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Comparing User Participation Functionality in Flemish and German Newspaper Sites

The final speakers in this very engaging morning session at ECREA 2010 are Jeroen de Keyser and Annika Sehl, presenting a comparison of German and Flemish efforts to encourage public participation in the news media. To begin with, there clearly are increases in the online activities of ‘ordinary’ people, for example through blogs, social networking, and citizen journalism; some traditional media offer similar tools to also encourage participatory journalism activities. Such participation may take place at various stages of the journalistic process (input, output, commentary), and tools which enable participation at different stages are differently popular amongst journalists; there still is relatively limited conversation of journalists with the public overall.

The present study examined the current situation in Flanders and Germany, then. In 2008 and 2010, it analysed the participatory tools available on journalism Websites to examine the structural characteristics of audience participation, comparing eight national newspaper Websites each in Flanders and Germany.

For Flanders, the study found that feedback tools (polls, instant feedback, etc.) were offered most frequently in both years; between 2008 and 2010, there was also a substantial increase in redistribution tools (to share content across social networking services). Additionally, citizen news contributions became more prominent on Flemish news sites, especially for media with strong local ties. Citizen blogs remained rare on newspaper sites, and there were only few tools which would require significant journalistic monitoring (photo submission functionality, discussion fora, etc.) – there was even some decline here.

In Germany, too, there were many feedback functions (pools, instant feedback, letters to the editor), with a small increase since 2008; redistribution tools are also standard now. Many sites have citizen fora for discussion about specific topics – some moderated, some not. Citizen Weblogs are rare here, too, and there are some tools that do require stronger journalistic monitoring.

Overall, then, the results are fairly similar across both nations; both follow a similar journalistic model and culture, of course. There was faster adoption of most online tools in Flanders, though, and Flemish media were seen to be less distant and more locally tied to their users, offering a few citizen reporter sections, for example. German media are financially stronger, on the other hand, enabling them to offer some more sophisticated functionality.

Implementing change may be easier in smaller news organisations (in Flanders), then, and citizen participation functionality may be more effective for papers with a smaller market size and thus greater local attachment. On the other hand, larger organisations will find it easier to sustain participatory functionality: filtering user contributions comes at a cost, and this puts the larger (German) news organisations at a distinct advantage.