May they come in? A comparison of German and Flemish efforts to welcome public participation in the news media
First Monday

May they come in? A comparison of German and Flemish efforts to welcome public participation in the news media by Jeroen De Keyser and Annika Sehl



Abstract
Much attention has been paid to audience participation in online journalism in recent years. This article contributes to that ongoing discussion by focusing on the previously largely overlooked macro level. It compares participatory journalism on German and Flemish national newspapers’ Web sites with a threefold aim: a) discussing the (lack of) introduction of certain participatory features in both markets; b) offering the first longitudinal perspective in that field for both markets; and, c) analyzing the various influences of market size on participatory journalism implementation. The longitudinal overview confirms that changes are happening at a fast pace. In general, the availability of participatory features on national Flemish and German newspaper Web sites is comparable, as both markets belong largely to the same journalistic culture. The larger part of the dissimilarities is explained by the difference in market size.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Citizens’ participation in the journalistic process
3. Newspapers in Flanders
4. Newspapers in Germany
5. Method
6. Findings
7. Discussion
8. Conclusion

 


 

1. Introduction

Traditional news media have recently been confronted with a vast number of changes resulting in at least as many challenges. Mainly the new possibilities of the Internet have left deep marks on the daily practice of journalism. One of the fields of change is the way journalists are looking at their audiences. The traditional approach of unilaterally telling the public what has happened has become difficult to maintain due to the possibilities of so called ‘Web 2.0’ technologies. Not only have these digital tools contributed to an increased news cycle speed, they have also strongly enhanced the possibilities for bottom–up communication towards the newsrooms.

Indeed, the success of tools like social networking sites (SNSs) or weblogs has demonstrated that large portions of the public are willing to express themselves. It must be noted, however, that much of this content is not even remotely related to news content. Nevertheless, news content generated by the public is being published beyond the reach of traditional media. In order to prevent themselves from becoming obsolete, these media are increasingly offering similar tools on their own Web sites as a response (Domingo, et al., 2008; Hermida and Thurman, 2008). In theory, this could result in Web site users assisting professional journalists throughout the process of news generating and publishing. The ensuing question which online participation tools are offering to their publics has already been addressed tentatively by Domingo, et al. (2008). The exploratory analysis of newspaper Web sites in their respective countries offers some valuable insights into the relationships of journalists to their audiences. Domingo, et al. (2008) have hence contributed to a long–standing tradition of explaining differences at the meso level, mainly referring to considerations such as source authority or professional efficiency.

What has been looked at much less in this context is the macro level, namely the influence of journalistic cultures and news market size. Vujnovic, et al. (2010) are a rare exception taking this level into account, albeit as a side remark to their main argument that journalism practices are broadly comparable throughout the world. In order to better understand the macro level influences on the offering of participatory technologies on newspaper Web sites, we will therefore be concerned with the following:

  1. discussing the (lack of) introduction of certain participatory features in both markets;
  2. offering a longitudinal overview of the introduction process in both markets; and,
  3. comparing the Flemish and German contexts to show the macroeconomic influences on certain strategic choices.

 

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2. Citizens’ participation in the journalistic process

The traditionally unidirectional approach of mass news media is well documented (e.g., Gans, 1979; Ericson, et al., 1987). Two important reasons underlying that way of working have long persisted. Firstly, traditional routines automatically led to more limited ways of working (Fishman, 1980). Focusing on specific topics of interest and drawing upon a limited range of sources has indeed been a very efficient approach for years. Especially in a context of high time pressures and low predictability, routines can serve as an efficient means to get the newspaper filled with content that meets high standards. Nonetheless, it has also systematically reduced the chances of certain actors to being heard as prominent news sources.

In recent years, this first rationale has been supplemented by increased attention to journalistic professionalism and, hence, authority. This additional focus originated primarily as a response to emerging forms of citizen journalism (Carlson, 2007b; Hermida, 2009; Robinson, 2009; Singer, 2004) and other types of non–traditional news distribution (Carlson, 2007a; Dahlberg, 2005). A large part of this pursuit of authority at first consisted of mocking the content available outside the traditional news media or their Web sites, at the same time stressing the importance of traditional journalism ethics (Lowrey, 2006; Singer, 2007).

As a side result of both principles, ordinary citizens are traditionally largely left out of journalistic consideration, not only as a public to be served and to be listened to (Brants and de Haan, 2010; Ericson, et al., 1987), but also as sources of information (De Keyser, et al., 2011; Lewis, et al., 2008).

