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June 18 2013

14:08

Data-Hungry Mail Online Mulls Original-Video Move

CANNES – Look out, world. Having quickly become the planet’s most-visited newspaper website, Mail Online plans to ramp up its digital video offering beyond its core categories of entertainment, lifestyle and breaking world news.

“We’ll continue to expand the types of video programming we’re deploying,” the title’s global chief marketing officer Sean O’Neal told Beet.TV in this interview during this week’s Cannes Lions advertising conflab. “We’re even looking at doing more original programming. We do think that’s an opportunity.”

London-based site publisher A&N Media has surprised industry watchers by turning its famously right-leaning UK mid-market tabloid Daily Mail into a segment-beating phenomenon. Having formed editorial teams in New York and LA two years ago, Mail Online has become a phenomenon, with roughly 50 million unique monthly web visitors, according to comScore.

O’Neal says reasons for the success are threefold:

  1. “It has been completely operated independently. Martin Clarke, our publisher, started it up very entrepreneurially and built a purely digital publishing business.”
  2. “Unlike a newspaper, you can print as much content as you like.”
  3. “We’ve got great technology. We’re very data-oriented. Within minutes of publishing a story, we actually have enough feedback to know whether that story is going to be a winner or a loser.”

Now he is planning to add video content marketing opportunities to an advertiser line-up that already includes pre-roll spots.

For a deep-dive behind Mail Online’s strategy, see the publisher’s easy-to-read recent investor presentation.

September 04 2012

15:37

July 30 2011

19:18

Citizen photographers app…

Can you say “Citizen Journalist”? That phrase harkens back seven or eight years when everyone it seems wanted to become a journalist. It had its good and bad points and never really seemed to take off. Kind of floundered and dropped out of sight.

Well, now someone has developed an app titled “Tapln” that encourages citizens to shoot photos to be submitted to their local rag.

Participating newspapers would ask their readers to pull out a phone and snap pictures if they are on scene of an event…even to the point of shooting breaking news.

We all know the dangers inherent in having untrained civilians running amuck thinking they can do a pro’s job. I won’t list them. Why don’t you? Feel free to make a comment below and let the world know what YOU think of this marvelous new app.

(Thanks to Mickey Osterreicher with the NPPA facebook group.)


July 27 2011

05:12

CNN's Piers Morgan 'told interviewer stories were published based on phone tapping'

Telegraph :: Piers Morgan, the CNN broadcaster, has said that newspaper articles based on the findings of people paid to tap phones and rake through bins were published during his time as a tabloid newspaper editor, it can be disclosed.

[BBC Desert Island Discs, June 2009: Piers Morgan was asked:] What about this nice middle-class boy, who would have to be dealing with, I mean essentially people who rake through bins for a living, people who tap people’s phones, people who take secret photographs, who do all that nasty down-in-the-gutter stuff. How did you feel about that?"

[Piers Morgan's answer:] ... A lot of it was done by third parties rather than the staff themselves. ... 

Note: Telegraph made the audio recording of this conversation available on their website.

Continue to read /listen to the audio Jon Swaine, www.telegraph.co.uk

July 07 2011

20:22

Domino effect? - News Corp. had to axe News of the World to save BSkyB Deal

AdAge :: This Sunday's edition of the 168-year-old News of the World, Britain's best-selling newspaper, selling around 2.6 million copies per week, will be the last, with all revenues from the sale going to "good causes," News Corp. said. AdAge believes, that it is not only about closing "just one newspaper: News Corp.'s brand of journalism may be rotten to the core." Major advertisers announced over the past two days that they would not take space in the newspaper. Ford, the first to declare its hand, was quickly followed by a succession of big-name marketers including Procter & Gamble, Renault, Reckitt Benckiser, Coca-Cola and Virgin.

Is a negative spillover to other News Corp. businesses possible? What if major advertisers start to question ad spendings for other News Corps. outlets as well? - Emma Hall, AdAge: Perhaps most important to News Corp., however, the scandal had threatened to derail its planned acquisition of the rest of British Sky Broadcasting Group (it owns 39% of the service). News Corp. is often criticized by investors for investing in newspapers, but the company's decision today clearly signaled that in a conflict between newspapers and satellite TV, it will choose satellite.

