Two recent expertiments by SA editors have highlighted the possibliities of setting up Internet sites that are satellites to their main sites, using technology from the blogosphere, writes Jenni Marsh for journalism.co.za.Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â And they're finding new audiences in the process.
Jenni Marsh writes for journalism.co.za:
Iran's Twitter revolution last month exposed a potent threat to conventional news outlets: social media. As reporters were banned, dissenters microblogged their oppression and uploaded harrowing videos onto YouTube. News platforms around the globe were upstaged.
But in South Africa some ambitious regional editors are engaging with significant new audiences by creating innovative platforms that ask what the blogosphere can do for them.
Frustrated with the rigid website templates of their owners, editors are leaning on open source software to build satellite sites with greater functionality and flexibility for in-depth reports.
The Eastern Cape's Daily Dispatch netted 35 000 unique users when it published 'Dying to Live', a spin-off website investigating the murder of Somalis in the area.
With a design that branded it as entirely separate from the paperÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s main site, it harnessed the interactive power of third-party applications such as YouTube, Dippity and WordPress, which editor Andrew Trench says the publication's main platform cannot accommodate.
The ethos of the project, says Trench, was to take online journalism beyond pairing stories with "insignificant video" and create a three-dimensional experience.
The spin-off site used Google Maps to plot a killing spree, with virtual pins that opened up multimedia content; a page entitled Listen To Us posted audio messages directly from the Somali community, giving readers the sort of one-on-one interaction that has proved so irresistible by social networking platforms.
Trench says that while Somalis in the township of Mdantsane may read his newspaper, the online readership prior to Dying To Live had been "quite different, wealthier and more geographically spread – so not very representative of the poor communities we were reporting our story on here".
By creating a journalism-driven forum to discuss local xenophobia, Dying To Live engaged with the Somali community in a way that had previously eluded the Dispatch's main platform.
Borrowing from the blogosphere made Dying To Live a cheap enterprise. Trench's team received a R62 000 grant from the Taco Kuiper Fund administered by the Wits journalism programme. But as reporters used free applications they under spent by R45 000.
"We looked around to see what was freely available not just to build a website but to add a more meaningful dimension to the kind of story we are trying to tell," says Trench.
"I found you can make relatively complicated websites with a low level of expertise."
Giving big issues an independent platform was first explored by fellow Eastern Cape newspaper The Herald.
In 2008, The Friendly City Project examined whether Port Elizabeth deserved its welcoming moniker and boosted The Herald's traffic by 28 per cent – 63 per cent of visitors reaching the spin-off site via a URL published in print.
Rather than following a linear storyline, the project used a montage of blogs, picture galleries and video footage to explore the city's cultural diversity.
It culminated in a Cover It Live debate, which 353 users participated in, 94 of whom made comments – some from as far away as Europe. A panel of experts helped structure the conversation as readers came together in real time to share their viewpoints.
While senior assistant editor Steve Matthewson appreciates the journalistic potential of open source software, he says the satellite site was primarly born out of a technical necessity.
"We would have done it [The Friendly City Project] with our main website as a special report but because of the inflexibility of our platform we couldn't," he explained.
"If you are constantly refreshing the content on the [satellite] site you get a lot from it but as soon as we stopped updating that site people stopped going there."
Matthewson feels The Friendly City Project signaled the need for newspapers to create fresh environments for their contentÃƒâ€šÃ‚Â if they are to remain key players in the digital revolution.
"In terms of digital platforms, newspapers have not been innovators," he explains.
"We need to start forming cells of tech-savvy but also engaged people and build from the bottom up new tools to engage readers and take possession of the publishing process, which, unfortunately, has been lost to IT start ups."
Trench also concedes there are limitations of such sites and rules out advertising on Dying To live – "something which is too sensitive just doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t work with a commercial message" – but believes there are editorial benefits of satellite sites – longevity and additional publishing space.
He intends Dying to Live as an ongoing portal for discussing xenophobia towards Somali South Africans, a microcosm within the main platform that reaches out to a pocket of the readership.
"Some people would say it's crazy because you're separating your content from your main online presence," Trench says. "I think it helps to create a brand within your work."