However, changing media ecology is making it increasingly difficult to uphold traditional professional approaches. In a plethora of different ways, individuals have started to produce and publish their own information online. Whether the media like it or not, some talented citizens are out there, sometimes attracting quite sizeable audiences to their blogs (Domingo and Heinonen, 2008; Messner and DiStaso, 2008; Usher, 2008) or their contributions to citizen news sites (Bruns, 2006; Garcelon, 2006; Platon and Deuze, 2003). After a first stage of strong reluctance to change amongst journalists and newsrooms (Boczkowski, 2004; Chung, 2007; Paulussen and Ugille, 2008), things have started to evolve. News media are increasingly introducing tools that allow the public to contribute to sites and participate in the news–making process (Spyridou and Veglis, 2008). They, hence, are moving towards ‘participatory journalism’, as it is increasingly being labelled. Some media, however, are more sluggish than others in putting these tools online. The first steps are usually taken hesitantly, and with only a vague idea about the impact on the number of site visits. Nguyen (2008), for example, discovered that online discussion features only occasionally boost Web site statistics.

Within a very short time frame, various participatory tools have, nevertheless, become generally accepted as part of a standard news Web site (Domingo, et al., 2008). This is especially the case in those stages where the audience has been involved since time immemorial, and where gatekeeping practices have consequently been fine–tuned over the years. A clear example of this is the feedback stage; mere mortals have had the option to send letters to the editor for a long time (Davis and Rarick, 1964; Grey and Brown, 1970). In addition, in the very early stage of giving journalists news tips, individuals have been offered facilitating tools, such as news hotlines, for a long time (Ericson, et al., 1987; Puijk, 2008). What unites these two is the fact that professional journalists remain in control. In the former case, journalists select, and sometimes even edit, the letters (Raeymaeckers, 2005). In the latter case, the actual research and writing of a given article are taken care of by reporters, in most cases without getting back to the citizen–informants because they are not considered necessary to determine the news angle (Ericson, et al., 1987).

Even though the reinforced public participation in these cases is salient, the mere fact that possibilities in other phases of news production have emerged is characteristic of the newest phase in this evolving process. There are instances of citizens maintaining a blog within the framework of a traditional news medium’s Web site, or even writing entire articles for a site (Hermida and Thurman, 2008). (Re)distribution of the news published on news Web sites is prudently becoming possible; for example, by rating or content sharing tools. However, this does not happen in such a way that the news ranking or contents can really be influenced (Domingo, et al., 2008). There seem to be no examples of citizens being directly involved in the selection and determination of content to be published.

The seminal comparative study of Domingo, et al. (2008) has mapped these trends in a number of countries. As mentioned in the introduction, their contribution to the understanding of journalistic considerations with regards to public participation is very valuable. Little do they say, however, about the influence of differing contextual elements, such as market size, journalistic culture, or average purchasing power. They recognize that market size affects changes at the organizational meso level they study, but prefer not to discuss it into much detail (e.g., see Vujnovic, et al., 2010). In what follows, we will elaborate upon this initial impulse by comparing the Flemish and the German markets in more detail.

Flanders (the Dutch speaking northern part of Belgium) and Germany have some features in common. They both have strong economies, with very similar gross domestic products per capita (World Bank, 2010). Both press markets belong to the democratic corporatist media model, as defined by Hallin and Mancini (2004), although minor influences from the polarized pluralist model could be discerned in Flanders. This ceteris paribus situation offers an interesting starting point in studying the influence of market size on the introduction of technology by newspaper companies.

 

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3. Newspapers in Flanders

Flanders is the largest region of Belgium if measured by the number of inhabitants. With over six million residents (Statistics Belgium, 2010), generally united by the fact that they speak Dutch, the news market size is larger than that of countries such as Denmark or Finland. The two other Belgian communities (i.e., the francophone and the small German community) have separate press systems as a result of media policy being under the authority of the different communities. Moreover, because of language constraints, few Belgians consult newspapers, magazines, or broadcasters from other language communities (Raeymaeckers, et al., in press).

