Standards in journalism (and comments)

Via Kevin, I came across this piece by James Fallows of The Atlantic: Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media. As soon as I saw that headline, my feathers ruffled. So you think new media is worse than traditional media eh? Well, how come debates that pit blogs against journalism never talk of the scum-sucking pond-dwelling tabs, eh? How comes it’s always the worst of blogging vs the best of journalism, eh? Eh?

Oh, Mr Fallows, I apologise. I did you wrong. Fallows hasn’t, as I had assumed, written some lazy tripe based on a false dichotomy. Far from it. He’s taken an intelligent and insightful look at the claim made by “everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel” that there has been a “decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion.”

It’s a really tempting position to take, that standards in journalism have slipped. It’s a position I have some sympathy with, because it jibes with the frustrations I feel on a daily basis when I see inaccurate reporting, sensational headlines and so much PR that I’m surprised that someone at CERN isn’t studying the destabilising effects of political spin on sub-atomic particles.

But Fallows argues eloquently that have we heard this argument before, at pretty much every major inflection point in journalism.

As technological, commercial, and cultural changes have repeatedly transformed journalism, they have always caused problems that didn’t exist before, as well as creating opportunities that often took years to be fully recognized. When I was coming into journalism, straight from graduate school, in the 1970s, one of the central complaints from media veterans was precisely that the “college boys” were taking over the business. In the generation before mine, reporters had thought of themselves as kindred to policemen and factory workers; the college grads in the business stood out, from Walter Lippmann (Harvard 1910) on down. A large-scale class shift was under way by the time of Watergate, nicely illustrated by the team of Bob Woodward (Yale ’65) and Carl Bernstein (no college degree). The change was bad, in shifting journalists’ social sights upward, so they identified more with the doctors and executives who were their college classmates, and less with the non-college, blue-collar Americans whose prospects were diminishing through those years. And it was good, in equipping newspapers and TV channels with writers and analysts who had studied science or economics, knew the history of Russia or the Middle East, had learned a language they could use in the field.

And we can’t just round on digital and blame it for the shift in the way that people consume news and the way that the internet allows them to indulge their interests without ever eating their greens. But we can, he demonstrates, learn something from some of the digital journalism outfits, like Gawker, that so many traditionalists look down upon.

Now, I confess, I can’t even begin to paraphrase the rest of Fallows’ article. Like many Atlantic pieces, it’s long and to try to summarise everything could only do it a disservice. I can only say that this is a great piece, well worth reading and rereading.

Derail
One bit, about Gawker’s Nick Denton, stood out as requiring further consideration, but not just in this context of standards:

In the first New York profile, in 2007, Denton had said that an active “commenter” community was an important way to build an audience for a site. Now, he told me, he has concluded that courting commenters is a dead end. A site has to keep attracting new users—the omnipresent screens were recording the “new uniques” each story brought to the Gawker world—and an in-group of commenters might scare new visitors off. “People say it’s all about ‘engagement’ and ‘interaction,’ but that’s wrong,” he said. “New visitors are a better indicator and predictor of future growth.” A little more than one-third of Gawker’s traffic is new visitors; writers get bonuses based on how many new viewers they attract.

This is fascinating. The received wisdom, and certainly my position for many years, has been that comments can be valuable in terms of encouraging audience loyalty and return users. Over the last several years I’ve been refining my ideas of when comments should and shouldn’t be used on a news site. We have so many examples of how comments can turn toxic, putting off both readers and advertisers, that one would be a fool to think that commenting is some sort of loyalty silver bullet. It is clear that commenting requires serious thought: when is it enabled, how it is used, how/when journalists should engage (hint: most of the time), and how can users be encouraged to behave in a positive and civil manner.

Denton is right. Comments for comments sake is a dead end. And most news outlets have no comment strategy, have given no thought to when and why they might enable comments, and so rarely use comments in a productive way that readers simply aren’t used to the idea that such a collaboration might even be possible. The news industry is also so tribal that they are almost incapable of taking advice or help from anyone that they see as an outsider. That’s a pity, because outside of the news industry is where most of the expertise sits, even now.

