The Birmingham Mail web relaunch: the verdict

Ever since Time magazine handed its controversial cover person award of the year to ‘you”, the search for user involvement and engagement in all areas of online activity has been something of a Holy Grail for mainstream publishers.

It seems a long time since that 2006 cover story of the US magazine praised the public for ‘seizing the reins of the global media’ – and the shift it predicted is now evident in even the most traditional of news-media organisations.

So in some ways it should be no surprise to see that the Birmingham Mail’s website, relaunched in January as birminghammail.net – has put the user so high on the agenda.

Even the .net domain name, an extension intended for network infrastructure providers, signals a clear intention to stand out from the crowd. And it does.

Proudly pushing its tabloid red top into the masthead of the online product, the site’s very first utterance is a call to action for user involvement; ‘ Send your stories, Send your videos. Send your pics. Join a forum”, it implores.

This courting of user involvement is at odds with its main rival in traditional print terms – the mighty Express and Star over in Wolverhampton. Those online users well-versed in social networks may feel less at home at expressandstar.com.

Although there is opportunity for users to submit their own news and reviews, take part in polls and contribute to the blogs at expressandstar.com, it’s more difficult to locate the opportunities for submitting user material, and the conversational construct is not as evident.

The Birmingham Mail’s new site also has an interesting selection of blogs including the sometimes controversial Faraz Yousufzai blogging about ‘views affecting the muslim community”.

This is already tackling some hard-hitting topics, such as the impact terrorism cases may have on Birmingham communities.

As an issue of our times which impacts on so many city communities, it was heartening to see the comments, that lifeblood of the blog conversation, containing contributions from Mail editor Steve Dyson explaining how and why the paper had decided to cover the issue that night .

And Dyson doesn’t stop there. His own Editor blog, looking at his issues and decisions made on a daily basis, sits alongside postings on topics as varied as football, shopping and pregnancy.

Birminghammail.net takes advantage of an open design with a rolling sequence of images high on the page and a prominent video player.

The video menu offers the user a good selection of what’s on offer, and the video is also carried within the text of the article making it easy to stumble upon as well as locate specific items.

At expressandstar.com, video isn’t pushed on the home page but is instead segregated away on its own channel (4)where users can view news, sport and entertainment videos which also appear within the articles.

Both sites incorporate other web 2.0 features to good effect, with prominent links to sharing sites such as del.ici.ous and Facebook, use of polls and RSS feeds across the main channels.

But the similarities stop at this list of features. The underlying ethos of each site appears, to a visiting user like myself, to be very different, with the Mail actively soliciting participation and displaying UGC at the top level alongside the professional journalists, while the Express and Star offers facilities for those users who seek it out.

It will be interesting to see how users respond to such a choice, how these two giants in the newspaper industry monetise their audiences and whether success will follow the course predicted by that article in Time – ‘It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes”.

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