopes have failed to materialise for the most part. The same examples for citizen journalism in the context of major events (the London bombings, etc.) keep being cited; the same technological enablers (camera phones) keep being highlighted; BBC and CNN keep being noted as rolemodels; and hopes for a dialogue with readers keep being voiced.

What works in newspaper sites are comments, which can lead to greater accountability and transparency and greater leader loyalty; however, mostly, user-generated content works in exceptional circumstances, is predictable, and relies on a small number of contributors - finding real news is an exception here. In the Dutch environment, the NRC Handelsblad and AT5 are examples to the rule, but overall, there are substantial problems with racism and abuse in the (anonymous) comments and with fake images in citizen photo submissions.

The main problem here, Piet suggests, is moderation - across various news organisations, the Websites have journalists moderating their own stories, heavy users moderating the wider community, outsourced moderation services, complete disabling of comments for problematic stories, community self-moderation (through complaints functions), and functions to ban and block users.

So, if user contributions cannot be used immediately for news, what can they be used for? One key aspect is the sense of user community emerging on sites, which does create reader loyalty; non-news content (e.g. photo series) contributed by users can become highly attractive to visitors, too. So, in addition to (or separate from) journalistic or financial benefits from user-generated content, there can be other benefits which make the embrace of user-generated content worthwhile.

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