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Australian Publishers Online: Still No Clue on the User-Generated Content Front?

The final Australasian Media & Broadcasting Congress panel for today shifts our focus from broadcasting to (print as well as online) publishing. Hugh Martin, General Manager of APN Online, opens the discussion by noting the long history of developing online counterparts to print newspapers (and the slightly shorter history of doing the same for magazines). He points to the recent announcement that the Christian Science Monitor is soon to cease its print version, moving entirely to an online newspaper, while magazine publisher Condé Nast has a very hard time working out how to make money online.

Zac Zavos, CEO of Conversant Media, is the first panellist, and briefly introduces a number of the key Websites produced by Conversant, embracing user-generated content to a point - he notes that strong staff seeding and editing of user-submitted material are still necessary on his company's sites (and that this also ensures good ad spend on these sites). Further, opinion rather than news is what drives these sites, and in the wake of the mainstreaming of blogging there are good market opportunities here, as TechCrunch and Huffington Post also demonstrate, for example. Interaction and contribution of content by users are key here.

Barrie Barton, Creative Director of Right Angle Publishing says that by contrast, user-generated content has no role in the city guides which his company produces for Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. His company focusses on 'authoritative statements by few rather than the waffle of many', and he suggests that this is what his (relatively young) audience is looking for.

David Higgins, Editor of, sides with Barrie especially as his site has been sued over user-generated content a number of times (but then, I'd ask by comparison how often his company has been sued over staff-generated content, too?); that said, he notes the importance of user engagement with content as a means of promoting it and generating audience loyalty. News media are moving online because of immediacy, value, and convenience - they're not yet very good at customisation to user interests or at social media enhancements. (There are some experiments with customisation on pages now, and some 15% of users are now utilising such functionality.)

Zac responds that many users are no longer satisfied with simply reading content, but want to become more active in using and responding to it; some of this happens on Barrie's sites as well, but he nonetheless sees no future for adding direct response features on the site without stronger analysis of what it may add.

Hugh notes the question of what business models may drive the incorporation of such user-generated content - in particular, is there a need to start remunerating regular contributors? Zac notes that some sites have been experimenting with micropayments, but there doesn't appear to be much demand for this in Australia.

A comment from the BBC representative in the audience notes the differences in user-generated content, and the need to divide these forms - direct contributions of newsworthy materials (photos from the scene, etc.), eyewitness reports, and more generic comments. It's not helpful to treat all of these in the same way. David Higgins answers that for him, the best user-generated content is very specific (for example photos from the recent Brisbane storms), and that more generic user-generated content is of lower quality. Hugh Martin points to as an example of specifically directing users to address specific topics; this is a model that may be able to be translated to some of Zac's sites. There is a need to set themes and standards for user contributions.

A question from the audience notes that many newspapers in the US, in Europe, and in Australia are pretty poor; predictably, David defends the quality of Australian newspapers and suggests that they give the people what they want (in part by eschewing more complex topics). Hugh also notes that by being attached to a print product, the quality of many online news sites depends ultimately on the quality of the print newspaper (he also highlights the Fairfax news sites as exceptions here).

David also notes that in most Australian newsrooms, content is now being produced for multiple media forms (print, online, also video and audio); Hugh adds that the cultural mindset (especially also in regional centres) still has a long way to go in accepting different forms of journalism. He suggests a general distinction in roles for newspapers and news sites as town crier, town hall, and town knowledge space - and so far, they still tend mainly towards the former.

Ah well. A somewhat underwhelming panel, particularly from David Higgins (whose contribution to "The Future of Journalism" also failed to impress me) - another clear sign that quite a few Australian online publishers continue not to get user-generated content. Or, put another way, they don't understand that there's a difference between users merely generating content and full-blown social media, in which users are also engaging in peer rating and assessment, thereby highlighting the best of what users have generated and setting strong standards for future contributions. Badmouthing social media in this unsophisticated way is nothing more than a convenient excuse for to drag its heels.

The difference is visible for example in a comparison of user commentary on blogs, and user discussion on leading Australian news blogs and citizen journalism sites - the former is essentially a space for lawless free-for-all brawls; at its best, the latter does provide thoughtful and insightful discussion instead. In the former, users generate content, sure, but they have no way of further interacting with and giving structure to that content; in the latter, these features are available, the process is in significant ways user-led, and actual produsage takes place.

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Thanks for this summary Axel. I realise it's old but I'm just digesting it now. I was particularly interested in Barrie and Zac's contribution as I see Right Angle Publishing and Conversant Media as two of the major innovators in Australian online space moving forward.