The Flemish newspaper market is entirely controlled by three media groups with distinctly different visions about the introduction of new technologies. Media group Concentra (http://www.concentra.be/) has traditionally always experimented with ways to lower the threshold between the newsroom and its public. Much of these efforts have been inspired by the company’s strong regional focus. Concentra has offered Web sites for their newspapers for quite some time. However, in recent years, they were not the first to experiment with new digital tools, even though they conducted and supported a reasonable number of studies behind the screens (e.g., Paulussen and Ugille, 2008). The launch of a hyperlocal news Web site that primarily consists of citizen input is in line with the company’s strategy of connecting to the local communities at which their newspapers are primarily aimed.

These efforts notwithstanding, in the past decade, media group Corelio (http://www.corelio.be/) has become the Flemish forerunner as far as innovative business approaches are concerned. The public introduction of various new technological possibilities is a consequence of that market position. For example, they were the first to launch a Flemish news Web site for their quality daily De Standaard (http://www.standaard.be/) and regularly introduce new online tools through that platform.

The converse of these two media groups can be noticed in the business strategy of ‘De Persgroep’ (http://www.persgroep.be/), which consists of waiting to see which way the wind blows. Only when introducing a new technology promises to be profitable in the short term is it implemented. Their quality daily De Morgen (http://www.demorgen.be/), for example, launched its (minimalistic) Web site as late as 2003; regular online updates became common only in 2006.

 

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4. Newspapers in Germany

Germany’s newspaper publishing market is the largest in Europe. Seven of 10 Germans over the age of 14 read a daily paper, choosing from among 351 papers, with a total circulation of 19.9 million copies (Pasquay, 2010).

The German newspaper market is, among others, characterized by a strong local and regional press and only few national daily newspapers [1]. These general papers are Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt/Welt kompakt, Frankfurter Rundschau and die tageszeitung. The specialised daily national newspapers, Financial Times Deutschland and Handelsblatt, focus on economic topics. Of the sensational press, the Bild holds an influential position with its 3.1 million copies (IVW 02/2010). In addition, two main former GDR newspapers, Junge Welt and Neues Deutschland, still exist today, but their national circulation is marginal.

Furthermore, the German newspaper market is characterized by ownership concentration. Over 40 percent of the daily newspapers sold are published by Axel Springer (e.g., Bild, Welt and Welt kompakt), Holtzbrinck (e.g., Handelsblatt), WAZ, Stuttgarter Zeitung, DuMont Schauberg (e.g., Frankfurter Rundschau), Gruner and Jahr (e.g., Financial Times Deutschland), and Süddeutsche Zeitung (e.g., Süddeutsche Zeitung) [2].

Kopper [3] describes the journalistic culture in Germany as a chronic underestimation of, and distance from, readers. Nevertheless, many German news companies have reacted to the development of Web 2.0 and citizen journalism. A survey of editors–in–chief of different media (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, Internet) in 2007 indicated that 129 out of 179 (73 percent) companies offer at least one participatory feature on their Web sites [4].

The extent to which the publishing houses are engaged in new technologies and innovation differs. There are a few examples of innovative projects or strategies of publishing houses. For example, Springer announced the online first–strategy for its newspapers in 2006. Furthermore the Springer–owned tabloid newspaper Bild introduced so–called ‘reader reporters’ in the same year [5]. While they were only asked to send in photos in the beginning, today they also deliver videos or are engaged as ‘reader’s scouts’. Holzbrinck launched a news Web site for young people, zoomer.de, in 2008, on which users could vote on the topic mix. Even though it was innovative, the project was shut down after a year due to economic reasons. Despite a few exceptions, in general it can be stated that German publishing houses react more to market developments than being innovative themselves. For example, Holtzbrinck bought the student community StudiVZ, which is similar to Facebook, in 2006 when it was already popular. Currently the newspapers are experimenting with paid content options on the Internet. In 2009, Springer was the first publishing house to introduce a pay barrier for local and regional news at their newspapers Hamburger Abendblatt and Berliner Morgenpost. Apps are another option being introduced by some publishing houses in order to earn additional income.

 

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5. Method

The main aim of this empirical study is to identify, through the quantitative analysis of newspapers’ Web sites, the opportunities for audience participation on eight Flemish and eight German newspapers’ Web sites. Against this background, we concentrated on the structural characteristics of audience participation, e.g., if online commenting, was available to users. Consequently, we did not analyze the actual content of those sites.

The structural analysis of the Web sites, providing the data for an international comparison, was conducted on 18 August 2010. Not only were the main pages of the sites analyzed, but also the subpages. To guarantee a common data gathering process, we used a checklist with examples for each feature and double–checked all codings together.

