Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

Can comments withstand Google-scale communities?

Not long after I joined the Guardian as blogs editor in 2006, I was at an online publishers event in London. Forefront in my mind was how to build engagement at the scale that we would quickly find with Guardian blogs, a particularly important question given that this was several months after the launch of Comment is Free, which was already suffering from serious teething pains socially. I asked Tim O’Reilly how to scale community, and he said:

You have to stay small as you grow big.

Being at a conference, Tim didn’t elaborate on his Zen k?an, but I still ponder it today, especially as I read this: How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet—and why it can’t last.

Flipping back to 2006, I had recently done a lot of work in my previous job at the BBC regarding social media – blogging as social media was then – I wondered how well the social aspects of blogs would hold up when we threw the scale of audience at it that the BBC could generate. I foresaw some of the issues that BBC bloggers would have in terms of trying to deal with volume of comments that they would instantly face.

In traditional blogs, the core audience is a community of choice, a group of people that shared an interest in a particular topic. That community of commenters grew to have social connections, bonds that helped foster civility. At the BBC, our bloggers could quickly generate an audience, but that didn’t mean we could create anything like the thoughtful communities of choice that we saw with smaller blogs. Our commenters didn’t know each other and would often be drawn to hotly contested topics because of strong, often diametrically opposed opinions.

To make that kind of conversation work, you need people with a very different skill set than your traditional columnist, who often come at issues with a ‘what do I want to be outraged about today’ type of mindset. What you need in order to make comments sections really work is exactly the kind of mindset that Coates’ brings to his work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still face the challenge of staying small as you grow big.

The issue is that the internet rewards scale and some social strategies simply fall apart at Google-scale. Once The Golden Horde – the name given to Coates community of commenters – grows beyond a community of choice and starts to attract people wanting to vent about some of the most sensitive issues that we face today, the comments often become unmanageable.

Back when I was blogs editor at The Guardian, I was often asked how I measured success, and I said it was not by the number of comments. Any fool can generate comments. You simply pick the hot topic of the day, push people’s buttons until they bleed and then survey the wonderful wreckage of human outrage. That is why in 2015 the internet sometimes feel like one gigantic generator of human fury.

Outrage was the standard editorial strategy in the 20th Century, when the only return channel was analogue and scarcity of letters to the editor set a high enough bar to keep the Angry from Milton Keynes interplay to a manageable and highly controlled level. That editorial strategy does not work in the 21st Century with a completely open return channel for which the technical and social tools have not kept pace.

In this century, the big challenge is generating thoughtful conversation. I have tried it a number of times, to the point where commenters knew that I was building a digital media Skinner box: Rewarding productive contributions more than punishing transgressions and guiding the comments towards conversation rather than confrontation. It is hard work and it does not scale particularly well. I was blessed with the autonomy and time to do it, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

At the end of the of the day, maybe staying small as you grow big is like Google where you break up a team when it gets too large. Maybe the only way to make this work is to keep the communities and conversations small enough so that people actually develop the kind of social bonds that allow them to disagree with civility. But that runs counter to the gigantic scales that make a business sustainable on the internet.

So, what happens when the business imperative to scale comments runs counter to social strategies to manage them? Things fall apart. It’s that simple. They become unmanageable and eventually people burn out and the communities of choice leave, in search of some other space where things work on a more human scale. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Some people seem like serial early adopters, but what they are really doing is seeking a space in which they can find community.

As an editor, this raises all kinds of questions. But the one thing I would say is that while we all want the biggest audience possible, we have to accept that strong, highly-engaged community strategies operate on a different scale. Push them beyond their social bounds and they will simply fall apart.

Update: After thinking about, small communities of choice also tend to be rather homogenous. This begs the question on how we develop technologies and social techniques that allow for diversity of thought and civil dissent.

