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Comments on stories: Be careful what you wish for
The following is a post from my blog at thenewstribune.com. Comments are a growing problem for news sites boldly charging into the digital age. (Beth Lawton had a great roundup of suggestions on how best to deal with comments on the NAA’s New Media listserv recently, in case you’re struggling with how to deal with them on your site.)
In a nutshell, I think everyone’s job in a newsroom will include the moderation or facilitation of comment and content from the community in the future. We are at an awkward middle point right now and many news sites (including mine) should be embarassed by what is allowed to be posted by users. It won’t be like this forever. We’ll get this figured out.
If you have visited the comments on our stories recently, I apologize. This is not what we had in mind.
At their best, story comments add layers to a news story that a newsroom simply can’t. Local expertise, interaction, discussion and a healthy exchange of ideas based on the news in the report.
At their worst, story comments are nothing more than senseless drivel. Mean-spirited personal attacks between people who know each other’s screen names intimately but know very little about their adversaries in real life.
A few years ago, just when blogs were really taking off and hitting mainstream awareness, we started talking about allowing comments on our news stories. Around the same time, we had a focus group of younger readers tell us they would love the opportunity to interact with the news through comments. They said, “We want to play, too.”
We welcomed the idea of allowing readers to hold us accountable, just as we try to hold those in power accountable to our community. We looked forward to the exchange of ideas around our news stories between locally interested citizens. But we also knew that some moderation would be critical; a truly open forum could potentially devolve into a cesspool of personal attacks and bitter name-calling (human nature being what it is). And we didn’t accurately forecast the volume of comments that we would receive on a daily basis, let alone those that are posted at all hours of the night. So our minor commitment to foster this community – including the ability for users to “flag” comments they deem inappropriate – has proven to be insufficient.
We now find ourselves at a crossroads. The comments on our stories are marred too frequently by back-and-forth attacks between a small number of regulars who accuse one another of past transgressions and posing as alternate identities. We receive complaints that many of the commenters are, in fact, the same person holding court with himself or herself for all to see. And we are not alone; most news sites that allow comments have even worse conversations running on their sites. From what I hear from online editors around the country, we’re actually pretty lucky (which is really scary).
At the same time, editors at the newspaper complain that we don’t have enough comments on certain hot button stories (especially when local bloggers get more comments on a post about our story) and we should be doing more to create conversation with our news.
And still there have been many beneficial, constructive, learned conversations on our news stories. And even the correction of errors found in stories that were highlighted by reader comments. To me, anyway, the pluses have outpaced the minuses.
So what should we do? Make all comments go through a review before they are approved? Turn off comments and just make the problem go away? Or continue to allow an open forum and hope the good will shout out the bad?
My preference is to redouble our efforts to the care and feeding (and discipline) of this dynamic community. The comments on our blogs are mostly constructive, high quality contributions by smart people who know the topic, sometimes better than our reporters do. In my opinion, those comment streams work because the blogger is responsible for fostering the discussion and keeping it on track. If we applied those same guidelines to our story comments, we would certainly improve the quality of the discourse.
But whose responsibility should it be? The reporter who wrote the story? The reporter’s editor? An online editor? All of these people are already plenty busy, so there is no easy answer.
Another option might be to enlist the community for support. Some news sites have “deputized” a small group of regular contributors and asked them to police the comment streams. This is also interesting to me. But the obvious question this raises is “why would we trust the foxes to guard the henhouse?” We often see people grinding personal axes when using our “flag” function to notify us of comments they want removed. After all, what would motivate community members to do a good job? Money? A byline in the newspaper? A free T-shirt.
We’re actively discussing how to improve the situation with our comments. While we could use some better software to help us manage them, we can’t wait for that. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, please let me know – or add a comment below.
