Online journalism in the time of social networks

Coming out with a news website in the Philippines in 2000, when it was not clear what worked or didn’t, was not easy, but people behind www.sunstar.com.ph did not let this daunt them.

One of the greatest challenges they faced in putting up the online version of the Sun.Star community of papers was the lack of a particular model or format to follow, said Nini B. Cabaero, editor-in-chief of the department that manages the Sun.Star website.

Adding to the problem, added Cabaero of Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex), was conceptualizing a single online face for Sun.Star’s community of papers and bureaus from such diverse areas as Bacolod, Baguio, Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Davao, General Santos, Iloilo, Manila, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Dumaguete, and Zamboanga.

Cabaero, interviewed last year for a thesis by University of the Philippines Cebu Campus graduating student Maria Armie Sheila Boco Garde, said they had to come up with a template for Sun.Star that’s different from those of the existing news sites at the time.

Fast forward 10 years later, the practice of journalism in non-traditional platforms like the Internet and mobile continues to change, but Sun.Star website personnel now know enough to anticipate and adapt to this ever changing delivery of and consumption of news.

The advent of online social networks like Facebook and Twitter has also added a new dimension to journalism.

Social media

Although social media may appear otherwise, they “aren’t as much a challenge to as a potential partner for news media,” said Max Limpag, Sun.Star Cebu page editor and owner of various websites on technology, running, and other topics.

“Social networks give news websites a platform to reach their audience. A media website’s news story can easily become viral among groups of friends because of the interconnectedness engendered by social networks,” Limpag added.

Media companies should make sure that their websites are plugged into social networks and should be prepared to engage their audience in the different networks, he further said.

Realizing the power of Facebook and Twitter as tools to add to or reach its intended audience, www.sunstar.com.ph created accounts in these networks that have become additional venues for interaction between the Sun.Star website and its readers.

The website invites visitors to “like” Sun.Star on Facebook or follow it on Twitter and become part of its community of visitors.

“Apart from striving for multi-media publishing, media companies should also work toward multi-channel reporting. Twitter, Facebook and the other social networks are different channels with specific audiences as well as reporting approaches. Media companies should be able to maximize the use of these different channels in their reporting,” Limpag added.

The Sun.Star website currently updates in channels like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and has indeed reaped the benefits of new media tools in its reporting of events.

New journalists

Aside from the challenge of creating a unique online identity for Sun.Star’s community of local papers 10 years ago, the Sun.Star website also needed its online journalists to learn new skills and tools.

Cabaero said a background in journalism was not enough for a journalist to succeed online.

Used to years of reporting for traditional media like print and broadcast, www.sunstar.com.ph journalists had to learn even such simple skills as writing for or story presentation on the web.

“We thought then it was enough that we get stories from the Sun.Star papers online. We know better now, of course. People read differently when they’re holding a newspaper or browsing the web. Research has also taught us that we make our content more attractive and understandable when they’re shorter and simpler or presented in formats other than text, graphics or videos for example. Multimedia storytelling, in short,” said Marlen D. Limpag, managing editor of Sunnex.

It is therefore necessary that online journalists must not only know how to write or edit but learn multimedia skills like producing and editing video or taking good photographs, Mildred Galarpe, Sunnex coordinator, told Garde in her thesis interview.

Some technical skills and familiarity with graphic software also help, added Galarpe.

With the deluge of information available online, a good online journalist must know how to filter and identify content, said Laureen Mondoñedo, Sunnex assistant content editor, in the same thesis interview.

Real-time web

The web, with its real-time characteristic, demands speed, and online journalists do not have the luxury of time when writing.

But while online journalists need to be fast, they cannot afford to miss out on important details, said Sunnex assistant content editor Ariel Catubig.

Real-time is reporting the news even while it is still happening, added Catubig.

Perhaps, the greatest challenge still to be hurdled by the Sun.Star website is technical capability. Its growing number of daily visitors, which even triple when there are developing stories, places a strain on website resources.