Continue to read Emma Hall, adage.com

May 29 2011

20:32

@korea_post - Korea Post’s Twitter is contributing to crime prevention

Asia Digital Map :: Korea Post’s Twitter is contributing to crime prevention. Korea Post’s Twitter(@korea_post) is contributing to voice phishing prevention. Warning tweets about diversified methods of voice phishing are re-tweeted more than hundreds of thousands times and it helped declining of 17 percent of victims compared to the previous year.

우본 트위터 보이싱 피싱 예방에 지 식경제부 우정사업본부 트위터(@korea_post)가 보이스 피싱 범죄 예방에 큰 몫을 하고 있습니다. 우본 트위터에 업로드된 사기수법에 대한 경고 트윗이 10만~20만건 이상 빠르게 리트윗되면서 올해 우체국 사칭 보이스 피싱 피해 건수가 지난해보다 17% 이상 감소하는데 큰 몫을 한 것으로 보입니다.

Continue to read Jane Lee, www.asiadigitalmap.com

20:18

Japan - Radio, TV, newspapers, Twitter? Media's role in responding to earthquake disaster

Daily Yomiuri :: Professor Shiro Segawa, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, conducted a preliminary survey about the media and its role in responding to the earthquake and tsunami disaster March 11. He and his research team called on two shelters and interviewed 23 victims in total. The main question to them was which form of media—newspapers, TV, the Internet (PC or cellular phones), or radio—they used a frequently right after the earthquake, one to two weeks after it, and one month after it, respectively.

Findings. On the whole, the most common answer was radio immediately after the earthquake (car radios or battery-operated radios) and newspapers after one week since the earthquake. It is generally thought that Twitter and other social media have played an active role in responding to this earthquake disaster. This only seems to be the case, however, in areas where the Internet was available and without power outage.

Study and findings: continue to read Shiro Segawa, www.yomiuri.co.jp

 

May 28 2011

12:54

Newport (R.I.) Daily News paywall strategy to push people from digital to print

Niemanlab :: The Newport (R.I.) Daily News might have been ahead of its time: The newspaper charges a hefty premium for digital-only access in hopes of boosting print subscriptions. Two years have passed since the Daily News introduced a three-tiered paywall. At the time, executive editor Sheila Mullowney described the move not as a push toward digital, but as the opposite: a “print-newspaper-first strategy.

That remains the case today.

Continue to read Andrew Phelps, www.niemanlab.org

May 24 2011

19:29

Joplin Globe’s Facebook page reunites missing people in tornado aftermath

Poynter :: After a massive tornado roared through Joplin, Mo., the Joplin Globe, its city newspaper, – established a Facebook page to link tornado survivors with their family members and friends. The page encouraged Joplin residents to post a note if they made it through the tornado safely, and it allowed other people to post inquiries about friends and family members they haven’t been able to contact.

Continue to read Adam Hochberg, www.poynter.org

Visit the Joplin Globe's Facebook page www.facebook.com

January 16 2011

17:09

A small sign of recovery…

…in today’s Stockton Record.

For months the jobs listings have been lacking…lagging. Nonexistent.

But today we have not one, not two or three, but SIX columns with employment offers. A small sign…but I take blessing small and large.


October 28 2010

07:48

Flyposting newspaper websites

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrggggggh!

Imagine the scene. I’m on the bus. I’ve found a seat that isn’t near the bloke who shouts at cars and smells vaguely of rabbits. My headphones are in (but not too loud,of course).

I take out my copy of the Birmingham Post and open it up. Scanning around the page I see an article that catches my eye. But just before I start reading…the person sat behind me pulls out a pot of wallpaper paste and slathers a great billboard poster across the top of the page.

It turns out that in scanning around I inadvertently caught the eye of an advert nestling in the corner of the page.