We need to be much more sophisticated about how we use comments, much more thoughtful and much more experimental, because we already know that free-for-all comments too easily go awry. Like a pristine blanket of newly fallen snow, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along to write their name in wee and ruin the view for everyone else.

Journalists must set the tone for their communities

Robert Niles has a must-read post on the Online Journalism Review about the role that journalists should play in terms of interactivity and community on their sites. Online communities need leadership: Will journalists provide it, or will someone else? he writes:

…writing in any interactive environment is an act of leadership. Your words, your tone and your style not only inform your audience, they provide a model – an example – for those in the community who will write for that community, as well. And your silence creates a vacuum of leadership that others may fill.

Since my career shifted six years ago to become more interactive, I am often asked how to get ‘them’ to be nicer. The ‘them’ is always those nasty commenters, members of the public who aren’t as pleasant or as deferential as journalists would like them to be. I respond that the blogger or journalist sets the tone of interaction. If as a columnist, you write a link-baiting attack piece, expect a counter-attack. If a journalist actively invites constructive participation from readers, over time, that journalist can build a positive community (rather than a passive audience) around his or her journalism. The key part of that comment is ‘over time’. It takes time and effort to build a community. It doesn’t take much time or creativity to whip up an angry mob.

The initial response I always get is that sharp writing sells and that I’m somehow advocating overly polite pablum instead of incisive commentary. First off, poisonous communities don’t sell. They don’t sell to most readers, and they damn well don’t sell to advertisers. It’s really interesting the different responses I hear when talking about some high profile engagement-based comment sites. People in the media laud them as visionary, ground-breaking and industry leading. When I speak to members of the public, they call the same sites toxic, offensive and aggressive. I often joke that a lot of publishers engagement strategy is really an enragement strategy. Find the hot button issues of the day and push those buttons until they bleed.

I’m also drawing a distinction between journalism and comment, which is getting awfully blurry these days whether online, on air or in print.

Robert talks about a ‘ladder of engagement‘, and I’ve written about taking the concepts of ‘leveling up’ from gaming and applying it to news communities. I’m not necessarily talking about gamification of news but rather increasing rewards for increasing levels of participation. Robert has some good ideas in his post, and the entire idea is that we’re building loyalty and engagement.

Loyalty is the new currency of the online realm. If you look at the difficulty that major, major news websites are having in creating a sustainable business around high volume traffic, you can see that millions of unique users aren’t necessarily the key to success. It’s about pages per session, dwell time or time on site. A smaller number of highly engaged users can often be more valuable, especially when those users are focused on some high return verticals.

‘You’ journalists must be part of your community

However, putting the business side of things aside for a moment, the resounding message from Robert’s post is that journalists need to be active in our own news communities. We set the tone. If you’ve ever been to a good party or dinner, the host brings people into the discussion. The host introduces new topics, and he or she makes sure that a number of voices and points of view are heard. Whenever I’m out at such a dinner, I come away feeling invigorated and better informed. Without journalists playing this role in our news communities, we’re not only abdicating responsibilities for the conversation on our sites, we’re missing a huge opportunity. I love the quote from Arthur Miller:

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.

In the past when a newspaper was defined by the paper, that conversation was a construct, and the conversation was very limited in who could participate. Now in the digital age, that conversation is a reality. It’s a lot more raucous of a conversation, but it’s also more inclusive. My passion is public service journalism, and journalists who can host such a great debate (not just kick off one) are rare. It’s a new skill, and I’m glad Robert has provided such great advice in how to hone that skill.

As our communities and our countries face such pressing problems and challenges, it’s imperative that journalists join these discussions and help foster them. We do that implicitly by providing people with the best information that we can find, but we can also engage our audience to be more active in making these key decisions.

Three years ago, I was back in the US covering the presidential election. One of the people I interviewed, Ralph Torres began following me on Twitter. The day after the election, he wrote this to me on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie id=”991306753″]

We have the opportunity to pull our audiences further into critical civic conversations but we have to seize it, not believe that interaction is only for ‘them’.

