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Present It! Reporting Community Data

Forums and Feedback

Introduction

Your website is not only a tool allowing you to communicate with your readers, it's also a good way to allow your readers to communicate with you and with one another.

If you have a background in traditional media, this two-way exchange can be a bit daunting. However, you'll soon find that there are many reasons to encourage this dialogue. One of the most important is that it can significantly improve the quality of what you report.

Better product

Reporters are only as good as their sources and the information they discover. A community's collective experience and expertise can enrich your reports. They can also diversify the voices and opinions on your site. If you think a flood of tips will overwhelm you or your small staff, consider that:

  • Community input can make your content more accurate.
  • It can ensure that you are framing the story via the community's lens ' not from the viewpoints of elected officials or community powerbrokers.
  • One of the tips you receive might be the next big story. Big stories seldom arrive via press release.

More traffic

When readers become contributors, they spend more time on your site and view more pages when they visit. They come back more often and spread the word to others, creating more traffic.

Community service

In times of trouble - floods, fires, even heat waves - a community forum can become an important place for people to check police reports, emergency assistance and even the whereabouts of loved ones. The rest of the time, these forums can be a daily resource for advice, information and entertainment.

A sense of belonging

When you let your site's consumers become participants and producers, even in a small way like commenting on a story, you give them an opportunity to feel like they are a part of the site. Their investment of time, energy and know-how will instill a sense of ownership and connection. This sentiment will deliver a loyal group of supporters who will let you know if your site's not functioning as it should be.

The downside of this "pride of ownership" is that when people feel like they have a stake in your site, change becomes more difficult. Once a community has formed an attachment to your site's look and flow, it's extra important to manage expectations and give lots of warning when you shift designs or introduce new functions.

Feedback

Since the web's early days, there's been an evolution in the way feedback is gathered on news sites, with comment areas now located as close to the source as possible. Let's look at this in detail.

Contact us

The first, and easiest, way to gather feedback is to have a "Contact Us" link on your site. Don't hide it; make it obvious. People often look for this link in the footer, but you can place a second link at the end of each story or at the top of the Help section. The contact page should have all the usual information: name, e-mail, address, phone and fax numbers. You could also have a comment form right in the page that people can fill out to ask a general question.

Comment forms

Additionally, comment forms can be placed in and around your content, close to things that are potentially confusing or worthy of a comment or observation. For example, Google has a link at the bottom of each search page that leads to a comment form where you can give feedback on that particular page of results.

The Flickr photo sharing site offers a comment form in its list of frequently asked questions.

Some sites put feedback forms on error pages so that users who stumble into trouble can alert the webmaster.

E-mailing the authors

Allowing readers to e-mail writers directly has become increasingly common. There are pros and cons to this, so you should make sure to minimize the negative aspects.

Pros:

  • Readers are more likely to comment when they know that the comment will go to the individual writer and not to a group mailbox.
  • Authors can benefit from immediate direct feedback, especially on breaking news stories.
  • Your staff overall will benefit from the sense of accountability that results from publishing e-mail addresses.

Cons:

  • Publishing raw e-mail addresses, however, can subject your staff to large amounts of spam, those annoying unwanted advertisements.
    • Solution A: Create a form that allows the user to e-mail a particular staff writer, but make sure the form code doesn't directly list the author's e-mail address.
    • Solution B: Publish e-mail addresses but obscure them in some way so that spammers can't use the e-mail address directly. Something like: bobsmith AT yoursite.com. By creating a format that a person can recognize and translate, but that an automated script won't recognize, you can bypass many of the ways spammers pick up e-mail addresses.
  • Staff members may fall behind in reading or responding to reader e-mails, engendering some distrust among your users.
    • Solution: Set a clear policy and level of expectation about how promptly e-mails should be handled. Of course, people get busy or go on vacation, and some workers don't always do the best work possible, but such conduct can impact your site's relationships with users

For staffers worried about being overwhelmed by a large volume of e-mails, have them experiment. The volume of feedback will likely be smaller than you expect because your readers are busy people, too, and they'll only write when they have something important to say.

