Getting the most from user-generated content

Why do we need UGC?

Audiences know what they want from their media. They know how to seek out and tailor their media to their own needs, so we need to stop setting the agenda from meeting rooms in London filled with middle class journalists. We need to not just listen to what our audiences want, but to visibly act on it. If we listen but don’t act, they will listen to a different station, read a different paper or download a different podcast that does give them what they want.

Isn’t it up to us, the clever journalists, to tell our audience what is in the news?

Our definition of what is news is often very different to theirs. We need to take our listeners’ or readers’ stories and apply the same journalistic rigour to them as any other story. At Radio Five Live we don’t put any old rubbish on air just because a listener tells us it’s news. We use our skills as journalists to examine stories, looking at patterns in correspondence (what is getting lots of people interested?), and national trends (what similar issues are bothering people in Hull, Exeter and Glasgow?). We examine a listener’s background, their interests and any possible bias they bring to a story as we would any politician or pressure group.

What do you get from UGC?

• New stories

• New case studies

• A different perspective

As a journalist, you need to spot stories from the audience differently. Their emails won’t say: ‘Here’s a story for you”. Often, there’s a story hidden in a rant or someone sharing a personal experience. Normal people don’t write emails like press releases, so use your journalistic skills to spot the potential.

How can we manage UGC?

Woe betide anyone who asks the audience what they want and ignores it entirely – they spot it and will never come back with more. It is essential that you read all their correspondence. Tell them what you want and shout about it when you run their stories. At Five Live, we have appointed an audience editor with a small team of producers who monitor texts, calls and emails. We establish relationships with listeners as sources, taking time to develop their stories and travelling across the country to record interviews. If you don’t take UGC seriously and give it resources, it won’t work.

Can you overuse UGC?

Yes, if it’s done badly. No, if it’s done well. If you use the audience well, they can run a thread through every story, giving case studies on national stories to unique local problems that typify a national issue. If done badly, the programme would sound like a local information exchange.

How do we get the balance right?

The key to getting it right is applying the same journalistic rigour to UGC as any press release or diary story. The future of UGC is that it will feed in to all editorial decisions and story selection. It will seamlessly work alongside the traditional news diaries providing an alternative source of stories. Editorial judgements must still be made on how strong the story or testimony is against all other news of the day.

Don’t have a UGC slot or page. Don’t have a quota. Run every story that comes from your audience on merit and you will see your news agenda change to reflect their demands and values.

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