The Sun.Star website nevertheless continues to adapt, as it had for the past 10 years, so it can provide timely news updates to Filipinos here and abroad.

How Sun.Star website covered the election

On its 10th anniversary, the Sun.Star website buckled down to work. It was May 10, 2010, the holding of the country’s first-ever automated elections, and www.sunstar.com.ph was right in the middle of the action.

The day the website turned 10 was its busiest, as it worked to deliver real-time election updates in different formats and various channels and provide voters direct access to the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

When voting opened at 7 a.m. on May 10, Sun.Star website journalists used all formats possible – text, photos, videos, and graphics – and any channel available, not least among them Facebook and Twitter, to keep visitors updated on the latest in the automated polls.

It gave voters an open line to Comelec spokesman James Jimenez through a 24-hour chat that started at 6 a.m. of May 10 and ended at 6 a.m. of May 11. The chat allowed voters to address their concerns and refer their questions pertaining to the elections directly to Comelec.

On election day, when voting stalled and voters got angry and rowdy, www.sunstar.com.ph chronicled the incidents using text, videos, and photos.

Sun.Star was also among the first to post on its news site and other channels like Facebook and Twitter Comelec’s move to extend voting time by one hour.

As voting progressed, the Sun.Star website kept its visitors informed about what’s happening not only at the capital but also in local communities like Bacolod, Davao, Baguio, Pampanga, General Santos, Cebu, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga and Pangasinan.

election2

For two days alone, May 10 and 11, the website posted around a hundred short updates of election-related developments and uploaded major story changes no less than 18 times.

After the closing of polling precincts but before May 10 ended, the website already carried articles and tables on partial tallies for national positions that showed Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III leading over other presidential contenders and the top 12 senators, as well as incomplete counts that offered a glimpse on how the fight was faring in such areas as Cebu, Davao and Cagayan de Oro cities.

Unheard of in past Philippine elections, winning candidates were proclaimed even before election day ended at midnight and Sun.Star gave these stories as well to its visitors as soon as they occurred.

Even today, the Sun.Star website continues to carry post-election materials, such as tabulated results in areas largely ignored by big online news outfits.

But before all those things, in the months leading to the election, Sun.Star promoted Comelec’s precinct finder and helped in voter education by providing information on the modern ballot, poll automated machines, and voting flow. It also gave out important election day reminders.

All these could be found at the website’s election special – Philippine Votes 2010 (specials.sunstar.com.ph/election2010/) – that was created in November last year to make it easier for visitors to access poll-related news.

Voting has ended but Sun.Star’s coverage of the election continues and will continue until the last poll protest is resolved and all winners proclaimed.

Why they love sunstar.com.ph

Eric Estrella, a Cebuano, left for Texas over 26 years ago but through www.sunstar.com.ph, he still gets to experience the yearly festival of festivals that Cebu is known for – the Sinulog.

“The Sinulog makes me proud to be from Cebu. I’m truly 100% Cebuano,” he said in a comment left on the Sun.Star website section that carries articles, photos, videos, and graphics on the celebration that is as festive as it is religious.

Estrella, who last joined the Sinulog in 1984, said he is glad that although he is far away, he is still able to feel the Sinulog spirit through the pictures and videos posted on the Sun.Star website.

Melinda, a Cebuana now residing in San Francisco, California, is thankful for Sun.Star’s video stream and video clips of the Sinulog solemn procession that is celebrated every third Saturday of January.

“To all the Sun.Star staff and contributors, thank you for sharing! Keep up the great work!”

Watching the videos made Melinda feel that she was right there among pious devotees, who chant prayers as they follow the procession of the image considered sacred and miraculous by devout Catholics in Cebu.

“Awesome” and “simply amazing” are what Carol of Chicago used to describe Sun.Star’s well-written articles on the history and origin of the Sinulog.

