FACEBOOK is muscling into local newspapers’ markets, and they must do something about it.
Gallingly, those clever geeks in San Francisco are using our own readers (or people who used to be our readers) to do the hard work for them.
People unable to find the content they want in local newspapers or their websites are simply setting up their own Facebook pages or groups that reflect their interests.
Now, I am not talking here about a group of friends debating a new album by their favourite Scandinavian death metal band; I mean vibrant and highly participatory community-based networks. Just the sort of thing, in fact, that should be our stock-in-trade.
There are a couple of good examples in the area where I work. Photos and Memories of Days Past in Evesham started off as a wallow in nostalgia, but while retaining its signature theme has morphed into a lively community noticeboard and debating forum.
Likewise, Voice of Ledbury successfully combines chit-chat and posts about missing pets with vigorous discussion about local affairs.
The great shame is that the rich, user-generated content appearing on pages like these is the very stuff that local newspaper websites should be hosting.
They do not for two key reasons.
Firstly, Facebook is ubiquitous, inclusive and easy to use.
Secondly, most newspaper websites are largely platforms for trained journalists. Consequently, they do not encourage submissions from ‘amateurs’, and even when they do, uploading material is sometimes far from easy.
To compete with Facebook we should put user-generated content at the heart of our sites rather than the margins. Not necessarily all of it, but the stuff our experience tells us will be popular.
Of course, to do this our sites need the mechanisms to make external uploads easier, but more importantly newsrooms cultures must change to recognise that content submitted by readers sometimes merits as high a profile as that from a staffer.
User-generated content should be labelled as such to differentiate it from professional journalism (and to give its author due credit), but treating it as second-class will only drive more people to Facebook and other sites where their output is taken more seriously.