News personalisation: Taking the 'My' road

It isn’t quite Facebook for newspapers yet, but over the past year both The Sun and The Telegraph have developed the social and user-generated sides of their web properties. Called My Sun and My Telegraph respectively, these allow readers to comment directly on stories, join in discussions, get personalised news and write their own blogs.

Registering is easy and users are able to upload or choose an image to represent them. The profiles on both give out a controlled amount of personal information, like age, gender, location, a short description and, in the case of The Sun, your favourite football tea.

My Telegraph

MY Sun users can comment directly on many of the paper’s online news articles, and the service also has traditional online discussion boards. These can certainly generate a lot of contributions – one thread about Madeleine McCann from May is still going strong with over 5,000 pages of comments.

Posting to your MY Sun blog is simple. User’s give their blog a title and description, and can choose to allow comments. Posts are put into one of eight categories, including ‘paranormal”, and multiple images can be added to an individual post. A spell-checker is available to help with online literacy standards.

My Telegraph blogs are more feature-rich. Users can build a network of blogs they read, and ‘save’pages for reading late. Blog entries can be ‘tagged’with the topics they are about. This escapes the restrictions imposed by the newspaper’s own categories and builds up into a personal ‘tag cloud’illustrating a user’s interests. An RSS feed of each blog is published, and people can also vote on whether they agree with a blogger’s views or not.

My Telegraph

The two papers have both used competitions to stimulate blogging. The Telegraph ran a contest encouraging Tour de France posts, with cycling prizes up for grabs. More saucily, The Sun made posting scantily-clad photographs to MY Sun the entry method for its ‘Easter Bunnies’hunt for a Page 3 stunner.

Moderating this type of user-generated content is hard work. Both rely on their readers to alert them to unsuitable content, and there is always a risk that what the publisher’s lawyers might define as ‘unsuitable”, their audience may find perfectly fine.

While it isn’t quite the equivalent of putting readers’ letters on the front page, both papers have audience-generated content on their homepages. The Sun highlights the most interesting discussions, while The Telegraph usually lists a blog post from the amateurs alongside the professional bloggers at the foot of its homepage.

Each service involves an element of delivering personalised news to the user. MY Sun presents a list of headlines based on what the user selected as their preferences when they registered. My Telegraph takes the braver step of including an online RSS reader. It comes pre-subscribed to feeds from The Telegraph, and, to demonstrate that users can mix’n’match their news, with content from the BBC, Planet Rugby, Motley Fool and political bloggers such as Iain Dale.

My Sun

One interesting aspect of these services for me is the nature of the relationship between the blog author and the platform. If you start writing online using Blogger or Typepad, the platform doesn’t bring any kind of demographic or political baggage with it. However, writing a blog on The Sun website or on The Telegraph website carries certain cultural assumptions.

The upside for the blogger is that they are in a familiar landscape, with free easy-to-use tools and a ready-made audience. Getting your own blog noticed can be hard work. Setting up a blog in a place where it can be seen by thousands of users with a loyalty to the newspaper you all read is a lot easier.

While My Telegraph has a slight edge with more features and better usability, both services are a great addition to their respective sites, and a bold move into the interactive era. In print, newspapers tightly control and sub-edit what appears on the letters page, and who gets to respond to articles. Online, however, the control is very much in the hands of the readership.

My Sun

The Sun and The Telegraph are really showing how this can be used to a paper’s advantage. Their websites now better reflect the concerns and interests of their users, who get to write about them in their own words.

This fosters loyalty to the newspaper, generates page views and advertising revenue, and gives their websites a real flavour of the character of the papers’ readership.

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