Twitter, FriendFeed and the news
Like many other news organizations, we’ve been experimenting with Twitter for publishing breaking news and other information in short bites. It’s been interesting to see how our reporters and editors react to it, as well as the interaction with our meager number of “followers.” Even those in our newsroom who admittedly don’t quite “get it,” the exercise of publishing a new way has been healthy and for that I encourage all news organizations to being dabbling.
Steve Rubel pointed out the potential of FriendFeed today, which takes the content stream concept to a whole new level. I’ve been meaning to check out FriendFeed for a while, but it took Steve’s blog to get to go sign up. Rubel writes:
People are increasingly turning to their peers for news, information and recommendations. And Friendfeed is more than an aggregation site or a community that’s layered on top of others. It’s a recommendation engine that surfaces content (both pro and amateur) via your peers - and that’s huge. Sure there are things wrong with it, but I believe Friendfeed is incredibly disruptive. It’s the next big thing online for consumers. It may even become the next Google.
So while we can’t see where all this is going or how it will affect news consumption, it’s important for news publishers to be involved in the exploration and experimentation, not just waiting on the sidelines for the early adopters to figure it all out.
‘The death of the American newspaper is the elephant in the room’
“Newspapers that are poorly run are going to fail, and that’s going to create a tremendous business opportunity for everyone here.”
That was the message from Merrill Brown, who helped launch MSNBC.com in 1996, during a morning session at the Kelsey Group’s Local Marketplace conference in Seattle today. To no one’s surprise, Brown didn’t mince words. (If you’ve seen him talk at a conference, you know you’re going to get an unvarnished view of the media world.) He challenged the group to focus on change and innovation and said he was happy to be at this conference, especially compared with newspaper, broadcast and other traditional media conferences.
“Newspaper, TV and magazine companies are some of the saddest places you can walk through these days,” Brown said. “The death of the American newspaper is the elephant in the room. We are about to enter an extraordinarily turbulent time in American media, not unlike what the American auto industry - among others - has gone through. And, it may not be a surprise, but the U.S. newspaper business isn’t covering this news very well.”
Brown said this is a time of “extraordinary change” that presents “extraordinary opportunity” for local online companies, which 20 years ago was limited to yellow pages and newspapers. Now, of course, the web has opened up this market to a dizzying number of players and both yellow pages and newspapers need to adapt. The yellow pages companies were at this conference, learning about new ideas and business models. But where are the newspapers (and other local publishing and broadcast companies)?
Conference organizers told me that 475 people attended this week. I glanced through the attendee list and found FIVE newspaper brands/companies represented (that were not journalists covering the conference, like John Cook whose excellent coverage can be found here).
Five?! I know budgets are tight, but come on! This is where the new business models are going to come from, and yet only 5 newspaper companies are engaged in this conversation? All the competition is here (Google, AutoTrader, etc.) but other than panel presentations by the Seattle Times and L.A. Times, all the talk about newspapers echoed what Brown was telling the crowd: newspapers are going away, so who’s going to replace them?
To me, that’s the saddest part of what’s going on in newspapers today. The pace of innovation on the content side of the news business seems to be far outpacing the pace of innovation on the business side. And that doesn’t bode well for the business as a whole.
At LATimes.com, the future is now
In a time of gloom-and-doom around the newspaper industry, I often hear people from newsrooms ask, “is anyone working on a new business model or a different way of doing things?” From now on, I’ll point to LATimes.com for evidence that, yes, someone is working on a new way of doing things.
There you’ll find a world-renowned copy desk that is a one-stop web publishing shop and award-winning reporters and editors who are skilled in cultivating online communities and reaching out, developing additional content from outsiders. They are even making plans to use the web content management system to publish the newspaper.
“We don’t have three years to figure this stuff out, we have a matter of months,” Rob Barrett told an audience of about 200 at the Westin Hotel in Seattle today as part of the Kelsey Group’s Local Marketplaces conference. “But we have to make this transition while remaining a trusted source of information.”