Comments as a premium service?

I’m often asked what are the metrics for success when it comes to blogging or community engagement on a website, and I always respond that it isn’t simply the number of comments. Chasing high comment counts can be a race to the bottom in terms of content as the most provocative content easily gets the most comments creating more of a bare-fisted brawl than a conversation. As time has gone on, more sophisticated community engagement systems and strategies have developed, although these have developed mostly outside of news organisations rather than by them.

One strategy that has started to develop is to view comments as a premium service. Everyone can read comments, but only those who pay can post comments. It’s not a new strategy. Metafilter has been asking people for $5 to comment since late 2004, and it’s actually quite successful. In terms of news sites, Civil Beat in Hawaii requires subscribers to pay to read most content and also to comment.

The BBC College of Journalism has a very interesting post by Tomáš Bella about different strategies in Slovakia and the Czech Republic to reduce the number of comments but improve other metrics such as quality and page views. Tomáš runs a start-up called Piano, a paid content system. Several of the most popular sites in Slovakia have started using Piano to charge €2.90 to comment and access “other premium services on the sites”. It is interesting to view comments as a premium service.

Something else caught my eye in the post though. To comment on the popular Czech site, Novinky.cz, they have instituted a process where you have to apply for a code using your real name and postal address before you can comment. Your real name and home town appear alongside your comment. The result?

This radical approach has worked. Readers’ comments have dropped from 50,000 to 4,000 a day. But the number of page views has risen by a third because the quality of the content has shot up.

Long ago (2005) when I was writing a blogging strategy for BBC News, I realised that the large audiences that major news sites can create for blogs or other participatory efforts might not scale. Open comments are fine on niche blogs such as here at Strange Attractor. People come here looking for specific content and wanting to take part in a specialist, professional conversation. The conversation is manageable because quite honestly, we rarely have that many comments, usually just a few if any and never more than 25. On major news sites, it’s easy to receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments. Depending on the content, they can become unmanageable for staff and commenters alike. Making people register or pay is one way to create a speed bump to commenting. That might not be a bad thing.

I know that participatory purists might cry foul saying that this is censorship by credit card, but I think that asking people for a little commitment before they participate might make participation better for everyone. Discuss.

Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.


* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

TBD: Hunting for a new business model for regional news

TBD.com team speaking at ONA10
From right to left, Steve Buttry, Erik Wemple and Jim Brady of TBD at the recent Online News Association Conference in Washington

One of the areas that I’ve been watching closely has been the effort to rebuild the business model to support local and regional and regional journalism, and this week I wrote a brief profile for the Media Guardian of a new regional website in the US, TBD. I wanted to go into a little more depth about the business model and also answer some questions from Twitter.

While there has been a lot of hand-wringing about a decline in investigative journalism, local and regional journalism has suffered even more during the recession than high-end investigations*. Local and regional has really been hollowed out in the US and the UK. Circulation declines and an over-reliance on advertising revenue has led to massive job losses in local and regional press. According to an OECD report:

The regional and local press are particularly affected and 2009 is the worst year for OECD newspapers, with the largest declines in the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Canada, and Spain

The OECD also found: “Employment losses in the newspaper industry have intensified since 2008 particularly in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain.” Erica Smith, who runs the site Paper Cuts, counted 15,992 job losses in 2008, 14,783 in 2009 and 2761 job cuts in 2010 in the US newspaper industry. 166 newspapers have closed their doors. In the UK, Francois Nel of the University of Central Lancashire did a study of journalism job losses in the UK this past summer. Hedging a bit, Francois “guesstimates” that since 2001, the UK journalism corps has shrunk between a quarter and a third.

In Washington where TBD launched in August,  the iconic Washington Post, the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal, saw its circulation fall 6.4%, according to the latest figures.

While there has been no shortage of attempts to build a new local news business model, there have been more failures than successes: Backfence, Bayosphere, Sidewalk and others.