Strengthening communities and strengthening journalism

When I started as the executive editor of two Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I said that my strategy was about building a community platform, and I think that Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, a mobile, Millennially-focused news site in Philadelphia, has explained why he and I are bullish on this kind of strategy. The former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media and former executive editor of explained the thinking behind Billy Penn in an interview with StreetFight:

From our conversations with younger news consumers, it’s clear to me that there’s a hearty appetite for a news operation that uses traditional reporting as a springboard to strengthen communities. Not one that necessarily promotes a particular agenda, but one that connects people who are interested in similar topics or issues and tries to drive solutions to those problems rather than just stopping at reporting.

My experience has been that it is not just Millennials who are hungry for engagement, community and solutions. Yes, our communities want traditional reporting, but they want us to go beyond simply pointing out problems. They are also looking for us to help them identify and evaluate solutions. It is not a paternalistic strategy that aims to tell our communities what to do, but works to engage them in a process to help bring more people together to address issues.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. At one of my papers, we recently tackled the growing local drug problem with a solutions-oriented series. A story about a local nurse who ended up abusing drugs has been shared on Facebook 476 times, which is huge for us. The series had such an impact that we had people emailing us, asking to be put in touch with the community groups taking part in our series so they could ask to help. A local radio station owner is collaborating with us to address the problem. We touched a nerve, and the community responded. And they want more from us than simple reporting. As Jim says, our readers want us to help provide a springboard for solutions.

Another issue that we are facing in the communities that we cover in northeastern Wisconsin is the so-called skills gap. Our employers have more job openings than qualified workers. In Sheboygan County Wisconsin, we have 4.0 percent unemployment (September 2014), which is within spitting distance of the 3.6 percent it was in October 2006 before the recession. The local economic development corporation recently had a campaign to try to lure young people visiting home for Thanksgiving back to the area, complete with a list of entry-level positions with starting salaries above $30,000. Our employers are concerned about the coming demographic cliff as Baby Boomers retire. One local employer told me that over the next five years, they could lose up to 35 percent of their workforce to retirement. So employers are supporting internships and apprenticeships as well as training for their workers to get the workers they need.

Traditionally, we would have written a few stories, possibly a week-long series, to address this issue. But this is a huge problem, so we’ve dedicated nine months to a major campaign. And we’re looking to do non-traditional things such as crowd-fund scholarships and hold jobs fairs. Our local businesses, including major multi-national companies headquartered here, have embraced our months-long workforce development campaign called State of Opportunity. We’re working to let people in our communities know about incredible job opportunities, and we’re thinking about ways to reach beyond the state.

As Jim says, we don’t have a political agenda, we simply want to help our communities help themselves. This is exciting stuff. It’s not your father’s local newspaper, but rather something new, exciting and vital.

Gamergate, journalism and the dark future of politics

The extremely violent hate posse attacking women in conjunction with Gamergate is horrific. Whatever other issues are involved, the fact that women have been threatened and intimidated so graphically and violently that they have been driven from their homes pushes the weak accusations of compromised gaming journalism to the background. However, it shines a spotlight on some troubling trends that we’re going to have to grapple as digital technologies reshape our societies.

Gamergate isn’t just a group of criminally violent griefers intent on making women’s lives miserable as a form of sport. As Kyle Wagner of Deadspin points out, there are also groups using it to engage in “grievance politics”:

In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it’s captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you’d expect to see if, say, you’d asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.

These groups are very effectively exploiting weaknesses in mainstream journalism. As Wagner says, “Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith.” Journalism is really poor at dealing with bad actors, tending to treat them as if they are acting in good faith and thus giving them a legitimacy that they do not deserve.

As journalists, we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be played like chumps, especially when it comes to politics. We all know the game. We’re being spun, but at some point, we have to be brave enough to call bullshit. As the editor of two local newspapers, trust me, I get a lot of pressure from readers to toe their political line. However, it is a fundamental part of our job to help our readers separate spin from reality, not to parrot talking points and definitely not to cave to political bullies.