Barrett is Senior Vice President of Interactive Media for LATimes.com, a $75 million operation that has experienced 25-30% growth in unique users and page views during the past 12 months. A one-time journalist at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Barrett has also worked at PrimeMedia, ABCNews.com and Time.com. He’s been at LATimes.com for three years.
“Most of what I’m working on is not visible online now,” Barrett said. “We’re restructuring the business and undergoing a fairly fundamental paradigm shift to change the way we think, and to change the technology.”
Armed with a staff of 25 in 2005, he now has more than 200, including a Chief Technology Officer and someone with a PhD. in computer user experience who has a researcher that works for him. Their daily focus is observing regular users and how they get their information online. In all, Barrett and his team hired online staff mostly from non-newspaper web sites and brought in people who focused on product strategy, customer, and revenue.
“We had to justify the additional expenditure of resources in a resource-constrained environment,” Barrett said. So he and his team developed audience and revenue projections that suggested online operations could supply 50% of the company’s cash flow by 2011. “And we feel those projections are fairly conservative,” he added.
This forced some serious content and strategy discussions for the newspaper. Barrett said that since there are certain things that are “California and LA,” the organization needed to “double down” in those content areas, (entertainment, regional travel, autos). The organization also came to the realization that people need more than the newsroom can produce so they decided to aggregate and develop other local content sources.
“The readers trust us to curate. They want us to add what’s not there. We want to be a trusted guide and look at areas where we can have an impact,” Barrett said, adding that reporters and editors are working with local experts on a paid and unpaid basis to provide more context, comment and criticism to staff-produced content.
“Our reporters and editors are now skilled at outreach and managing contributions from outsiders. That was something that was not part of their job before,” Barrett said. “We’re combining L.A. Times content with industry insiders who we’ve invited in and seeded the site with. These are people who used to appear only in quotes in the newspaper.
“Newspaper articles don’t cut it online,” Barrett also said. So LATimes.com adds aggregated third-party content, interaction and other voices to increase the engagement with readers. That is why rebuilding the technology that powers LATimes.com is a huge part of this undertaking.
Us “new media types” like to talk about the importance of new skills combined with a significant culture change for news organizations trying to survive and thrive. They are still critical, and many newsrooms are making good progress in these areas. So it is becoming increasingly apparent that technology and the platforms many of us operate on are in serious need for redevelopment and enhancement.
“The site will be fairly unrecognizable by the end of the year,” Barrett said, noting that it will feature different topic areas than the newsroom has traditionally focused on and be highlighted by conversations, community, and aggregated content.
Next up for LATimes.com: HollywoodBacklot.com, which is scheduled to launch Tuesday. It will offer behind-the-scenes photos from the sets of Hollywood’s films and TV shows and will build on relationships with industry-insider bloggers and others. And like The Envelope, the LATimes.com’s year-round entertainment awards niche site, content created for online will be published in print. Content from The Envelope, in fact, powered 15 special print sections last year with remarkable cash-flow margins.
If you work for a newspaper (or are hoping to someday), the fact that one of the largest news organizations in the U.S. is rapidly innovating is a positive bellwether for the industry. Sure, only a handful of newspapers could ramp up their online staffing at the same rate, but where LATimes.com finds success in innovation, it will show the way for other news publishers and lower the barrier to entry for the next models of revenue and content.
As I said in my book: “Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything. The future is now.” And I’m so impressed with how well - and how quickly - LATimes.com is embracing the future.
What does it take to grow the world’s most popular blog?
It takes commitment and a ton of hard work to grow the world’s most popular blog, as you learn after reading this an interesting piece. It’s written by a former Time magazine reporter who is now blogging for Techcrunch.
It’s instructive, I think, to see how different the news reporting process is for a “blogger” than a “journalist.” I’m not sure we’ll recognize either of those labels in a few years, but discover a new moniker that more accurately describes the demands and skills related to digital news publishing.