Sound plausable? No I didn’t think so.

So please stop doing it on your bloody websites newspaper people.

That is all.

October 14 2010

19:48

October 01 2010

08:00

Death Knocks

IMG_3176 Door Knocker
A really, really good post from Alison Gow recalling her first ‘Death knock’.  Not something you would look back on fondly but:

Today I contributed a content strategy, with particular emphasis on what sort of feeds we should consider aggregating and the level of showbiz news a user might require. Which might explain why I’ve been reminiscing about reporting days.

As Alison points out, the knock is an inevitability for reporters.

I’ve never done it (thankfully) but it was on my mind this week as well.

I was talking to the second years about using pictures from facebook as part of a chat around communities and the content they create (social media). One student said it would be better to ask the parents for a picture they could use rather than ‘steal’ one.  Of course the reality of that is ‘you have to go and ask them’. I asked them “Which would you rather do. Take the picture off facebook or go and do a death knock?”

In the intro to her post. Alison notes:

There are a few set questions anyone applying for a job in journalism gets asked at interview – among them is a request to summarise what they would do if Newsdesk sent them out on The Knock – which usually means a death knock.

Just to be clear. ‘Avoid it by getting the details from facebook’ is probably not the answer they would want.

Image from marlambie on Flickr

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September 30 2010

15:45

Ivory tower dispatch: Nothing is simple anymore

I’m going to try and share a little of what I do each week with the students and now that teaching has settled in a little bit after freshers it seemed a good time to start.

This week I wanted to get all the students thinking about some of the issues that contribute to the ‘changing media landscape’ that we have to function in as journalists.

Process in to content

For my second year, Digital Newsroom students I picked on process.

The lecture was really about how the process has changed because of digital. So I took a very basic view of the process – find, research and report – and looked at where in the process digital had made an impact. Here are the slides from my lecture (a bit cryptic without notes I know – come to the lectures!)

I started by saying that the reporting part was where the real medium specific stuff really made itself known (the mechanics of output for a particular platform). Given that we are platform agnostic, this was not where we wanted to be.  Maybe the first parts where more generic? More about broad journalism.

In truth, the process is no longer that discreet. In a multi-platform world we can’t simply focus on one ‘point of delivery’ when the point of delivery is changing all the time. By rights we are (and should be) generating content all the time; what Robin Hamman called turning process in to content. (I’ve written on that issue before.)

But in stumbling along to that conclusion we looked at how digital allows us to inject input from ‘communities’ in to the early parts of our process. We also started to explore the pros and cons of that involvement – legal, ethical and practical.

As a conclusion and starting point for more discussion later on, I picked out three ‘keywords’ that I wanted them to think about.

  • Community
  • Social media
  • Crowdsourcing

All of which, in some form, have contributed to the changing media landscape in which we practice, regardless of medium.

Where chips go, the nation follows.

I didn’t see the thirds year print students this week as they were putting together their first newspaper (1st. week back. No hanging around). But the time I spent with our post-graduate newspaper students looked at similar issues to the second years.

I started with a little debate. I split the group in to two. One side took the position “newspapers will die in five years”. With the other side getting “newspapers will survive the next five years”. As you can imagine interesting debates ensued. Including the position that newspapers weren’t even used to wrap chips in anymore(and the wonderful statement that headed this section), countered of course by ‘you can’t wrap your chips in an ipad’.

It was great to see that the range of debate broadly mirrored the industry concerns(or you may see it as a sad reflection of the echo chamber!) and that the students took a admirable middle ground. Passionate but realistic.

For them, the list of things to ponder was longer but similar:

  • Community
  • Multi-platform
  • Multimedia
  • Hyperlocal
  • Data Journalism

I also included Profile/engagement on the list but that became a broader discussion of brand and identity.  Something that began to touch on the deeper issues of professionalism and ethics.

Nothing is simple

If this week could be summed up in a nutshell it would be “nothing is simple anymore”. We don’t just simply write for newspapers ( or make TV/radio etc) – we have an eye on multiplatform.  It’s not as simple as just talking to the community anymore – we interact. Everything is made more complex by technology and the influx of digital. Some of it is in our control. Some of it isn’t.

