«IRISH COMMUNICATIONS REVIEW VOL 9 2003 Brian Trench is a Online news and changing senior lecturer and Head of School in the models of journalism ...»
Case studies of online news As part of the EU-funded project, MUDIA (Multimedia Content in the Digital Age, 2001-2002), media industry organisations and academic researchers aimed to construct a more detailed picture of news producers’ strategies and views of consumers within the news process, and of users’ expectations and uses of Web news. Among the points of departure of this study were the assumptions that “professional information providers will have to come to terms with changing consumer demands” and that “the public’s assessment of what constitutes news is changing profoundly”. (For more details on MUDIA and for the final report of the authors’ input to the project, see www.mudia.org.) IRISH COMMUNICATIONS REVIEW VOL 9 2003 The contribution of the Centre for Society Technology and Media (STeM) at Dublin City University to MUDIA was based on case studies of 24 online news organizations in four EU member states, Denmark, France, Ireland and United Kingdom, that included in-depth interviews with editors or content managers in each of those enterprises. The sample included 5-7 case studies in each of the four countries. The 24 case studies included both Net-native and existing media players, services with identifiable user groups such as health, sports and technology news services, and with at least three prominent interactive features such as discussion boards, e-mail alerts, or breaking news services.
The semi-structured interviews with senior editorial staff at the sampled sites focused on the way in which the site developed, the relationship it had with its users and the manner in which user demand shaped the content of the site. Here we present some of the main findings from the seven Irish case studies. The interviews were conducted in November-December 2001; the interviewees and their responsibilities in the enterprises are made clear in the reports of the respective interviews. In the months after the interviews were conducted, that is, in the first half of 2002, the two largest of these services went through significant changes. Ireland.com cut back staff and introduced charges in two phases, first for e-mail services, then for access to much of its primary news content and archives. RTE.ie also reduced its online editorial staff as part of a wider rationalization within the national broadcaster. In this context, we should emphasise that business strategies were not directly discussed in the interviews.
ElectricNews.net (ENN) was established in 1999 by technology journalist Sheila McDonald and publishes up to a dozen news stories daily, generally without hyperlinks.
Content includes reviews of Web sites, notice of information technology (IT) industry events, directories of IT-related services, and features on new products. Biographical notes on the main ENN writers are posted on the site, with direct email contact. Email alerts are available free of charge, and with a personalisation option. As McDonald explained, “most of our readers are getting more e-mail than they want to read but our e-mail is a premium one in their inbox because they requested it. It matches their needs. They can rely on us to filter a lot of the noise out.” Electric News does not host discussion boards, a decision based primarily on considerations of manpower but also on the editor’s experience of discussion boards: “Rumour, foundless (sic) accusation and slurs reign supreme. Bullies take over the discussion and frighten other people away. I think it is the opposite of what journalism should be.” In this way, a ‘traditional’ view of journalist responsibility holds sway: “I would rather keep it [the ENN news content] pure for the journalists only and if you want us to cover something we’re good enough to see the news value in that.” Despite this, ENN reported that users provide a lot of news leads and appear keen to contact the site although there is no direct invitation to do so. According to McDonald, as an Internet-native news service, its greatest challenge is to find the resources to respond to user demand. User interaction would play a much greater role if ENN could devote the necessary resources to implement the changes users demand.
Ireland.com is the portal site of The Irish Times, which established its Web edition in 1994, and ‘rebranded’ the site as Ireland.com in 2000, introducing a wider range of information sources. Ireland.com and its predecessor have been for several years the most used of Irish-based information sites. The management at Ireland.com reported that the overwhelming factor in the success and development of the site has been brand ARTICLES loyalty to the printed newspaper, The Irish Times, and consequently to Ireland.com. A traditional model of journalism is employed on the site. As Deirdre Veldon, Editor of Ireland.com, explained, “people know what the Irish Times is. There’s no point in us changing that.” When the site started it hosted a discussion forum but this was discontinued. One of the relatively few interactive features on the site is a daily news poll which allows users to vote on a topical question posed by the news service. Users may also contribute to discussion on this topic. Veldon reported that the quality of contributions was high and that this feature has generated traffic to the site, with about 3,000 votes per day cast on average. News leads are rarely taken from the discussion boards other than perhaps as an indicator of what users are interested in. Occasionally content from the news poll will be published in the offline publications such as the Readers’ Representative column of the newspaper or in the business pages. Other aspects of Ireland.com’s service which were considered to be interactive included news delivery in SMS (short message system) format to mobile phones and a reported strong e-mail contact between the user and the editor. Although user feedback is considered to have played an important role in Ireland.com’s development, it has not been a primary factor in shaping it. Ireland.com would like to have better information about their users’ profile, enabling them to create services more targeted towards users. “What we are trying to do is change the user into a customer. [If this is successful] the relationship changes, they expect more, they expect better customer service. If we are charging for the archive or the newspaper the customer has to call the shots.” (Note: The ireland.com interview was conducted prior to the introduction of paid subscriptions for parts of the service.)