TBD, a Washington metro area web and TV news service launched by Robert Allbritton’s Allbritton Communications in August, is the latest to try to create a new model for local news. Industry watchers are keeping a close eye on it. Allbritton has already found success where others saw no opportunity in launching Politico, and now I wonder if he can create a new local news business model.

The editorial strategy

Unlike Politico, TBD is not a pure start-up and a hybrid operation on many levels. It is joined to two established TV stations, a 24-hour local news channel formerly called News Channel 8 but now re-branded TBD TV, and another traditional local TV station, WJLA.

TBD.com has taken to heart Jeff Jarvis’ advice to “Do what you do best and aggregate the rest”. Its editorial strategy is focused on aggregating existing content while searching for new opportunities in covering traditional subjects including entertainment, traffic, weather, sport and local politics. It has a staff of 12 to 13 reporters and bloggers, supplemented by the news staff at the TV stations.

“We tried to focus on things other people weren’t doing,” said Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for the site. For instance, they view local political coverage as essential, Buttry said, but “rather than covering the horse race of the day-to-day campaign, Kevin Robillard, our [politics] reporter is fact-checking.”

Much has been made of hyperlocal strategies with content delivered at a postcode level, but the management of TBD describes it as a regional site with hyperlocal elements. Buttry has 190 bloggers across the area who provide hyperlocal content, and a team of four community hosts that highlight the best posts from the blog network and are also responsible for community outreach.

The commercial strategy

The real challenge for local journalism is to rebuild or create a sustainable business model.

“When people say there’s no money in local, I just don’t buy that,” said Jim Brady, general manager of TBD. He recognises, however, that a new local news business model needs multiple revenue streams. “There are no silver bullets,” he says. “Only shrapnel.”

TBD has one advantage that most start-ups only dream of: an ad sales team of 22 with contacts and contracts with major advertisers in the region. When the story was published on the Guardian, Jonathan Lloyd made this comment on Twitter:

“TBD has one advantage that most startups only dream of: an ad sales team of 22” < woah, that's one hefty payroll though @kevglobal #salesless than a minute ago via web

He has his own hyperlocal start-up, King’s Road, in London. To clarify from the piece in The Guardian, TBD the website doesn’t have to support that sales staff on its own. Will the TV-web sales team succeed in selling digital as well as they succeed in selling broadcast? Time will tell, but it is a competitive advantage over other hyperlocal start-ups who have to start from scratch. 

TBD also has a commercial relationship with about a third of its bloggers, something that Brady sees as a competitive advantage, giving advertisers additional reach.

The site adds location information to all of its content, including network blog posts, so that people can find content related to where they work, live or play. This could open the door to future geo-targeted ads as the site develops.

Buttry is bullish on local, mobile advertising, and based on the expertise they are developing in building mobile applications, TBD might also launch a business to develop mobile apps for its advertisers and others.

Growing pains

As I was writing the feature, TBD had a management shake-up. Less than three months after its launch Roger Allbritton announced that Brady was stepping down as general manager of TBD due to “some stylistic differences”. Editor Erik Wemple is stepping in to take his place.

Reports said that Allbritton wanted someone with more of a focus on original content instead of Brady’s expertise with technology and aggregation.

Staci D Kramer, editor of paidContent, dismissed this characterisation of Brady: “The idea that Jim Brady is too much tech and not enough content doesn’t match anything I’ve known about him over years of coverage.”

Comments from Brady reported by Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute indicate possible friction between the website and the TV stations. When asked if Allbritton could succeed digitally, Brady was quoted as saying: “TBD is digitally forward enough … Time will tell in terms of the rest of the organization.”

TBD is not alone in having friction between digital and legacy operations, whether that is print or broadcast. In fact, I don’t know of a single organisation that hasn’t had some pretty major issues with integration or cooperation. Whether this be a minor bump or the signs of bigger issues down the road, I guess that is TBD.