Only newspapers sold throughout the Flemish or German press markets (see Table 1) are included in the sample [6].

 

Table 1: Samples for the international comparison.
 NewspaperWeb site
FlandersDe Standaardwww.standaard.be
Het Nieuwsbladwww.nieuwsblad.be
Het Laatste Nieuwswww.hln.be
De Morgenwww.demorgen.be
De Tijdwww.tijd.be
Gazet van Antwerpenwww.gva.be
Het Belang van Limburgwww.hbvl.be
Metrowww.metrotime.be
GermanyFinancial Times Deutschlandwww.ftd.de
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungwww.faz.net
Frankfurter Rundschauwww.fr-online.de
Handelsblattwww.handelsblatt.com
Süddeutsche Zeitungwww.sueddeutsche.de
die tageszeitungwww.taz.de
Welt/Welt kompaktwww.welt.de
Bildwww.bild.de

 

In addition to this sample for the international comparison, we used older, independent, but similar data sets for both countries to offer a first longitudinal overview of the participatory features on newspaper Web sites. The Flemish data set, consisting of sites hosted by newspapers and other news media, dates back to March 2008. In the case of Germany, the analysis of 129 national and regional German newspaper sites was conducted in June 2008. This means that the longitudinal timeframe is only two years. Nevertheless, it will prove to be large enough to discern certain changes. Some authors who studied technology adoption when our first data were gathered have implicitly predicted these changes by stating that there were rapid alterations in the field (e.g., Domingo, et al., 2008; Hermida and Thurman, 2008).

The theoretical model developed by Domingo, et al. (2008) to analyze audience participation opportunities in journalism is helpful to classify the empirical results. The international research team conducting this study developed an analytical grid that follows the logic of the news production stages — from access and observation to selection/filtering, processing/editing, and distribution, up to the interpretation of the content. This grid suggests that participatory journalism can take many forms. For this study, it is helpful to evaluate the current state of development regarding participatory and institutional elements at each stage of the process.

 

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6. Findings

Flanders. The results show that Flemish newspapers have increasingly opened their Web sites to various forms of reader input. Especially in the feedback stage, various tools are widely offered for use by the public. Nearly all newspaper sites presently offer the possibility to comment on articles, to vote in a poll, or to send letters to the editor through an online form or by referring to a dedicated e–mail address. Another feedback tool, allowing readers to inform journalists about errors in their reporting through a closed system, was offered on two sites. User forums were found three times, although it must be noted that two of these were pseudo–forums, mainly intended to give an overview of the news articles that generated the highest number of comments. Rating of journalists’ articles on a scale has not yet been introduced in Flanders. At first glance, these numbers are roughly in line with the 2008 results. One Web site has dropped explicit mention of their letters to the editor e–mail address online, while most other tools are being offered on slightly more sites. In–depth analysis reveals, however, that these numbers must be carefully considered. The number of articles that readers can comment upon, for example, has decreased on some of the analyzed sites. For example, one Web site presently offers the opportunity for comments only below opinion pieces, whereas they used to allow comments below various kinds of online content. Opinion polls on two sites were clearly outdated, suggesting that they are not considered of value to those newsrooms.

The possibility of redistributing the contents of news Web sites has gained in importance tremendously since 2008. Even though Table 2 suggests that little has changed, it must be noted that only one site offered the advanced redistribution tools linked to SNSs that nearly all sites offer in 2010. This complete switchover is linked to the still growing popularity of SNSs, because news article leads redistributed on these platforms can tout for extra Web site visitors. This commercial rationale does not count when site visitors can only recommend a story to other visitors, which probably explains why only one newspaper in the Flemish data set offers this tool.

 

Table 2: The number of national newspaper Web sites offering certain tools in Flanders and Germany.
 FlandersGermany
2008201020082010
Redistribution of articles6 (1)7*8
Comments on articles7747
Polls6778
Letters to the editor7686
Forum3346
Citizen weblogs3413
Citizen texts (articles, stories)3403
Photo submission tool13(4)23
Error reporting tool02*1
User community0023
Rating of journalists’ articles0013
Video submission tool0011
Recommending articles within the Web site01*0
Note: * These tools were not included in the 2008 analysis.
▵ The count is lower if only more advanced distribution through SNSs is included.
▴ The count is higher if the photo submission tools linked to text submission tools are included.