What we can’t avoid is that some of that pressure lands on the journalist, right from the point they engage with a story,  regardless of where it ultimately ends up. It may not be your employer who brings that pressure to bear. It may be the audience…

PS. Just in case you thought that we do nothing practical they also started (or, in the case of the second years restarted) blogs (platform up to them) and google reader.  The postgrads got their beats and patches to play with and got to explore their hyperlocal/patch site.

Image from tim_ellis on Flickr

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September 13 2010

09:49

OJR: News publishers should look to the e-book model

As online publishers seek new ways of making money from digital news, Robert Niles suggests that news outlets could benefit from using the e-book rental model.

Writing on the Online Journalism Review website, Niles suggests they should capitalise on a model which he says has grown by 71 per cent in the last seven years in the US, especially when it comes to publishing in-depth journalism.

Every year, some top newspaper enterprise reporting projects end up as books. What if some newsrooms flipped the development cycle, and initiated some of their more extensive enterprise reporting projects as e-books, available for sale or for rent?

(…) That makes sense to me. Even as my consumption of news online has sated my appetite for the commodity news I can find in a printed newspaper, I still keep buying books and magazines for longer, more detailed narratives. I happily pay for that content in print because I can’t find an alternative that’s better or cheaper (or both) online.

See his full post here…Similar Posts:



July 27 2010

15:11

Now you see them…

It has come to this. Opened my newspaper this morning and there was only a page and a half of classifieds – the (former) staple of income for newspapers. You know them. Lost and found. Cars for sale. Garage sales, used stuff, pets, boats, farm goods.

There are (remember, Stockton is the former Ground Zero for real estate meltdown) three and a half pages of legal notices of trustee sales.

Professional Services has expanded from about half a page in former times to a full page. This includes everything from bankruptcy to tree services.

I wonder how much longer I’ll receive home delivery out here in a rural area?


May 04 2010

11:15

April 16 2010

14:20

How Blocking Search Engines Can Increase Ad Click-Throughs

Search engines, RSS feeds and content aggregators make a reader's life easier by providing new ways to scan for articles and to discover news. One result of this is that readers may no longer feel the need to regularly visit their local paper's website in order to stay informed about the goings-on around town.

Following this logic, publishers work hard to make their content as searchable as possible, to make it accessible outside of a newspaper website. Conventional wisdom dictates that websites should be optimized for search engines.

But what if your content is very specific in nature? Suppose that you have a respected brand, and that people in your community look to you to provide information that is relevant to them? When newspapers give their readers alternative ways to access their information, they are gambling that the a la carte traffic coming back from the search engine will more than make up for the loss of direct traffic they previously received.

The theory goes that the easier your content is to find, the more traffic your site will receive. But a recent experiment by a few newspapers in Northern California suggests there's value in keeping come content away from search engines and aggregators.

Papers Prevent Search Engines, Aggregators

During the first quarter of 2008, three small newspapers in Northern California with website pay walls edited their robots.txt files to disallow search engines and aggregators from indexing any content on their websites. I am vice president of digital media for the newspapers in question. I run web strategy, sales and operations for dailyrepublic.com, davisenterprise.com, and mtdemocrat.com. We made the change when local advertisers started buying Google AdWords instead of ads on our website. Realtors, for example, buy the keywords "Fairfield Real Estate News" and advertise on our content through Google, which is not good for us.

As a result, management at the papers decided to cut off search engines and aggregators. You can view some of the results here:

boydston-figure1.png

As the charts above illustrate, website traffic has grown steadily in each of the four key metrics we studied. What was most surprising, however, was the impact this change had on our ad-serving effectiveness. The click-through rate for ads rose from a modest 0.29 percent in 2008 to an average of 2.87 percent today on paid access pages. (You can also view some related data here. It compares paid and free websites of similar size.)