We’re going to have to up our game quickly. Wagner’s article reminded instantly of Neal Stephenson’s dystopian political thriller, Interface, which he wrote with his uncle, J. Frederick George. I’ll agree with our friend Cory Doctorow, that the book is an “under-appreciated masterpiece”. I read the book in 2008, and the parallels with that year’s presidential election were eerie. The book, written in 1994, looks at the politics in a United States laid low by a housing crisis. An Illinois governor (rather than a Senator) is running for president and his campaign uses data to segment the electorate, something which is common place now that it has led to a technological arms race between campaigns to have the best data crunchers.

In Interface, the bad actor was a terrifying mash-up between Karl Rove (or most likely in 1994, his mentor Lee Atwater) and Hannibal Lechter. You don’t need a political bogey man to see where this leads. Combine ruthless political ambition, the unlimited cash of Citizens United era and a technological arsenal that only Neal Stephenson could dream of, and you can easily chart the terrifying trajectory of politics in the real world.

When I was covering the 2000 US presidential election, there was a couple of rich Texans who set up a shell political group, Republicans for Clean Air, attacking John McCain’s environmental record to support George W. Bush. Texas entrepreneur Sam Wyly headed up the group and had donated thousands to Bush’s campaign. His brother Charles, was a Bush “Pioneer”, a supporter who had helped raise more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. The issues ads allowed the Wyleys to spend even more to support the Bush campaign. McCain cried foul, called Republicans for Clean Air a “sham group”, and said that the Bush campaign had to have been coordinating with the group, something which then and now would have been illegal. However, the McCain campaign was never able to prove coordination. More than a decade ago, we already saw the kind of campaigning that the Citizens United case would unleash.

Of course, that is low-tech, linear TV’s child play compared to what we are seeing with Gamergate. When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, such as creating sockpuppet social media accounts and using feminist critiques as a weapon against Brianna Wu (to demonstrate that her games were “anti-feminist”), you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion. The newest import from China will be the 50 Cent Party of paid political commenters. Gaming the system will take on an entirely different meaning.

With unlimited money flowing into politics thanks to Citizens United, a lot of cash could be poured into automating the process. Who needs robo-callers push-polling voters when you’ve got an army of AI-driven Twitter and Facebook accounts all spewing your line and endlessly quoted by cable TV show hosts who don’t care if the accounts are real, only if they reinforce their own talking points? They’ll be found out eventually, but it will be too late. A cynical electorate will be even more confused and all but the hardest of partisans will simply roll up into a foetal position to shut out the cacophony of spin. Moderates will be further marginalised as the bases retreat to the comfort of their sock puppet spun reality. Heaven help us.

To serve your audience, stop feeding the goat

To transform, local news operations will have to fundamentally rethink what they do and what they stop doing. We know that we have to attract new audiences, deliver new services and find new ways to earn revenue to support this transformation. However, it is easy to feel like we’re drowning on a daily basis feeding the beast, or as the authors of a report from the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University put it, feeding the goat.

Nieman Lab summarised the report that looked at why local news operations weren’t innovating. The report found that local newsrooms felt that they had little time or resources “to try experimental reporting methods — especially data journalism”.

How to find time to innovate?

The local newsrooms that have made smart use of digital tools have leaders who are willing to make difficult trade-offs in their coverage. They prioritize stories that reveal the meaning and implications of the news over an overwhelming focus on chasing incremental developments. They also think of the work they can do with digital tools as ways to tell untold stories — not “bells and whistles.”

Amen. As my friend Adam Tinworth said in response to my recent post about building a community platform, it’s not about doing more with less but actually doing different things.

I am finding time to innovate because I am building partnerships with local institutions to add context and depth to our coverage. We aren’t just aggregating content, but more importantly, we are aggregating authentic voices in our communities. We are thinking about coverage thematically rather than focusing on incremental stories and engaging our communities in that coverage. Thematic series allow us to weave a deeper narrative that builds loyal audiences.

We will build this loyalty through a mix of technology and real engagement that goes far beyond simply sharing our stories through social media. The community platform strategy is about building a deeper relationship with our communities. We’ve taken the first step, and over the coming months, we will be doing much more not just at the two papers where I’m executive editor but at the 10 papers in the Gannett Wisconsin network.