 

Several tools allowing ordinary citizens to send in or publish original content are available on (almost) half of the Flemish newspapers’ online platforms. In the case of user blogs (available on four sites), two motives are apparent. Two quality dailies each host a number of blogs for which non–journalists are asked to write content. Most of them are experts writing about their topics of interest, but both newspapers also have a blog where expatriates write about their personal experiences abroad. Two popular and more locally oriented dailies host a varying array of citizen blogs, generally united by the fact that they are written by people originating from the newspapers’ main selling areas. It must be stated that not just anyone is able to contribute to these blogs; in all these instances citizens are explicitly asked to do so by the newsrooms. This restriction already existed in 2008.

Apart from video upload tools, which were not found in this survey, the other publication tools we looked for are hosted on the sites of popular newspapers. Content written by audience members and published online are found on four Web sites. In three cases, this involves reporting on local affairs, which are open to everyone; publication decisions are made by professional journalists. Unsurprisingly, two of these are available on the sites of locally oriented newspapers. The third case is an interesting project by the second largest Flemish paid–for newspaper, in which each city or town has its own microsite filled with content by professional and amateur reporters. The Web site of Metro also publishes text from its targeted audience, but does not require them to be news related. As a result, this content resembles a notice board, or even a user forum, more than news. The same lack of news relatedness is apparent in case of Metro’s photo upload tool that can be used to upload, graphically manipulate, and publish personal pictures. The two regionally oriented newspapers offer dedicated tools to send in pictures on special occasions that vaguely relate to current events, such as Mother’s Day or the holiday season. Moreover, all the above instances of citizens reporting about their local communities also include tools to supplement content with graphics.

An interesting point we want to make is that the largest newspaper in Flanders (Het Laatste Nieuws) offers none of the content submission or publication tools we have just discussed. It used to heavily promote an SMS/e–mail tip line in its newspaper, as well as on its Web site. We discovered that the accompanying site is still online but is no longer mentioned on the newspaper’s main site.

Germany. The first overview of participatory features on the analyzed Web sites indicates that most of the options explored by citizen media sites have not been widely adopted by the examined newspapers thus far in 2010. The most common features offered by the studied cases have enabled users to react to journalistic content, e.g., by commenting on it. Almost all analyzed newspaper sites allowed users to write comments or offered an opportunity to submit letters to the editor through an online form or a dedicated e–mail address. In one case, users were asked to tell journalists about errors in their reporting. All Web sites offered polls. Among these newspapers, five had a regular voting option on daily topics, while three had a voting option on the best photos in photo competitions. Rating articles was also possible on three newspapers’ sites. In addition, it was possible for users to redistribute contents of news sites. All newspaper Web sites offered this tool in 2010.

More than half of the newspapers offered users the opportunity to discuss questions in an online forum. However, the newspapers used different names for what was coded as a forum. For example, on the Web site of Die Welt, the forum is called ‘debate–discussions’. The newspapers’ sites showed various forms of online forums. On some, the newspaper introduced questions that were discussed by users. Other newspapers offered very specialized forums that thematically concentrated on discussions about the stock exchange or sports. Three newspapers allowed non–journalists to write a blog on their Web sites. Beneath these contributors’ blogs were the blogs of famous bloggers who were invited to write on the newspapers’ sites.

Apart from the online forums and blogs, features that let users produce content were offered on relatively few sites. Only three Web sites offered a chance to send in text. The community at fr.stadtmenschen.de (http://fr.stadtmenschen.de/) of Frankfurter Rundschau gave users the chance to write a blog, upload photos, write restaurant reviews, give tips about leisure time activities for a family, or write about sport clubs and other social venues. This way, this community could offer a variety of user–generated content. This community clearly separated user–generated content from content produced by journalists. The community at bewegung.taz.de (http://bewegung.taz.de/) of die tageszeitung offered a tool for users to advertise campaigns, an offer that corresponds to the leftist position of the newspaper. On jetzt.sueddeutsche.de of Süddeutsche Zeitung, young users were asked to send in their stories.

Three newspapers asked their users for photos and one for videos. Remarkable in this category is the Bild, which works with so–called reader reporters. This means readers and users send in photos and videos. If these photos are printed in the newspaper, the user is paid from 100 to 500 Euros, depending on whether the photo is published in the regional or national section of the newspaper. Bild also asks its users to become ‘reader’s scouts’. This way, users can lead the newspaper, for example, to interesting videos on the Web. Also worth mentioning is the photo community of Süddeutsche Zeitung [7]. There, users are able to upload photos, sell and buy photos, or just discuss photography. As already mentioned, three newspapers offered communities for users, where they, in some cases, concentrated the user–generated content activities.