“Thank you for the beautiful photos and videos. It brings back memories,” she said.

Eric, Melinda, Carol, and thousands of others who log on to www.sunstar.com.ph to get their daily fill of Philippine community news and events inspire Sun.Star website personnel to come up with ways to combine different media like text, photos, videos, and graphics to provide visitors a rich and diverse browsing experience.

Since it started posting updates about Cebu’s grandest festival, Sun.Star has received thousands of comments on its Sinulog blog. The messages are expected to hike up in the coming months as Sinulog 2011 approaches.

The Sun.Star website’s election section Philippine Votes 2010, on the other hand, became the sounding board of visitor voters complaining about the non-availability of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) precinct finder as election day neared.

Emilio Maloles echoed the frustration of countless others who were not able to access Comelec’s online precinct finder.

“It just does not work. Has Comelec even tested its own precinct finder,” Maloles wondered.

Other comments left on Sun.Star’s election special extolled or criticized the various candidates for president or vice president, Davao City mayor, Pampanga or Misamis Oriental governor, Bacolod City representative, and other national and local posts.

After election day, Sun.Star website readers asked for partial results of voting tallies in their areas.

Visitors nevertheless were one in saying they appreciated the Sun.Star website’s election special because it provided them access to poll-related news.

In its 10 years of operation, Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex), the department that manages www.sunstar.com.ph, provided timely updates to its online community of readers, and gave them a venue to air their views on pressing issues of the day.

The advent of Facebook and other online social networking sites like Friendster, Multiply, Facebook, and Twitter allowed for an expanded promotion of Sun.Star website content.

Not only that, Sun.Star visitors can follow or like Sun.Star’s pages in these online sites and get access to timely updates from the Sun.Star website while logged on to their social network accounts.

In Facebook and Twitter, Sun.Star accounts have over a thousand friends and followers who are all praises for the website.

Anthony Orais Leuterio, Julius Judilla, and Hermilo Tongson are just a few of those who asked Sun.Star to continue providing them with “great news every day” through Facebook and Twitter.

Others like Evelyn Rivera and Mariz Hernandez say Sun.Star’s accounts on Facebook and Twitter allow them to share website content with their friends and contacts.

Said Hara del Mar Alviola Bell, a Cebuana now residing in England: “Pasalamat jud ko sa Lord nga adunay Sun.Star nga website sa internet kay dako kaayog gikatabang sa akong kinabuhi diri sa England. Updated jud intawon ko sa matag adlaw-adlaw nga balita sa diha sa Cebu. Mao kini ang tambal sa kamingaw sa Cebu ug sa akong mga anak nga si Juneross, Mathwell and Jorrel…More power, more success to Sun.Star and God Bless you all!”

Amara, one of the pioneering advertisers in the Sun.Star website, is confident with the partnership it has with the company, saying Sun.Star’s readership and online following are impressive indicators of quality journalism that the people have come to depend on.

“The Sun.Star website is a favorite among Cebuanos who look for reliable news in a mouse-click… It makes us widely accessible to our discriminating market from here and everywhere in the world,” said Dee Nicholas, Cebu Holdings Inc. marketing supervisor.

Albert Winston S. Rabor, an overseas contract worker in Surabaya, Jawa Timur, Indonesia, liked the Sun.Star website’s video contest for Cebuanos abroad.

“(Video contest) will give us a chance to show to the world how Cebuanos spend their time at work…at leisure time, where we gather to hear mass on Sundays, play sports, or have a good time with beer and lechon.”

Referring also to the video contest for overseas workers, Marcio Monteclaro, now based in Nigeria, West Africa, said it is nice to hear that Sun.Star has not forgotten Filipinos abroad.

The Sun.Star website considers the ramifications of a global audience as it strives to deliver content to its visitors. From comments of www.sunstar.com.ph visitors, it is wonderful to hear the website is not so far off the mark.