It appears that for these papers, traffic volume alone does not impact click-through rates. What I'm suggesting is positive correlation between increased reader frequency and the click-through rate. Frequency is key to generating advertising response. Simply put: Newspapers who give their readers too many ways to read their content may be inadvertently destroying the advertising effectiveness that sustains their business.

I am not trying to convince you that every website should block search engines, or that newspapers should all try pay walls. But I implore the news community to consider that it is plausible for a news organization to thrive without search engine traffic.

It's a concept that stirs up emotional responses from many in the news industry -- but it deserves more logical contemplation.

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13:20

This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Schmidt and Huffington’s advice for news execs: This week wasn’t a terribly eventful one in the future-of-journalism world, but a decent amount of the interesting stuff that was said came out of Washington D.C., site of the annual American Society of News Editors conference. The most talked-about session there was Sunday night’s keynote address by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told the news execs there that their industry is in trouble because it hasn’t found a way to sustain itself financially, not because its way of producing or delivering news is broken. “We have a business-model problem, we don’t have a news problem,” Schmidt said.

After buttering the crowd up a bit, Schmidt urged them to produce news for an environment that’s driven largely by mobile devices, immediacy, and personalization, and he gave them a glimpse of what those priorities look like at Google. Politico and the Lab’s Megan Garber have summaries of the talk, and paidContent has video.

There were bunches more sessions and panels (American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder really liked them), but two I want to highlight in particular. One was a panel with New York Times media critic David Carr, new-media titan Ariana Huffington and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell on the “24/7 news cycle.” The Lab’s report on the session focused on four themes, with one emerging most prominently — the need for context to make sense out of the modern stream of news. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and University of Maryland student Adam Kerlin also zeroed in on the panelists’ call to develop deeper trust and participation among readers.

The second was a presentation by Allbritton’s Steve Buttry that provides a perfect fleshing-out of the mobile-centric vision Schmidt gave in his keynote. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow had a short preview, and Buttry has a longer one that includes a good list of practical suggestions for newsrooms to start a mobile transformation. (He also has slides from his talk, and he posted a comprehensive mobile strategy for news orgs back in November, if you want to dive in deep.)

There was plenty of other food for thought, too: Joel Kramer of the Twin Cities nonprofit news org MinnPost shared his experiences with building community, and one “where do we go from here?” panel seemed to capture news execs’ ambivalence about the future of their industry. Students from local universities also put together a blog on the conference with a Twitter stream and short recaps of just about every session, and it’s worth a look-through. Two panels of particular interest: One on government subsidies for news and another with Kelly McBride of Poynter’s thoughts on the “fifth estate” of citizen journalists, bloggers, nonprofits and others.

Is a closed iPad bad for news?: In the second week after the iPad’s release, much of the commentary centered once again on Apple’s control over the device. In a long, thoughtful post, Media watcher Dan Gillmor focused on Apple’s close relationship with The New York Times, posing a couple of arresting questions for news orgs creating iPad apps: Does Apple have the unilateral right to remove your app for any reason it wants, and why are you OK with that kind of control?

On Thursday he got a perfect example, when the Lab’s Laura McGann reported that Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s iPhone app was rejected in December because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.” Several other folks echoed Gillmor’s alarm, with pomo blogger Terry Heaton asserting that the iPad is a move by the status quo to retake what it believes is its rightful place in the culture. O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill says that if you bought an iPad, you aren’t really getting a computer so much as “a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap … and Apple got you to pay for the building.” And blogging/RSS/podcasting pioneer Dave Winer says the iPad doesn’t change much for news because it’s so difficult to create media with.

But in a column for The New York Times, web thinker Steven Johnson adds an important caveat: While he’s long been an advocate of open systems, he notes that the iPhone software platform has been the most innovative in the history in computing, despite being closed. He attributes that to simpler use for its consumers, as well as simpler tasks for developers. While Johnson still has serious misgivings about the Apple’s closed policy from a control standpoint, he concludes that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

In related iPad issues, DigitalBeat’s Subrahmanyam KVJ takes a step back and looks at control issues with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams has a detailed examination of the future of HTML5 and Flash in light of Adobe’s battle with Adobe over the iPad. Oh yeah, and to the surprise of no one, a bunch of companies, including Google, are developing iPad competitors.