* Footnote At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I believe some of the focus on investigations in terms of saving journalism is misplaced. Trying to save journalism by focusing on investigations is like trying to save the auto industry by saving Porsche. The point where the analogy falls down is that Porsche is the most profitable car company in the world, and one could argue that investigations have always been subsidised by general interest journalism such as sport and other revenue streams. It’s difficult to make a business built on investigations. Accountability journalism is important, but let’s be honest, investigations have always been an expensive and relatively small part of what we do. I think there has also been a conflation of investigations and the broader category of original content and original reporting.

 

Sky News got the argument it wanted

Last week, Sky News announced the closure of its discussion forums.

Simon Bucks, Sky News Online’s associate editor, wrote:

We did this after a lot of thought and consideration. Although the boards were very popular, a small number of people had hijacked them and reduced the level of debate to meaningless abuse.

He continued:

At Sky News we welcome robust debate about the news, but we want it to be of a high standard. I am afraid that too often on the discussion boards threads which started intelligently would degenerate into mindless name calling.

The closure comes a couple of months after Sky Sports quietly closed their forums, saying:.

The forums have been a popular part of the site for several years but we are no longer able to provide the sort of service users expect from Sky Sports.

Some of the commenters on the Sky News announcement aren’t very happy about this turn of events. User TryAgain1234 said:

400+ replies and hardly a response from Simon, goes to show exactly how interested Sky really are in the comments of their customers. He can’t even be bothered to respond to his own blog.

Any news community manager worth his/her salt will tell you that the involvement of the journalists in the comment threads on their blogs is essential to the debate. The same is true of forums: If you are running a news forum, having your news journalists engage with the discussion can help keep the tone of the forum polite. Of course, this is predicated on the journalists in question keeping a civil tongue in their heads – and not all do.

Another important influence on how a community develops is how the people running it react to the different behaviours that their commenters exhibit. News communities often struggle because comment threads on contentious issues are highlighted, rewarding bad behaviour. That’s because of an editorial miscalculation: Because contentious threads get lots of comments, they are mistaken for successful threads, and are so promoted in order to get even more comments. The metrics are purely quantitative. By any qualitative measure, most discussions around hot issues are utter failures, devolving into slanging matches and providing no value to readers, participants, the news organisation or its advertisers. Indeed, vitriolic comments can put advertisers right off a site.

When news communities go bad, it’s often because they’ve been mismanaged or not managed at all. Commenter Sphinx said on the Sky News blog:

meanwhile over at a differentsky posters are getting used to a forum where the admin does respond to things and does care.

If Sky News have not been paying full attention to their community, then they only have themselves to blame when things go south. You can’t just leave people to it. As human beings we are used to living within constraints, and the idea that the web is a place where they are not needed is a myth. Communities need limits, and those limits need to be communicated, discussed and thoughtfully enforced.

Ultimately, you get the community that your marketing deserves. If you market your forums as News Fight Club Online, you’re going to get exactly that. Asking people if they are ‘looking for an argument’ sets up an expectation in the user of extreme hostility, so they will react intemperately to the slightest thing.

I am entirely unsurprised by the closure of Sky News forums. I could have predicted its demise in 2007, when Sky started running these idents.

Making it easier to climb the ladder of participation

There is no such thing as a perfect participation platform when it comes to building engagement around news and other content. Too often we try to outsource to technology what are really social functions that have to be done by human beings. In terms of social media journalism, the best examples come from journalists actively engaging with people to involve and engage them with news, information and their communities.

Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Joy Mayer has a great interview with Denise Cheng who works on a local community news site in the US state of Michigan. The interview is chock full of gems of what it takes in terms of mindset to be a social media journalist and community wrangler. I also really like the last paragraph talking about how Denise works to build participation.

Denise said she works to build investment and ownership in The Rapidian. She wants folks to plug in at any level they feel comfortable with

But engagement isn’t just encouraging interaction. Denise wants to make the ladder of participation easier for people to climb up, with lots of manageable steps, from the bottom (wearing a Rapidian pin around town) up to things like contributing content and helping distribute it.

It’s a really great post with a community journalist working to build a deep sense of engagement and participation not only with her site but also with the civic and social life of her community.