Compared with the findings in 2008 for the Web sites of national newspapers, those for 2010 show that participatory features have spread further. Some of the tools, like citizens’ blogs, ratings of journalists’ articles, or online comments have become more popular today. Redistribution tools have emerged and are available on all newspaper Web sites today.

For 2008, the larger data set consisted of national and regional newspaper Web sites. Even if both are taken into account (N=129), the results vary little, but the tendencies remain the same. The most common feature offered by the studied cases enabled users to react to journalistic content with letters to the editor (57 percent) or online comments (46 percent). New features giving users other options, such as blogs, (18 percent) were rare. The most popular feature was photo submission tools (26 percent), which enabled users to produce content themselves. These results correspond well to those of Neuberger, et al. (2009), who examined participatory features of German newspaper Web sites and surveyed editors–in–chief in 2007.

Looking again at the model proposed by Domingo, et al. (2008), the findings show that audience participation opportunities are not equally open at each of the five production stages. Only the interpretation stage was significantly open to some sort of user participation since most newspapers see user participation as an opportunity to discuss current events and offer feedback on previous stories. In contrast, there was less openness to user participation at the stages of access/observation, processing/editing, and distribution. Users could not take part in the selection/filtering process.

 

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7. Discussion

The Flemish and the German newspaper markets are obviously dissimilar in terms of market size. However, the results show that the general tendencies in both markets are comparable. The most popular offerings on the newspaper Web sites are those participatory features that enable the users to give their feedback in several ways. The most obvious and long–standing example are the letters to the editor that are published in a given newspaper. Most newspapers publishing these letters also welcome their Web site visitors to submit them. It is striking that the instant comment tool, which could be considered the letter’s digital sibling, is being offered more widely. A specific feedback tool for reporting errors directly to the journalists is offered on only a few sites.

Some features are not feedback tools in the narrow sense but allow users to give their opinions, even if it is not connected to a certain article. Polls, for example, are broadly available. However, they only allow visitors to express one of the pre–determined opinions. More space for the deliberative expression of opinions is provided in forums. Nevertheless, compared to the number of polls, fewer newspapers are offering that tool in both markets. Forums have not advanced as much as the instant response tools mentioned earlier, suggesting that newspaper companies prefer a tool that is more closely connected to the news and possibly offers a greater degree of control.

One function that has clearly gained importance in both markets over the past two years is the redistribution of content through a wide array of channels. This might be explained by the emerging success of SNSs that newspapers try to use for their own benefit. In this way, they get users to promote the newspapers’ articles and ensure more attention for them.

Looking at the numbers, one might think that blogs are as significant in Flanders as they are in Germany. However, a second look shows that the implementation of the technology differs in both markets. In Germany, two out of the three newspaper sites offer a wide array of citizen blogs. One of these will even host a blog for anyone ready to start one. Flemish newspapers that are offering blogs, in contrast, are more selective as to whom they invite to blog. As a result, the number of citizen blogs they host is very restricted. This more restrictive approach is compensated for, however, by the more widespread opportunity for Flemings to publish other kinds of content. In some cases, this even takes the form of local citizen reporting being published online, a non–existent practice on German national newspaper Web sites.

The distinction between the two news markets is even more visible in the category of photo upload tools. Not only do Flemish sites offer the possibility to upload pictures more regularly, they often link these tools to the news text submission tools just mentioned. This stands in stark contrast to Germany, where photo upload tools are not necessarily news related and not so widespread — at least not on national newspaper sites.

The strongest discrepancy between Germany and Flanders can be discerned among the rating of articles written by professional journalists. While almost half of the German newspapers analyzed give users the opportunity to rate the articles they have read, this option is not available on Flemish sites.

 

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8. Conclusion

It comes as no surprise that the availability of participatory features on national Flemish and German newspaper Web sites is relatively comparable, as both markets largely belong to the same journalistic culture. The larger part of the dissimilarities may hence be explained by the difference in market size.