In the coming months, I want to accelerate the changes I’m making, but to do that, I will have to think hard about what we stop doing. We simply do not have the resources to cover everything that we have in the past in the way that we did it in the past. We will cover how the local council is buying properties and selling them to developers who will add more apartments downtown for young professionals. However, I will do that in part by engaging young professionals to write, rather than simply having my staff write more stories.

Doing new things feels exciting, but the less exciting, more risky and yet absolutely essential thing I have to decide is what we stop doing. I don’t want to simply cut back, but to free up resources to do new things, I have to figure out what we stop doing. So far, the audience is responding to what we’re adding rather than noticing the things that we have scaled back on. Long may it continue, and I think it will because what we are doing feels like it has more impact, more depth so people are focusing on that rather than what we’re no doing anymore. I am also using technology to smartly import local events calendars from public institutions and then automatically reverse publishing into print with as little production as possible. More on that later.

I’ve got a meeting with my two news editors coming up where we talk about what we stop doing, what we can outsource to machines and what we do to partner with our communities.

I don’t have all of the answers. If you’re an editor, what are you deciding to stop doing? And just as importantly, what is that allowing you to do that you couldn’t before? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Gannett puts a digital guy in charge of a newsroom, me

A little more a than a year ago, I was doing data journalism and consulting for Czech TV, and Kvapilová Pavlína, the head of online at the time, said to me incredulously, “Why aren’t you in a newsroom?” It was a good question. For the last four years, I’ve had a great time working with news organisations all over the world to seize the opportunities of digital media, but I missed working in a newsroom.

I won’t miss it any longer. Today, I started my new job as the regional executive editor overseeing two Gannett-owned newspapers in Wisconsin.

I met with journalists at one of the papers, and the first question that most of them asked was why someone with my background would come to Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to work with their newspapers. The decision was a mix of professional and personal reasons that I’ll be explaining over the next few days, but the key professional reason was that to get the opportunities I really want – the opportunities to drive not just digital innovation but also the editorial direction of a news organisation – I needed experience managing newsrooms.

Last October, Rick Edmonds of Poynter asked “How many top newspaper editors are from digital backgrounds? Still darn few”. Jim Brady of Digital First Media gave this explanation:

It’s more than being slow. It remains hard to find people who understand digital and who have run newsrooms.

This isn’t a criticism of Jim, who I count as a friend, but it is difficult to deny that this is one of those brilliant professional Catch-22s. You don’t have the experience so you can’t get the experience. The industry has rarely promoted newsroom leaders from the digital side. Over the past five years, I have seen more broadcast and print editors take over online leadership roles than I have digital editors take over multi-platform roles. In effect, we have had a digital ceiling. That might change for the next generation of digital leaders, but or mid-career digital journalists like myself, that’s been the reality.

I’ve been a digital journalist since 1996, and I’ve held ground-breaking positions for the BBC and The Guardian. I’ve helped launch innovative multi-platform programmes for the BBC, and Suw and I were part of the launch team for India’s Firstpost. However, up until today, I hadn’t run a newsroom. Now, I’ll be running two. Lowell Johnson, the GM for the two newsrooms, and Mike Knuth, the Executive Editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette and former executive editor and GM of the two papers, deserve a lot of credit in seeing an opportunity to bring me on board and convincing me that this was the right next step in my career.

I was inspired to make this move by friends such Brett Spencer at the BBC and Alison Gow with Trinity Mirror, who came from digital backgrounds but took on overall leadership roles in their respective media. It’s opened up great new opportunities for them, and I am thrilled by the opportunity that is before me.

After years of writing about how I think local editors should engage with their communities and about rethinking the role of the newspaper in the 21st Century, I finally get to put my ideas, and myself, to the test. I have long been hungry for this challenge.

Back to Rick Edmonds at Poynter, he wrote, “With the ice broken, I would look for Gannett, Advance and Digital First to add to that cadre as top editorial jobs come open. And I am eager to see what changes this first generation of digitally tilting editors can produce.”