Evolution of comments needed

Amidst all of the brouhaha of the latest instalment of bloggers versus journalists, George Brock, the head of journalism at City University, hits on something that is important: Comments on news sites need to evolve.

They’re rarely rewarding, many comments overlap, the sequence is incoherent and quantity of rewarding reads very low.

This isn’t to say that comments and user contribution are problematic, but in many ways users comments have become a victim of their own success. When I was doing research about blogging in 2005 for the BBC, I quickly realised that something happened when you brought blogging technology to large media organisations. The scale of audiences and the potential level of participation, even considering participation inequalities, would quickly overwhelm these systems. I could see if first hand in the BBC News online newsroom that summer.

I often wonder if we need to go back to first principles with comments. Why are we doing them? I’m serious. We need to ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve with comments. In some ways, I often feel as if comments are just vox pops, or man on the street at an industrial scale. Are user comments just another way to canvas public opinion? Mostly, comments are seen as a way to increase user time on site, which isn’t in itself a bad thing.

I’d argue that user interaction can be so much more. I think we should be using interactivity to capture the expertise in our audiences asking them what they know not just what they reckon. I think more active interaction on the part of news organisations begets better contributions, and I’ve got five years of examples and personal experience to prove that. It’s not a quick hit for traffic like writing a shouty comment piece is, but it helps build a loyal audience over time, one that comes and stays because they see value in the interaction, not just because they like to let off some steam or enjoy verbal jousting.

There is also increasing evidence that asking people to display a certain level of commitment might not only improve the quality of comments but also the quantity. Josh Benton at the Nieman Lab has written about Gawker’s ‘tough love’, what they refer to as a tiered commenting system, introdcued in mid-2009. It initially led to a drop-off in comments, but now growth has increased and at a faster rate than before the system was in place. As a Gizmodo reader, Josh believes that the comments have improved as commenters are in essence made to audition. For news sites, Josh sees a lot of lessons from the project and writes:

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

And last month, Josh says that growth trends are continuing. He says that the systems strike the best balance between complexity and simplicity of any comment system. It’s definitely worth a look.

I couldn’t agree with Josh more. There are so many ways that we could improve the tenor of comments. The first step might be rethinking the content. The constant shouting of columnists begets shouting from commenters. Shrill comment pieces beget shrill comments. It doesn’t require a PhD in psychology to see that content meant for another age might not work as well in this age of rapid response from thousands of online commenters. Honestly, the lack of evolution of content is one of the first stumbling blocks in terms of community strategies. As Clay Shirky says, technology won’t solve what are fundamentally social problems.

The most sophisticated commenting system in the world won’t prevent a blow up when your writing style is akin to wielding a flame thrower in a forest of tinder dry wood. Venomous columnists defend their right of free of expression but condemn the blow back. You can’t square that circle.

Now, you might argue that this is my personal choice if I don’t like shrill columnists. I never read them, and as busy as I am, I doubt I ever will. However, my response is that a content strategy akin to filling a swimming pool full of acid and adding demon piranhas is, for most sites, bad business. That kind of poisonous environment is very expensive to manage and moderate, and advertisers will avoid it like the plague. Also, and I know this from seeing the stats, often this content might have a quick hit in traffic while people rubber neck online to watch a good fight, but they are mostly drive-by visitors. They are here and gone in less than five seconds, no good for you unless you believe the juiced metrics that include these fleeting clicks.

We have a lot of options. The content needs to get smarter just as the commenting systems need to evolve. I know a lot of people working in community on news sites know this. What’s holding us back?

A comment on comments

In July last year, I gave a lunchtime talk to the BBC World Service about the meaning of ‘social’ online, the problems that we face with commenting on news sites, and the way I thought we need to consider social functionality design in the news arena.

I opened with a couple of videos: The infamous Mitchell and Webb “What do you reckon?” sketch that has served both Kevin and I so well in our presentations, and a Sky News ident promoting their discussion forums.