Firstly, a comparison of the 2008 and 2010 results indicates that it is less demanding to follow trends in recent evolution of smaller newspapers. This is in line with the theory of organisations. Larger organizations usually take longer to make decisions and to implement innovations. The main reasons are bureaucracy and the complexity of the organisation [8]. They produce transactional costs (for the theory of transactional costs, see Coase [1937] and Williamson [1985]). This is apparent with the introduction of instant commenting tools, where the Flemish market was ahead of the German one in 2008. That difference has disappeared today. Flemish newspapers are still ahead of their German national counterparts when it comes to citizen content.

Secondly, many Flemish newspapers are more closely attached to their public through different local editions they sell. Thus, they take the opportunity to integrate audience contributions into local reporting. Content and photo upload tools are offered for this purpose. Vujnovic, et al. (2010) noticed a similar pattern in the smaller markets that they analysed. We agree with their conclusion that the cost–free character of this input can be a major incentive for newsrooms to accept user–generated content and thus piggyback on their audience (see also Petersen, 2008). This approach stands in sharp contrast to the financially strong Bild, which even pays its readers when their pictures are published in a given print edition.

That last consideration brings us to the third conclusion linked to market size, which is the difference in financial strength of the publishing houses. This is not only due to the evident difference in market size, but also to higher German per capita newspaper sales. As a result, the German companies are more innovative at long last because they have more financial capacities. Even if it is not very costly, in most cases, to offer the technology as such, necessary investments in personnel to deal with the inflow can be quite high. For example, newspapers need to control online comments in order to prevent legally problematic entries from appearing on a given Web site, thereby maintaining high quality standards. This explains why, in Germany, examples exist where all online comments are checked before they become publicly visible. That practice no longer exists in Flanders. Furthermore, if publishing houses have less financial volume, it may be more risky to invest in the implementation of technology where a return of investment is not guaranteed. As a result, the way blogs and forums are being provided to audiences in Flanders has not really evolved — to the contrary, the presence of forums has become more limited.

This comparative study has revealed some useful data about participatory journalism in Flanders and Germany. The first longitudinal overview of the introduction process indicates that participatory features generally gained more importance for the newspaper Web sites in both markets. However, it is necessary to continue the longitudinal approach in order to map further evolution in this field. Furthermore, a more in–depth analysis could be useful to gain a better overview of how the tools are being applied. Another approach for future research could be to confront those in charge of participatory journalism in newsrooms with the findings to see if they agree with them and how they would explain them. End of article

 

About the authors

Jeroen De Keyser is a researcher at the Department of Communication Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium), where he is also member of the Center for Journalism Studies. He currently works on an FWO (Research Foundation — Flanders) project that investigates emerging forms of citizen journalism and their interaction with traditional journalistic models.
E–mail: Jeroen [dot] DeKeyser [at] UGent [dot] be

Annika Sehl is a research assistant and lecturer at the Institute of Journalism at TU Dortmund University (Germany). Furthermore she is a research fellow at the Erich–Brost–Institute for International Journalism in Dortmund.
E–mail: Annika [dot] Sehl [at] TU-Dortmund [dot] de

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Prof. Dr. Steve Paulussen and Prof. Dr. Günther Rager for their insightful comments on early versions of this text, as well as Dr. Daniel Jeffrey Koch from the Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research ISI for his valuable advice on innovation management. They also want to thank Pieter Ugille and the students he coordinated for gathering the Flemish 2008 data during a research seminar at the Department of Communication studies at Ghent University, as well as the students who gathered the German 2008 data during a seminar on empirical research methods at the Institute of Journalism at TU Dortmund University.

 

Notes

1. Meyn 2004, p. 77ff.; p. 94ff.

2. Meyn 2004, p. 126 ff.

3. Kopper, 1997, p. 113.

4. Neuberger, et al., 2009, p. 282.

5. A regional newspaper, Saarbrücker Zeitung, owned by Holzbrinck, was actually the first newspaper in Germany to work with reader reporters. Nevertheless, Bild is the most popular example.

6. The newspapers Junge Welt and Neues Deutschland were excluded from the German sample due to the fact that their circulation is negligable.

7. http://timelineimages.sueddeutsche.de/community.

8. Jones and Bouncken, 2008, p. 828.

 

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Editorial history

Received 4 March 2011; accepted 23 September 2011.


Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Jeroen De Keyser and Annika Sehl.

May they come in? A comparison of German and Flemish efforts to welcome public participation in the news media
by Jeroen De Keyser and Annika Sehl.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 10 - 3 October 2011
https://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3457/3064





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