Irishabroad.com is a part of Online.ie which was established in 1999 as a rival to Ireland.com. It shares some services with Online.ie but has additional features to appeal to the diaspora, particularly in the United States. Fiachra O’Marcaigh, Editor of Irishabroad, explained that the site was based on three key elements - content, community and commerce - and these three elements were central to the creation and
ongoing development of the site. The site has limited information on its users’ profile:
“It’s deliberately limited in order not to intimidate people because what we are not about is bombarding people with information or selling their information. The information we do collect is simply to help us know who we are talking to.” The site has a very active discussion board that is monitored by staff but also relies on ‘peer reviewing’ of content which is considered to be a strong measure of the strength of the community on the site. The user’s role is considered to be focused primarily on news consumption and then on interaction between users. This is reflected in the usage of the site. Registered users receive a weekly e-mail which is reported to be an important strategy for bringing users back to the site and building loyalty; 80 per cent of registered users sign up for this e-mail service. If a registered user requests to be removed from the service Irishabroad.com complies but follows this with an e-mail asking for feedback.
One in three respond to this information request. “Feedback from dissatisfied customers is an important thing to have if you aren’t meeting people’s needs,” O’Marcaigh said.
Because the majority of users are based in the United States or similar economies where broadband communications are available, Irishabroad.com receives demands for broadband content. O’Marcaigh reported that the delay in introducing broadband services in Ireland has pushed back implementation of many of the services which had been planned for Irishabroad.com. Irishabroad enters into local partnerships in important regions for the Irish diaspora. It provides online versions of the Irish Voice, and the Irish Echo, both based in New York, and of the Irish Post in London. The site has correspondents in a dozen countries around the world.
IRISH COMMUNICATIONS REVIEW VOL 9 2003
IrishHealth.ie was founded in 2000 by an established medical trade publisher, Medmedia, to be “Ireland’s independent health portal, designed to offer users a comprehensive yet easy to use online source of medical and healthcare information and up-to-the-minute health news”. The site includes packages on specific health issues, available only to registered users and it proclaims its credibility as a source of health information through the presence of a medical advisory panel and editorial direction by the well-established medical journalist Fergal Bowers. However, the ‘editor’ to whom site users can send direct feedback is unnamed. The site editors provide hard news and frequently break news stories that find their way to other Irish media but they also ensure that the user contribution remains an integral part of what they do. All stories are published with a request for user comment and feedback and all of this is published online. Online polls are also used to generate user involvement. User contributions determine the way in which future stories are dealt with and facilitate the creation of richer, more detailed content. According to Fergal Bowers, “in a sense they [the users] are tailoring the site, the site is being tailored to what people want. They are doing that, we’re not controlling it, we’re simply allowing them a forum for it to happen.” Irishhealth is strongly committed to developing interactive functions on the site and some interactive features have been developed through user interaction. “You have to offer something very interactive where people feel they have an input and they can get immediate information. And they want it quickly.”
iVenus.com is a magazine-format online service aimed at women, carrying a diverse range of fashion, music and travel-related articles supplemented by moderated discussion boards. The site is published in partnership with the printed magazine, Irish Tatler, and the two publications cross-promote each other. However, the audiences for the two publication are not considered to be the same. iVenus was started as a portal with plans to launch internationally under licence. Soon after its launch, and in response to the global downturn in online publishing activity, the site’s plans were consolidated. Vanessa Harris, Editor, considered its active discussion boards as its strongest feature. “The most noticeable side of the Web site is the discussion board which is a whole culture, we don’t police them, we don’t interfere in them at all. And they have built this astonishing community amongst themselves,” Harris said. She cited examples of iVenus users meeting socially as an example of the strong sense of community that developed among users through the discussion boards. There is no mechanism for encouraging users to contribute to content carried on the site although story leads are sometimes taken from the discussion boards. “It doesn’t seem to have occurred to people that they might [contribute content]. Maybe they think we’re as authoritative as God or something.” Harris explained that the site was shaped by the organisation’s strategy rather than user interaction but each is considered to feed into the other. She reported that when demands can be met the site will change to meet that particular demand and, if not, the editor strives to communicate to users why a popular feature cannot be implemented or has to be removed.
P45.net was started in 1999 as “a bit of fun” by Web consultant, Volta Digital Media, and its sister company, Desire Publishing. It is “an irreverent entertainment website for disgruntled office workers in Ireland and further afield”, part of it a “newspaper”, Ballyhoo Examiner, complete with ink-on-paper look that publishes several satirical, plainly fictitious or just about believable reports daily and a weekly newsletter called The ARTICLES Five O’Clock Shadow. The editorial team on P45 come from a traditional media background but this does not necessarily determine the way in which the site has developed. Mick Cunningham, Editor of P45, explained that, “the only fragments of the traditional model that we hang onto are in terms of design and making sure the content is tight, that it’s accurate. But in general, it’s a very different way of hunting and gathering for information.” The site includes active Rant discussion forums that have allowed the site to develop in response to user interaction. Initially the discussion forums played a secondary role to the traditional fixed content on the site, but as the site grew, it became evident that diversified services were required to meet user demand. Apart from the titles mentioned above, the site creators also developed P45rant.net, an alternative interface for the site built around the discussion forums. Users logging into P45rant.net are presented immediately with links to the discussion boards with the traditional fixed content a secondary resource to stimulate discussion - in other words, a bottom-up publishing model.
The sense of community on P45 is considered strong. Users meet socially each month in Dublin and meetings of users have been organised in New York, New Orleans and London. The discussion boards are moderated but also ‘a sense of responsibility’ is promoted among users to encourage ‘peer review’.