Raising the Ante: The Internet’s Impact on Journalism Education
I’m in Chapel Hill, N.C. today, honored to participate in a symposium organized to honor Phil Meyer, my former professor at UNC. Barry Sussman of the Nieman Watchdog Project has a good overview of the symposium on his web site. The 20 participants were asked to compose an essay on an assigned topic and mine was, basically, “are the gatekeepers irrelevant int he digital age?”
Leading off the first session today, I was asked to react to Scott Maier’s essay. Here is some of what I said ...
I completely support Mr. Maier’s concept of the Navigator as an essential new role in a world where traditional gatekeepers are much less relevant. But I think his definition of that role could have gone further to address the specific responsibilities of the Navigator in the digital world. And this is where I find rich opportunities for research to advance what we know about the new demands on journalists. Mr. Maier wrote:
Today’s successful editor/navigator is proactive, going beyond the standard fare of wire and staff reports to seek and find an engaging and diverse selection of stories that neither traditional media nor Google provide. Today’s editor/navigator also has to reach beyond the rigid confines of a newspaper or other single medium to provide news that offers sound, images, and video. In addition, today’s editor/navigator also needs to facilitate an interactive information exchange that invites conversation.
While the first three-quarters of that recommendation are indeed important, I will argue that it is the last point that is most critical. “Facilitating an interactive information exchange that invites conversation” is not something many people – if any – learned in J-school or have received formal training on in their job. This is a significant new role, but it’s important to reflect on why this new role is important today. As I wrote in my essay, the journalist’s role is redefined because the audience is redefining it.
The audience decides what journalism they want. It always has. And the journalism that people want today has nothing to do with gatekeeping. Unfettered access to information and unparalleled interaction with that information is today’s standard.
The ability to recognize and make sense of so many sources of information, rumor and speculation – and to publicly interact with those sources – are new skills that many journalists do not possess.
The reason they need these new skills is that, as I wrote in my essay, “news is a conversation.” Certainly, this is not a new concept, first appearing around the turn of this century. But the practice is still evolving and is foreign to many traditional journalists. It should also be noted that a significant chunk of the audience is not yet participating in that conversation, even when it’s available to them. Many readers and viewers prefer to be passive, part of the lecture or one-way communication we all grew up with. And this, unfortunately, allows many journalists who fear the new world or simply don’t want to change, to consider the concept of news as a conversation to be a lot of hot air.
A new movement call BeatBlogging has sprouted as a model for this new method. The hypothesis is that journalists who can successfully form social networks around their beats and cultivate their sources and readers will be able to serve the traditional audience that is not participating in the conversation with more accurate, relevant and timely journalism.
But even journalists who don’t form social networks around their beats can tap into the power of news as a conversation. Journalists have forever worked their sources, trading insider information for news tips in the pursuit of a major scoop. That is what you’d call a “soft” skill, one that doesn’t show up on a resume or in journalism curriculum. It would surface, of course, in the work product of a journalist, for a well connected reporter would get more scoops and write more informed stories.
That source development needs to go public, which would help make news gathering more transparent while it leads to better informed reporters. This is a huge need for journalism today. As Mr. Maier’s essay concludes, “the public bias against the press” might be a more serious threat to mainstream news than the actual bias of the press.
And I would argue that a closer connection to the audience would help solve many of the financial challenges that Mr. Lewis laid out in his essay. As Prof. Meyer wrote in the Vanishing Newspaper, quality journalism is supported economically because of its influence. The audience defines what journalism they want and right now it’s immediate, interactive and transparent. The tech blog Techcrunch that I referenced is awash in cash because it has proved the Meyer model to be true. But the content you find there will not win any traditional journalism awards, yet it resonates with its audience, making it the most influential voice in the multi-billion dollar startup technology sector.
So what do I recommend for the research agenda (the stated goal for the symposium)?
- What is an effective model for participating in news as a conversation? Who is doing it well? How are they doing it that is succeeding? What are the costs and benefits? And this research should include all forms of news and information publishing, including mainstream and independent news orgs, blogs such as Techcrunch and Huffington Post and other sources.
