By Deb Shaw, For the SNA Foundation
UGC is an excellent source of names and faces for your paper.
User Generated Content has gotten a lot of ink lately. High profile forays, like Deseret Media’s Clark Gilbert strategic development of Deseret Connect and the Community Media Lab program within the now digital-first Journal Register Company, are testament to the growing importance of these programs to the modern business model.
In this era of tight resources and shrinking staffs, what editor wouldn’t like a source of robust content that doesn’t cost anything and is pliable enough to be published in multiple ways – online, in print, even as full feature or hard news stories? The folks at GateHouse Media have developed a ‘callout’ approach that is yielding healthy results such as these and shared the details in a recent SNA Foundation-sponsored webinar.
The huge audience that gathered to hear Brad Dennison, GateHouse Media Vice President/News & Interactive; David Arkin, GateHouse Media Director/News & Interactive; and Alice Coyle, a managing editor in GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local network of community sites in New England, discuss their UGC approach was not disappointed. “This is by far one of the best webinars I have watched. The ‘here's how we do it and the results we got’ approach of the speakers was refreshing. In addition, I took away techniques I can put into practice almost immediately,” said Linda Kinsey, Executive Editor at Sun Newspapers.
The GateHouse callout strategy is not willy-nilly. Thoughtfully developed, the approach of asking community members to send in content in response to very specific, prominent and consistent requests is now an integral part of GH newsrooms and was born of a desire to have the local paper become far more immersed in local content.
“We thought of UGC as a process. One of creating a culture, or an expectation, with our readership that we really do want their content,” said Dennison who added that the historic reader interaction with letters to the editor and story comments were no longer hitting the nerve needed to sustain and build more engagement.
The culture change, however, has to begin in the newsroom. Doubt that the market will take to the prescribed approach and anxiety about tackling yet another task are obstacles that may need to be overcome but Dennison promised that when you drive the UGC program in very specific ways, those fears are quickly allayed by the inflow of much more local content than you would have otherwise.
The program also gives a huge boost to the community conversation, helps newsrooms expand their local sources, and can lead to hard news tips.
For GateHouse newsrooms, the process began in 2009 when they began to build a culture for UGC. It was followed by implementing a set of expectations revolving around a specific callout program in 2010 and now, in 2011, papers are seeing very measureable results.
Dennison urged the webinar audience to jump right into a UGC program. Describing many aspects of their strategy as ‘do-able at any size newspaper’, he added that there are things editors can do immediately to get a UGC program rolling.
Making Callouts Work
The basic approach that GateHouse uses to generate UGC is to consistently ask the community to submit photos, stories, etc about very specific topics and to follow a prescribed calendar that logically ties in to local events or the time of year. For instance, now is the perfect time to be asking for prom pictures; another timely request is for mother/daughter look alike photos to run as part of the upcoming Mother’s Day content.
Anchor the regular request for submission on a prominent page of your newspaper, like page A4. Do not make the callouts look like an ad or have it scheduled by the ad department. You want them to stand out as newsroom content.
Your website callout should follow the same calendar as what is in the paper and, like in the paper, the request needs to be consistent and prominent. Put it in your navigation bar with a hot link like ‘send us your photos’; if you have a big photo carousel – put it in there; put the request in any open inventory of ad space.
Include Facebook callouts in your arsenal and make sure to always advise that you may use the submissions in the paper and on your website. Update your Facebook requests with actual submission examples to continue the momentum.
“Opinion pages are hard for newspapers nowadays. Social media creates an opportunity to really create a different audience and delivery method to get this kind of content,” said Arkin.
The Callout Schedule
The callout calendar that GH newsrooms follow is designed to have a consistent callout program for every month of the year (click here to see the 2011 callout schedule on www.GHnewsroom.com) and can easily be adapted for any market.
Spring and summer are very fertile times for callouts with a lot of natural tie-ins like prom season, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, 4th of July, etc. An upcoming callout on the GH schedule ties into the Memorial Day weekend coverage and will ask for summer drink recipes. Newsrooms will ask readers to send in recipes for their favorite cool drink to help counter the summer heat. Submissions will be sought May 7-22 and results will run by May 25, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend. A callout that is easily replicated in any market.
How To Use This Content
As a managing editor for GateHouse New England, Alice Coyle oversees several small weeklies, some with one-person newsrooms, and has found real abundance in the results her newsrooms are getting from their callouts. One example of a callout that yielded great results revolved around Veterans Day. Coyle asked people to share stories of their favorite veterans and included a specific outreach to local VFW Posts. “We put together a couple of nice veteran’s pages as a result. Powerful content, great old photos…” said Coyle.
Coyle has also extended her UGC program to now routinely included community journalism from a local college. The P.R. department of Bridgewater State University follows a newspaper-originated format to submit events and a Q&A that is yielding a page of content weekly (For a robust description of the GateHouse Community Journalism Program, click here).
“Callouts take a while to build. You really have to work at it but once you build this it really does get easier,” says Coyle.
She added that if you want to hit a home-run for a callout to start with, make it about pets. “They are undeniably a great category for this program.”
The webinar contained much more useful knowledge and many tips to help you expand you move your UGC program to a different level. Access the archived recording by clicking here.