Developing a framework to measure and assess opportunities for user engagement

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New media, news and citizenship

New media technologies, and specifically the internet and Web 2.0 applications, have expanded the opportunities for citizens to produce, distribute and engage with content, which has the potential to influence the way in which people interact with news and political information. A number of scholarly articulations of the citizen have developed in response to the issues surrounding how citizens engage with information and other citizens in the new media environment. We are no longer simply referred to as readers, watchers or consumers of media content, but acknowledged as active users, or “produsers” in Bruns’ definition, whose work argues that the “role of ‘consumer’ and even that of ‘end user’ have long disappeared, and the distinctions between producers and users of content have faded into comparative insignificance” (2008b, p. 2). Citizens involved in the process of amateur news production have been deemed the “former audience” (Gillmor, 2006) and “the people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen, 2006) by advocates of citizen journalism, labels which suggest a shift in agency and, therefore, a degree of empowerment for those previously imagined to be on the receiving end of mass media content. Online writing environments (including discussion boards, blogs and collaborative projects such as wikis) are deemed to act as “potentially valuable tools for the creation and maintenance of a critical public sphere” (Barton, 2005, p. 177).

Online newspapers and “the former audience”

Online newspapers are increasingly expected to take advantage of the interactive capabilities afforded to them by the medium they inhabit, and scholars emphasise the potential for a reconfiguration of roles for journalism in regard to its public through providing features which support interactivity and UGC. Hermida and Thurman’s study (2009) asserts that the growth in the provision of interactive features and UGC initiatives across British newspaper websites has been somewhat driven by the fear of being marginalised in an online environment dominated by user-centred media. The views expressed by the senior news executives interviewed in their study reflect this concern over the potential marginalisation of online newspapers which neglect to provide interactive spaces and opportunities for UGC.

Factors influencing online newspapers’ limited adoption of interactivity

Scholarly work examining the range of interactive features provided by online newspapers suggests that the limited adoption of such features reflects the desire of news producers to retain journalism’s gatekeeping role and professional standards (Chung, 2007; Deuze, 2003; Gunter, 2003; Hermida & Thurman, 2009; Paulussen et al., 2007). Deuze points towards journalism’s fear of interactivity contributing to a partial loss of its gatekeeping role: “a 25 mainstream news site embracing connectivity must consider the impact that this will have on its established culture of doing things, its monopoly on content, its understanding of what is ‘public’, its roles in community” (2003, p. 220). In their study of how journalists at Britain’s Guardian newspaper and its online version, Guardian.co.uk, understand and include UGC in their practices, Singer and Ashman note that journalists with a commitment to maintaining a degree of professional distance could potentially find the ability to participate in comment threads alongside users slightly unsettling (2009a, p. 17-19).

“Give us your feedback”: Exploring the boundaries of the journalistaudience relationship

Through offering a range of interactive features and UGC initiatives, online newspapers enable numerous opportunities for user participation in the news consumption process. As online newspaper users, we can subscribe to RSS feeds to customise our news menus, vote in sidebar polls about current events, contribute our thoughts by commenting on opinion pieces and submit photos to the news desk for publishing. The text surrounding the interactive features and UGC initiatives of online newspaper sites aims to capture our attention and encourage us to interact with news content and one another; we are continually asked to contribute our view, have our say, submit our thoughts. As Richardson notes: “the language that journalists use to address the audience (or reader) tells you something about the identities of both the journalist and the audience and also something about the assumed relationship between them” (2007, p. 95-96; original emphasis).

Why can’t I comment on every article?

Currently all submitted comments are reviewed by moderators before any are posted online. There are a number of reasons for this. Unfortunately NZ is not as liberal as some countries when it comes to online defamation laws meaning that the owner of the website can be held legally responsible as well as the author of comments and articles put online. We would love to get to the point where we can allow comments to be posted without checks before they go up so that is certainly our long term wish but it will require a law change and there is no sign of that. So it would require a massive staff of moderators to do it for all articles. (“Help and technical support”, 2008) While NZHerald.co.nz’s response to the issue rather interestingly states that the paper is in favour of post-moderation of user contributions and that they hold future aspirations to switch from the current process of pre-moderation to post-moderation, it does not provide specific detail regarding the selection process through which articles are approved for user comments. Instead the response adopts an equalising strategy in an attempt to position the editorial team alongside users as jointly frustrated by the restrictions of online defamation law, while failing to acknowledge the uneven balance of power in that the paper still has the final say in selecting which articles are made available for user comments.

Interaction in action in social media and comment spaces

By using social media platforms, the online newspapers examined provided opportunities for interaction between journalists or editors and users which were visible to all users and worked to create an impression that the editorial staff were accessible, approachable and engaged with user concerns. While methods for submitting feedback and communicating with journalists such as email and online submission forms are still vital avenues for users to interact with news producers, the use of relatively new platforms like Facebook and Twitter by the papers studied appeared to both support and showcase communication between users and editors or journalists. Newspaper staff used social media spaces to upload links to news articles covered by the site, posting these on the “Wall” of their Facebook page or “tweeting” the links from their Twitter account. On the Facebook pages of the online newspapers studied, links were commonly accompanied with a question posed to users to generate discussion about the issue or event covered in the comments field below the link.

Contents :

  • ABSTRACT
  • ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
  • TABLE OF CONTENTS
  • INTRODUCTION
  • CHAPTER ONE: LITERATURE REVIEW
    • News media’s representation of “the voice of the people”
    • The newspaper and its relationship with the public
    • New media, news and citizenship
    • Online newspapers and “the former audience”
    • Factors influencing online newspapers’ limited adoption of interactivity
    • Conclusion
  • CHAPTER TWO: RESEARCH DESIGN
    • Scope
    • Method
    • Developing a framework to measure and assess opportunities for user engagement
    • Examining the discourse of online newspaper sites
    • Reflections on research design
  • CHAPTER THREE: ANALYSIS OF INTERACTIVE FEATURES AND USER-GENERATED CONTENT
    • INITIATIVES
    • Interactive features and UGC initiatives: Results
      • User as filter
      • User as respondent
      • User as source
    • Discussion and implications
    • Conclusion
  • CHAPTER FOUR: “GIVE US YOUR FEEDBACK”: EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES OF THE
    • JOURNALIST-AUDIENCE RELATIONSHIP
    • “You tell us”: The language of interactivity
    • Rousing rhetoric
    • The reality of rules
    • News as conversation? Examining journalist-user interaction
    • Interaction in action in social media and comment spaces
    • Case study: Stuff.co.nz’s “From the Newsroom” editorial blog
    • “Readers have their say”: The framing of user interest and opinion
    • Projecting popularity and “public opinion”
    • Case study: NZHerald.co.nz’s “Your Views”
    • Conclusion
  • CHAPTER FIVE: DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
    • Contextualising the study’s findings
    • Taming the online wild west
    • The democratic potential of mediated, moderated online communication
    • Citizens or loonies? Perceptions of online commenters
    • Changing roles and responsibilities for journalists or business as usual?
    • Empowering users?
    • Engagement does not equal empowerment
    • Do users necessarily want to be citizen journalists?
    • Conclusion
  • APPENDICES
    • Appendix
    • REFERENCES

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Your News? Your Views? Interactive Features and User-Generated Content Initiatives in Online Newspapers from Australia and New Zealand

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