Per-article commenting

Blogging has popularized the idea of allowing site readers to add their own thoughts and information to every article posted on a news site.

The majority of news and information sites now allow comments on articles. While comments make for a more vibrant, engaged readership, they introduce some additional challenges:

  • Spam. Spam drives away readers, quashes discussion and hogs computer resources. Whatever solution you install for per-article commenting, be sure it has a way to identify and block spam automatically. Also, make sure it is easy for you to find and remove any spam that makes it past the automatic filter. Having a way for your own users to flag spam is a good idea, too.
  • Moderators. Moderators pre-approve each comment before it appears on your site. The best online communities either have no moderation or community-powered moderation. Community-powered moderation occurs when trusted members of the community are granted the power to read and moderate comments. These can be loyal readers and fans who have invested in the site. Your publishing tool may offer this. Moderation slows and dampens the conversations that occur and should only be used as a last resort or during periods of heated discussion over a controversial topic.
  • Trolls. These are people with something to say about everything you write - and it's usually offensive. The more you respond to trolls, the more they post. If necessary, you should remove posts that cross the line into indecency or contain threats. The handling of trolls is best left to the site's staff, not the community.

For many of these issues, a robust registration system helps minimize unwanted visitors by requiring e-mail valid addresses, using human-friendly/machine-unfriendly questions, or including an email activation functionality. Remember that stricter registration processes remove spontaneity and may cost you a broad group of participants, even while it ensures that those participants are real people. Aim for a registration system that asks for the least amount of information possible. Username, e-mail and password should be all that's required for a basic commenting account, and optional fields should be kept to a minimum so as not to intimidate or confuse the reader.

You can read more about the hazards of and solutions to commenting in Managing Blog Comments.

Many publishing tools include the ability to allow readers to post comments, but if you don't have that function built in, there are third-party tools that are very easy to install.

Intense Debate (www.intensedebate.com), Discus (www.discus.com) and SezWho (www.sezwho.com) are three of the best, though there are many others. A good review of these three can be found here.

Forums

If a website is a castle, forums are often the untended woods just outside the gates. Forums, also sometimes called bulletin boards (a term from the early days of online communities), develop their own groups, lingo and in-jokes. The people using forums can be your site's best defenders and a great resource for all sorts of assistance and feedback, or they can become a thorn in your side.

The key is careful attention in the early stages. Don't just launch a forum and expect it to blossom overnight. Help your forum out by monitoring it constantly. Respond quickly when necessary, but don't feel like you have to comment on every discussion.

Privately thank and reward those who seem to exert a calming influence and sway over the discussions. Something as simple as a coffee mug or a month's free service is enough to cement a good relationship.

Once a forum's tone is set - be it a nasty free-for-all, a constant resource for newcomers, or a closed club of chatterboxes with attitude - it becomes extremely difficult to change. It helps to bring "good" community members into your forums, perhaps by soliciting participation from other online communities or from known local organizations that you think will have a positive influence on your forums.

The work required to administer forums is similar to that of a per-article comment system. Spam must be avoided, trolls shunned and conversations kept on topic.

Forum software

The choices for forum systems are staggering. Forums have been around for so long, and online communities have such differing needs, that there's a wide spectrum of products available.

A forum that is packaged with the rest of your publishing system is preferable. Some advantages:

  • Readers only need to register or update their account information once.
  • The look and feel of your forums will probably be easier to match to your site if it's all one tool.
  • You're guaranteed that the tool will have one set of software requirements, and changes made to one part of the tool will be less likely to break another part of it.

However, stand-alone forum software often has better features or more frequent updates than forum software that's a tiny add-in to a larger software publishing package.

Some popular forum software packages are PHPBB (www.phpbb.com) and Vanilla (www.getvanilla.com). BBPress (http://www.bbpress.org/) is a good choice if you have a Wordpress blog or website. For more information, check out the Forum Software Reviews site (http://www.forum-software.org/).


J-Learning is an initiative of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. J-LabTM is an incubator for innovative, participatory news experiments and is a center of American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C.
J-Learning was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

American University School of Communication

Knight Foundation

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