News editors’ pessimism: A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a striking glimpse into the minds of America’s news executives. Perhaps most arresting (and depressing) was the finding that nearly half of the editors surveyed said that without a significant new revenue stream, their news orgs would go under within a decade, and nearly a third gave their org five years or less.

While some editors are looking at putting up paywalls online as that new revenue source, the nation’s news execs aren’t exactly overwhelmed at that prospect: 10 percent are actively working on building paywalls, and 32 percent are considering it. Much higher percentages of execs are working on online advertising, non-news products, local search and niche products as revenue sources.

One form of revenue that most news heads are definitely not crazy about is government subsidy: Three quarters of them, including nearly 90 percent of newspaper editors, had “serious reservations” about that kind of funding (the highest level of concern they could choose). The numbers were lower for tax subsidies, but even then, only 19 percent said they’d be open to it.

The report itself makes for a pretty fascinating read, and The New York Times has a good summary, too. The St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans wonders how bad things would have to get before execs would be willing to accept government subsidies (pretty bad), and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran highlights the statistics on editors’ thoughts on what went wrong in their industry.

Twitter rolls out paid search: This week was a big one for Twitter: We finally found out some of the key stats about the microblogging service, including how many users it has (105,779,710), and the U.S. Library of Congress announced it’s archiving all of everyone’s tweets, ever.

But the biggest news was Twitter’s announcement that it will implement what it calls Promoted Tweets — its first major step toward its long-anticipated sustainable revenue plan. As The New York Times explains, Promoted Tweets are paid advertisements that will show up first when you search on Twitter and, down the road, as part of your regular stream if they’re contextually relevant. Or, in Search Engine Land’s words, it’s paid search, at least initially.

Search blogger John Battelle has some initial thoughts on the move: He thinks Twitter seems to be going about things the right way, but the key shift is that this “will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.Alex Wilhelm of The Next Web gives us a helpful roadmap of where Twitter’s heading with all of its developments.

Anonymity and comments: A quick addendum to last month’s discussion about anonymous comments on news sites (which really has been ongoing since then, just very slowly): The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote about many news organizations’ debates over whether to allow anonymous comments, and The Guardian’s Nigel Willmott explained why his paper’s site will still include anonymous commenting.

Meanwhile, former Salon-er Scott Rosenberg told media companies that they’d better treat it like a valuable conversation if they want it to be one (that means managing and directing it), rather than wondering what the heck’s the problem with those crazy commenters. And here at The Lab, Joshua Benton found that when the blogging empire Gawker made its comments a tiered system, their quality and quantity improved.

Reading roundup: This week I have three handy resources, three ideas worth pondering, and one final thought.

Three resources: If you’re looking for a zoomed-out perspective on the last year or two in journalism in transition, Daniel Bachhuber’s “canonical” reading list is a fine place to start. PaidContent has a nifty list of local newspapers that charge for news online, and Twitter went public with Twitter Media, a new blog to help media folks use Twitter to its fullest.

Three ideas worth pondering: Scott Lewis of the nonprofit news org Voice of San Diego talks to the Lab about how “explainers” for concepts and big news stories could be part of their business model, analysts Frederic Filloux and Alan Mutter take a close look at online news audiences and advertising, and Journal Register Co. head John Paton details his company’s plan to have one newspaper produce one day’s paper with only free web tools. (Jeff Jarvis, an adviser, shows how it might work and why he’s excited.)

One final thought: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw decries the “zero-sum game” attitude by professional journalists toward user-generated content that views any gain for UGC as a loss for the pros. He concludes with a wonderful piece of advice: “If you think the web is useless, make it useful. … Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.”

