Power of social media

Blogs are not a threat to journalism, but an opportunity. So says Kevin Anderson, head of blogging and interaction for Guardian Unlimited, the award-winning web site of The Guardian newspaper in London.

For almost a year Anderson has been responsible for strategy and “leading by doing” for the Guardian’s blogging network. He is helping Guardian journalists realise the power of engagement and the opportunities that social media make available.

“An increasing number of people not only want to consume content but also create and rate content,” he said. “They also want to communicate and interact with people, not only with journalists but also with each other.”

Most journalists saw these changes as a threat. “They have this vision of armies of citizen journalists wanting to do our jobs for free.” But few citizens wanted to be journalists. Most simply wrote about their experiences when news happened, such as the bridge collapse in Minnesota.

These people were committing “random acts” of journalism, Anderson said. “They have a camera phone and happen to witness an event.”

Blogs opened up new ways to partner with audiences, he said. Social networks gave journalists the chance to renew their relationship with readers and viewers because journalists had lost the public’s trust.

“The erosion has happened for a number of reasons around the world, including a general loss in trust in institutions as well as challenges from bloggers who fact check the mainstream media. Social media can allow us to rebuild that trust through transparency and direct connections with readers and viewers.

“At The Guardian we’re trying to help our casual online readers to become committed users of our communities as well as catalysts, recommending Guardian journalism through their social networks.”

Anderson pioneered online journalism at the BBC from 1998 to 2004 as well as reporting about technology for radio and television. In 2004 he wrote one of the first blogs at the BBC and in 2005 he developed blogging and interactive radio strategies for BBC news.

He is in Melbourne to speak at the conference “Digital worlds: Social, virtual, mobile” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image tomorrow (Subs: August 10).

The conference is organised by XMediaLab (Subs: Organiser’s title has vertical slash between X and Media and between Media and Lab), and aims to showcase emerging forms of community building through digital media.

Anderson said few people apart from professional journalists wanted to be reporters, which was one of the problems underlying news organisations’ enthusiasm for “citizen journalism”.

“News organisations cannot and should not expect crowd-sourcing to replace the work of paid journalists. One of the greatest risks to news organisations is that, in developing channels for user-generated content, they alienate their audiences by leaving them with a feeling of being exploited, that they are doing for free what others are paid for.

“I don’t like the term user-generated content. It’s corporate speak and it creates a wall between contributors and the organisations using their content. Some people are beginning to use the term community-created content, which has a better ring to it.”

Anderson said media companies focused too much on technology. “They believe that all they have to do is make blogs and social networking tools available to their audience and an online community will form on its own.”

Newspapers and their readers needed couples’ counselling, Anderson said. They should ask: What ties your community together? “If you don’t know, that’s your first problem. Get out from behind the desk. Talk to people about what they are talking about.”

Successful Web 2.0 sites were designed so that the value of the site to users rose as the level of participation grew. “How can news organisations design websites and web services that encourage participation through increased value to their users? The future for news organisations lies in both tapping expertise and enhancing their content with community contributions.”

That is precisely what happens at STOMP in Singapore. About 85 per cent of content came from the audience, the bulk from the cameras in mobile telephones.

STOMP stands for Straits Times online mobile and print. The Straits Times is the 162-year-old broadsheet flagship of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the country’s major media company.

Editor Jennifer Lewis is another conference speaker tomorrow. She said STOMP was the only platform in Asia that focused on social networking and user-generated content.

SPH editorial managers decided the company’s future was via online and mobile because that was where young readers were. STOMP launched in June last year and within a year was attracting 7 million page impressions a month, more than the hits for the web sites of major American newspapers.

Lewis said Singaporeans lived in a 24/7 world so with breaking news it was inevitable that people would go online.

“Audience-generated content is going to be, if not already, key to how journalists remain relevant,” she said. “Expect to see more pro-am collaborations as professional journalists team up with the community at large.”

“The seasoned journalist would offer perspective and analysis, while audiences provided snapshots of individual experiences. With UGC, the flood of personal experiences will give the journalist an even better understanding of what is going on. UGC is going to make the journalist even smarter.”

Other international speakers at the conference include Dr David Liu, founder of Beijing’s Cyber Recreation District, China’s biggest government-supported digital media initiative, and Professor Lizbeth Goodman, director of the SMARTlab digital media institute at the University of East London.

Film director Shekhar Kapur, co-founder of Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation, will also speak. His first English-language film, Elizabeth, received eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture. Shekhar recently directed a sequel, The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush.

* Interview with Kevin Anderson, blogs editor of The Guardian. Published in The Age August 2007.

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