Watch this space. This job will definitely keep me busy, but I’ll be writing here and elsewhere about I navigate this new phase of my career. It’s going to be a wild ride sometimes, but damn it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Highlight good discussions to encourage positive online debate

There has been a lot of handwringing about the broken-ness of comments online. Great comments take the right strategic editorial approach and a bit of effort. Did anyone really believe the only thing a media company needed to do was slap a comment box on the bottom of articles? Too often that seems like the case.

What still baffles me after all these years is the low-hanging fruit that most news organisations are missing with community. Digitally native media doesn’t miss these easy wins. For instance, Lifehacker has a Discussion of the Day. Walter Glenn sums up the idea:

Great discussions are par for the course here on Lifehacker. Each day, we highlight a discussion that is particularly helpful or insightful, along with other great discussions and reader questions you may have missed. Check out these discussions and add your own thoughts to make them even more wonderful!

It’s a simple and positive way to drive people to the editorial features focused on discussions. They even call their commenters participants. Simple touches that all communicate a positive sense about the conversations they want to create.

Why don’t newspapers do this more often and print the best responses in the paper as well? Highlighting the comments in print would be a way to reward the  best comments, and hey, it might also drive some print sales. It ain’t rocket science, just some simple strategic thinking about user engagement.


Journalism and community: Creating your own little corner of the internet

Alan Mutter categorised the shift from traditional advertising to digital advertising as ‘each versus reach’, and I think that speaks to changes in content as well as advertising in the digital era. Some of the problems with current digital strategies is that they rely on mass media thinking, and no where do I think this more evident than in social media or community strategies. Most still are mass media strategies, with the goal of creating undifferentiated large audiences instead of aggregating smaller, more focused audiences. 

Create a focused conversation worth taking part in, and you’ll develop a loyal, focused audience too. It will make not only make a better community, but a focused audience is easier to sell to advertisers too. 

If you want to see a master in the art of host of an online conversation and creating a focused audience, it’s worth checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic. He has a great interview with NPR’s On the Media, How to create an engaging comments section. The first thing to notice is that it takes a lot of work, which I think is why most media just opt for punching the biggest, baddest trolls in the pit. It’s easy, and it is like a shot of meth for page views. 

Coates on the other hand has decided that rather than a troll pit, he wants to play host to a dinner party, and as he says:

I try to keep the conversation interesting, in terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, and that is, you know, rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling, that sort of thing. I generally follow the same rules, so I always tell people, if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don’t understand why it would be any different in a comments section.

Amen, and I think most journalists would agree with that. He moderates his comments pretty aggressively, possibly a bit more aggressively than I would. However, I long ago stopped buying the argument that moderating comments is tantamount to censorship. Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse for freedom from civility.

However, Coates isn’t arbitrary in deleting comments. His rules? 

You can’t call people names. I mean, you can’t say, listen, you idiot. You can’t change the topic because you don’t like the discussion. It’s like, y- you’re more curating comments. So what you’re trying to do is present a conversation that’s interesting, not for everyone but for a certain small group of people.

There is a somewhat absolutist argument about freedom of expression on the internet that one should be free to say whatever one wants and act in any way one wants. However, we have norms of behaviour and conversation in real life, and I personally have always applied to them my online behaviour. I have one standard of behaviour online, in print and in real life. Do I want to impose those standards on everyone? No, but as the host of a conversation, I do retain the right to say those are the ground rules for the conversation that I’m trying to have. 

I also like how Coates interprets freedom on the web. He says:

But the beauty of the Web is that whatever my comments section is, it’s not the Internet. So if that’s not what you want, you can go somewhere else. 

This is key, and a key shift in thinking in terms of digital. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Actually, being something very important to a smaller, defined group of people offers more chance of success. The Atlantic is succeeding because it is building a team of people like Coates who have distinctive voices and are able to create their own definition of community online.