- The new era of journalism will not be built on a linear narrative. The next generation doesn’t consume news and information that way. It’s in short bursts, like their communication by SMS and IM. You can still publish news and journalism to this audience, but how? If you break down the construct of a news story that lasted for so long because of a certain need (to fill columns in print), how can journalism serve readers’ needs in new way? Should we recognize an exchange in the comments section of a reporter’s blog as journalism? What about an online chat? So what I’m saying here is, let’s broaden the definition of what it means to commit journalism. This would also include computer programming.
Interested in a career in journalism? Then become the mayor of your zip code
In a thought-provoking post (on many fronts), A-list blogger and marketing guru Seth Godin advises real estate agents to follow one of two paths to survive and thrive in these trying times for that particular industry.
Option 1: quit. Option 2: become the mayor of your zip code.
Godin recommends those who follow Option 2 to use his Squidoo web service to accomplish this goal (he’s a marketing guru, after all), but even if the idea is somewhat self-serving, it begs an interesting question:
Who is the mayor of your zip code?
Not the mayor of your town or city, but your hyperlocal area. Godin suggests that a good real estate agent could become that with a little effort and appeal.
Mayor of your zip code is a way to start a discussion group/info page about what’s happening in your slice of the world. You become the source of information, the watercooler, the person to turn to. Of course, if you spend ten minutes on it and then move on, it’ll fail. But, if you spent 30% of your time working on your page (building it, curating it, promoting it), what do you think would show up in Google searches? What sort of interactions would you start having with people thinking about your little part of the world? Even better, what if you built a blog about your town, as good as any local paper, with high school sports and tax controversies and everything… don’t you think the right people would read it?
Now you probably see why it’s interesting to me - that bit about being as good as any local paper. The concept of serving an audience down to the hyperlocal level is something news organizations have been talking about wanting to do for years. Some are already doing it quite well. Others are not. In some zip codes, bloggers and other independent online media types have been filling the void.
Will real estate agents - or other small business entities - be next to enter the world of local news, information and community? It’s an interesting possibility. But these blogs don’t do much in the way of local news and information (yet). Probably because it’s not easy. Which is why Godin suggests that those who really dedicate themselves to the mission are the only ones who will succeed.
The same applies to local news organizations. At The News Tribune, we’re not doing as well as we want to in this area, but take a look at the map on Scott Fontaine’s blog and see where he’s reported from in the past few months and you’ll see a glimpse of where we are heading.
John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record and one of the most forward-thinking newspaper journalists today, did a nice riff on Godin’s post, applying it to journalism hopefuls:
With apologies to Seth Godin, who inspired this post:
I often get asked by budding journalists how to break into the business. Here is my newest best advice: Don’t.
The business is too tough. Do something else. Seriously. Go into PR. Go to grad school. You must be good at something else. Figure out what it is and do it.
Now, if you clicked the “Continue reading” link, you’re in luck. You ain’t buying it and you shouldn’t. The ones who didn’t follow the link should get out of the business; they aren’t cut out for it. They can go whine and cry over there.
Angry Journalists vs. Wired Journalists
Which would you rather be? Well, you have a choice now, thanks to a pair of new web sites that have launched recently: AngryJournalist.com and WiredJournalists.com. The former is is based on the concept of despair, highlighting a seemingly endless stream of public griping without accountability. Here’s the mission statement:
Why are you angry today?
Tell us what’s making you upset at your journalism job.
Anonymity guaranteed. One rule: no real names.
The latter is based on the concept of hope and empowerment. Here’s the mission statement:
WiredJournalists.com was created with self-motivated, eager-to-learn reporters, editors, executives, students and faculty in mind. Our goal is to help journalists who have few resources on hand other than their own desire to make a difference and help journalism grow into its new 21st Century role.
I think it’s pretty easy to tell which group has the brighter future, don’t you?