April 13 2010

11:15

The Namibian Turns Text Messages into Letters to the Editor

Many news organizations use SMS to send out news alerts, but the Namibian, a daily paper in Namibia, has set up pages in its print edition and on its website to publish text-message letters to the editor submitted by readers.

The Namibian is an independent newspaper with newsstand sales of 27,000 a day (with an estimated 10-person pass-along rate), and a popular web edition. It launched the SMS pages in August 2007.

The SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to specific articles. The editors would place an image of a mobile phone beneath certain stories in the paper, and invite readers to text in their responses. The program became so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the print edition three times a week, and a section of the website, to the SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

namibian sms.jpg

"We wanted letters to the editor, but that only allows literate people to communicate in quite a long way," said Carmen Honey, an editor with the Namibian. "This way allows more people to have their say and it's quick and it's simple -- everybody's got a phone, it gives everybody a chance to be involved."

The Namibian uses the program to reach out to the community, and to give readers an easy way to share their opinions. Submitting to the SMS page costs the sender $2 Namibian per text (roughly US $.02), which is the typical cost of a text message. The Namibian derives no income from the program, according to Honey.

Citizens, Government Leaders Send Texts

Honey said the program has taken off without much promotion, and that the SMS pages have provided readers with a level playing field on which to air their complaints, share their opinions, and promote their interests. Honey expanded via email:

On a technical level the readers have embraced the cell-phone medium with enthusiasm. Concerning content, the contributors have realized they can -- and do -- approach their elected officials about problems in their areas, like service delivery. What is more, the officials, in some cases, have been quick to deal with the issues raised leading to profuse thanks from the writers. This empowers both parties. Readers also know there is nothing wrong with commenting on and even criticizing actions of elected officials right up to the President, which they do very politely.

To be honest, we did not really know what to expect but the messages have come thick and fast from all corners of the country and on every topic under the sun.

Even senior Cabinet members, and the Prime Minister, have added their opinions. What is useful now, in certain instances, is that members of the public are suggesting solutions to problems opening the way to national debate.

Texting a Controversy

The SMS pages have also led to some challenges for the paper; although English is the national language of Namibia, there are more than eight other commonly spoken languages. According to Honey, the paper doesn't have the staff to accept and translate text messages in other languages, so users must submit in English. Also, in an October 2009 controversy, leaders of the political party SWAPO claimed that Namibian publisher/editor-in-chief Gwen Lister personally wrote SMSes that criticized the government.

Lister responded in a letter to the editor:

I have never submitted an SMS to our pages and if Ithana remains unconvinced, I am sure that through the 'Spy Bill,' she can get the answers she seeks. Her allegation though, is an affront to the people of this country who see the SMS pages as an opportunity for dialogue with Government and others on matters close to their own hearts.

Many readers responded with text messages of support for the Namibian, and cited the SMS pages as a place where they can express themselves freely.

In spite of the SWAPO/Lister controversy, Honey said the program has been a positive force for both the paper and its readers over the last three years.

"It's gone pretty smoothly," she said. "Some people don't like things, but we offer the full right of reply -- if somebody complains about somebody's X, Y, or Z, we will immediately give them the space so that they can publish the answer, so they can defend against whatever the complaint is equally quickly."

She added that the paper does reserve the right to edit the messages for grammar, in order to make them more understandable, and to remove anything that could be potentially libelous.

The process for receiving and managing the text responses is fairly simple. Users submit their via SMS and the messages are sent to an online aggregator. From there, Honey logs into the aggregator's webpage and exports all the messages into an Excel document. She then chooses the texts she feels gives the best picture of the day's responses, and edits as needed.

She said one of the more interesting aspects of the SMS pages is that the texts are so varied. People write about everything from political issues and complaints about power companies, to thoughts on the national radio and television service. She said the paper has also received news tips through the SMS pages, and that they are currently working on making the program more interactive.

For now, the SMS pages are a way for readers to quickly and easily have a voice on national issues. Honey summed up the goal of the pages as being, "To give as many readers as possible, whoever and wherever they are, a chance to take part in the democratic process by sharing their views at the lowest possible cost."

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