My point was that, since the earliest days, news websites have seen interactive parts of their sites, like comments or forums, as a place for a damn good punch-up. And those who thought that they were providing a valuable place for feedback and discussion found that they had actually created toxic environments. I probably (although I don’t remember) mentioned Comment is Free as the archetypal pit of vipers. I usually do.

I went on to discuss the core concepts of social objects, relationships, trust and privacy, and had a stab at attacking one of the core misunderstandings the media has about community: Your audience is not a community.

After attempting to run through what these concepts mean, and how they affect social website design, I went on to emphasise why this is important. From my notes at the time:

Bad community reflects badly on your brand.

A community of fringe voices is alienating and unconstructive, and opens your brand up to ridicule.

I closed with the point that designing for social interaction is not just a matter of slapping comments on everything, but requires forethought and a deep understanding of the nature of ‘social’.

The first question was asked by Peter Horrocks, the Director of BBC World Service. He asked if I could give them examples of any news organisation had done it properly. I replied that, as far as I was aware, no news organisation had taken the necessary steps to create social functionality worthy of note.

The first parts of news sites to get comments were the early blogs, many of them run on Typepad or Movable Type, which was by far and away the best platform at the time. This was before WordPress and before specialist commenting systems, so dealing with spam and moderating comments could be arduous, but most blogs had niche audiences who tend to behave better, partly because they actually get to know one another.

Then other parts of the news organisations heard they siren call of the comment, and before you knew it, they were everywhere. You could leave a comment on almost every news story you stumbled upon, regardless of whether commenting was appropriate. Stories of murders and rapes and disasters asked you, “What do you reckon?”, and people reckoned away.

I have never seen any evidence that news organisations take the problem of community seriously enough. For them, the more comments a piece got, the more page views, the higher they can push their ad rates. So long as nothing was libellous, hey, go for it.

Kevin has said that most news orgs don’t have an engagement strategy, they have an enragement strategy. Community strategies have been focused more on how to keep moderation costs down whilst increasing comments, rather than going back to first principles and figuring out what comments are really for, understanding people’s behaviour in comment areas, and then designing a tool which helps facilitate positive behaviours and reduce the potency of negative ones.

In the half-decade since news organisations have discovered commenting, they have failed to fully understand it and to modify their systems appropriately.

Now Reuters has finally taken a step in the right direction by adding a rating system that awards points for good comments and then, eventually, allows the user to earn extra privileges (which they can also lose through bad behaviour). They have also added profile pages which aggregate comments and provides a count of how many have been accepted, removed or reported for abuse.

That is a good start, but it is just a start. It will be interesting to see what effect their basic rating system will have. Whenever one is rewarding a behaviour, one has to think about how that reward system can be gamed and what unintended consequences might result.

In this case, I can see how a user might put a lot of effort into building up a large stash of points through adding a lot of easy, unobjectionable content in order to get to a VIP user status which they can then abuse. Yes, they’ll be punished for that abuse but not until some of their abusive comments have been published straight to the web.

Why would someone go to all that trouble? On the web, no reason is required other than “Because I can”.

Reuters’ system may help slow down the toxicity of news site comments, but it isn’t the full Monty. It doesn’t address how people might come to form positive relationships via their site. It doesn’t consider how trust ? between readers (or readers and journalists) may develop or be eroded. It doesn’t think about the social objects around which people may want to interact (hint: the story is not the atomic unit of news). It doesn’t do anything to develop a true community.

On privacy, at least, it is neutral. Contrary to the position of one commenter on Baum’s blog post, if you post lots of stuff in public, having that stuff aggregated into one spot is not an invasion of your privacy and is not speech-chilling. If you are ashamed of what your comments collected say about you, perhaps you ought to think a bit more about what you say.

So, Reuters get a point for trying, but which news organisation is going to really grasp the nettle and do interaction properly?

Chart: Who Participates And What People Are Doing Online

Kevin: An interesting chart based on Forrester Research that looks at online behaviours across age groups in the US. One thing that is very interesting is the relatively small group of "Collectors", those who use RSS and tag content to gather information. Even amongst the very active Gen Y group (22-26), the highest group of collectors is 18%.