James Fallows, one of the smartest writers in Washington, is another example of a personal take on engagement at The Atlantic. He doesn’t have comments on his pieces, and he has explained why, twice in fact. In his biography on The Atlantic site, it says, “If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a “Comments” field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t engage with people. He does accept comments but via email., and he’s actually held a few AMA discussions on Reddit. 

I think this is one of the secrets of The Atlantic’s success, both editorially and commercially. It has hired smart engaging writers who want to engage. The fact that they engage in their own ways show they value engagement but have found a way that works for them. Engagement is the goal, but as Coates and Fallows show, there are a number of ways to get there. 

Social media: One-to-some communication that needs amplifiers

Ethan Zuckerman had a great insight yesterday at the Knight Foundation event looking at the information needs of communities.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/andrewhaeg/status/172021672419926016″]

Ethan pointed to the coverage of Tunisia and how the video of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was uploaded to Facebook, one of the few such sites still accessible in Tunisia. Exiled Tunisian Sami ben Garbia covered the early stages of the revolution on her personal blog and also, but Ethan noted at the time that there was precious little coverage, especially in the US. The video and story of Bouazizi’s self-immoltion was then picked up by Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera became the amplifier.

In the early days of social media, social media an traditional media were portrayed in conflict. In the US, the mainstream media became referred to as the lame-stream media by some bloggers, usually by bloggers on both the right and left that were frustrated that traditional journalists didn’t present the world as viewed through the bloggers’ partisan prism.

However, as both social media and traditional media have evolved, a complex, symbiotic relationship of filtering and amplification has developed. It’s a great insight, and I think one of the biggest challenges for all of us as Ethan has been pointing out for years is to seek views outside of our own circles. That’s a fascinating challenge for journalists. How do we open up echo chambers rather than amplify them?

Pseudonymous commenters aren’t so bad after all

Disqus has released an infographic of some analysis they’ve done on their comments to compare pseudonymous, eponymous (real name) and anonymous commenters. They looked at both quantity and quality and found that pseudonymous commenters are better for a community than either eponymous or anonymous commenters. To save you from having to wade through a rather pointless infographic, here are the key facts:

Disqus measured Quality and Quantity:


  • Positive measures
    • Number of times a comment is liked
    • Number of times a comment is replied to
  • Negative measures
    • Number of times a comment is flagged
    • Number of times a comment is marked as spam
    • Number of times a comment is deleted

They found that, by these measures:

  • Pseudonymous comments were
    • 61% positive
    • 28% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Anonymous comments were:
    • 34% positive
    • 55% neutral
    • 11% negative
  • Real name comments were:
    • 51% positive
    • 40% neutral
    • 9% negative


  • Aggregate number of comments by identity
  • Average number of comments by identity

They found that the percentage of comments by identity was:

  • 61% pseudonymous
  • 35% anonymous
  • 4% real name

The average pseudonymous commenter contributed 6.5 times more than the average anonymous commenter and 4.7 times more than commenters identified via Facebook.

Now, this data is interesting, but although it’s not really a smoking gun, it certainly should give companies pause before they start trying to force people to use their real names instead of pseudonyms; they may well be encouraging a less civil environment rather than the more civil one they are trying to, or telling us that they are trying to, nurture.

I would like Disqus to repeat their work but be a bit more rigorous. For example, testing their data to ensure that they are accurately differentiating between pseudonymous, anonymous and eponymous commenters. After all, using Facebook to log in doesn’t guarantee that someone is eponymous, nor does not using it mean they are not. I’d also like them to test their quality measures against both sentiment analysis and a panel of real humans. The latter would be relatively easy to do via something like Mechanical Turk. Of course, if they’ve done this already they should publish the details in a methodology.

The whole argument about anonymity, pseudonymity and real names on the internet over the last year or so has been mainly people arguing from assertion, so it is nice to see some real data. And there can be no doubt that Disqus has a lot of comments to analyse, so this isn’t just some skewed sample from a tiny corner of the web. But we do need both to see more work in this area and more companies taking notice of the evidence instead of sticking to their well-oiled but misfiring guns.