NPR’s On the Media and ‘Comments on Comments’

As I’ve mentioned before, National Public Radio’s (US) On the Media is part of my weekly podcast diet. It was an interesting look at three different views on internet comments on articles and radio programmes. Host Bob Garfield interviewed This American Life’s Ira Glass, ‘professional writer and critic’ Lee Siegel and Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant. It spawned a round of very interesting blog posts and comments – Comments on comments on comments, as Jeff Jarvis put it. It soon spilled out onto Twitter from with an interesting discussion between Jay Rosen and Kevin Marks.

Kevin Marks comments on NPR's On the Media

Jeff says:

But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.

The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published.

And I have to agree with Jeff that it’s a bit rich for Gawker to be arguing against comments on newspaper sites. On the Media linked to the post, and Gawker sounds like many in the newspaper industry who pine for a simpler time when newspapers enjoyed a near monopoly when it came to people’s time and attention. Channeling their inner newspaper nostalgist, Gawker says:

Newspapers have more important things to do than worry about comments—like, say, report the stories that blogs so desperately need in their 24-7 quest for content! After all, blogs are often not equipped to regularly break the news, and we need content to chew on.

Of course, comments are OK on Gawker because they’re a blog, they argue. Might the mighty Gawker be a suffering a crisis in ComScore with all the competition?

Of the three points of view, I almost said Amen out loud as I travelled on the Tube when Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant said, that she was surprised that newspaper are still having this conversation.

It’s not the Wild West. I don’t believe in putting comments on every story. … I thought we had this (conversation) in 2002, and papers are getting in this conversation and acting surprised that there is this ugliness out there.

She then goes on and lays out a considered approach to comments and communities online. After the Virginia Tech shooting, they originally put up their standard message board. They took it down when it devolved into a loud discussion about gun rights and replaced it with a tribute site from (in the interest of disclosure, a good friend of mine works for Legacy), a site that powers the obituaries of several newspaper sites. The message boards are moderated by, and she said that the tribute site is still active.

Derek Powazek also wrote an excellent post criticising the On the Media segment. The main problem he saw with the piece was that Bob Garfield “lumps all commenters, and commenting systems, together. On the web, not all comments are created equal”. He says:

Yes, if you open your site to comments from people who do not have to register or create an account, you’ll get a lot of unfiltered craziness. That’s because you’re not doing your job as a host. Imagine a newspaper of infinite pages with no editors where anyone with a keyboard could contribute. Sounds fun to me, but not a recipe for consistent thoughtfulness. …

The story completely missed moderation queues, reputation management systems, or any of the hundreds of comment systems built over the last decade to address this very problem.

I’m with Derek. The media never focus on positive communities online, but it’s not just the media’s coverage of online communities that needs to improve. Most online communities hosted by media companies could use some improvement, but as Derek points out, there are tools and a lot of experience out there. Unfortunately, most of it is either outside of media organisations or was lost when digital departments at news organisations were gutted after the crash.

Some of the solution to improving online communities and conversations on websites is using the best technology, but there are also content and culture issues to be aware of. Kevin Marks shares wisdom and lessons learned about online spaces. For people who are part of internet culture, some of this is well known, but it’s not common knowledge in media companies. (I’m fortunate to work with one of the best in the business, Meg Pickard, our head of communities at the Guardian.) Kevin highlights some great work done in terms of online communities and some common traits of those communities that don’t work:

The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don’t have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage.

News websites were never a ‘build it and they will come’ proposition, especially in today’s distributed world, and in the rush to build communities so that they will come, news oganisations are building the spaces but sometimes not preparing for when people come. Get enough people together online or offline, and not all of the experience will be positive or pleasant. The response shouldn’t be to shut down the community and bar the door.

News organisations need to look outside of their immediate area of experience and find communities that have worked and learn from them. This isn’t an area of blue-sky experimentation. There is a lot of experience and expertise out there. With a lot of this, news orgs will just have to look beyond other news orgs. There’s a big world out there on the internet, but it’s not always scary.

UPDATE: As Jay Rosen says via Twiter: “Jeff Jarvis tells Bob Garfield to join the conversation, and points out how many people online did the homework he didn’t.” Jeff highlights not only posts but excellent contributions from Doc Searls and Tish Grier in his comments. There is a lot of history to be learned from, and news organisations don’t need to re-invent the wheel or feel that they are starting from scratch.

In defence of news orgs, I not only believe but have said publicly, that when the media adds community features, they need to be ready to manage that community from day one because they already are dealing with large amounts of traffic. They often run into teething problems that most communities don’t reach until much later.

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‘Should journalism degrees still prepare students for a news industry that doesn’t want them?’

Paper Cuts newspaper job cuts blog

Paul Bradshaw invited me on Twitter to answer this question on Seesmic recently, and Paul reported on the responses on his blog. He asked the question in light of a punishing wave of redundancies, many in US newspapers, and hiring freezes and programme cuts in the UK. The blog Papercuts lists 6358 job cuts in US newspapers already in 2008.

Here’s the full conversation:

One of my comments:

So many journalists think ‘If I’m a good writer, that’s all I need’. That’s bullshit. There is an arrogance among journalists about the craft of writing. Journalism students will need more than the ability to craft a good sentence.

not only caught Paul’s attention, but also “twenty-something regional newspaper journalist” Joanna Geary (what’s your new shiny title Joanna?) and my colleague Roy Greenslade. I’m not entirely sure why that hit such a nerve. (The particular comment is in a separate video on YouTube.)

One comment that caught my eye was that of David Cohn:

Partly because news organisations have a culture similar to the military, there’s a chain of command and no leeway to make your own decisions. Journalism schools are equally structured.

That’s interesting, and I think it’s one of the cultural conflicts that I’m seeing as news organisations integrate their digital departments. For my first online journalism job in 1996, I was an army of one. The news director admitted she could manage everyone’s time in the newsroom down to the second except me. My next jobs at Advance Internet ( and the BBC, I was either part of a small team or working in a foreign bureau, far from the command centre. It’s a challenge as we move from these flat, often extremely collaborative, environments to these military environments with a lot hierarchy and rank. In some ways, it’s a sign of the success of the digital departments that they are being brought into the core of the business, but hopefully, the departments can be integrated without losing the collaborative spirit.

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John Zhu’s top tips for encouraging cultural change

After I responded to John Zhu’s post about battles lines in the recent ‘curmudgeons’ versus young journalists flap, John left several thoughtful comments. John said in his first comment:

I’ve found that the only way to defeat the resistance and win over the skeptics is to keep at them and continuing to engage them. Can it be frustrating as hell? Yes! Does it always work? Of course not! But it works more often than if you just give up. Treating skeptics as your enemies will in fact turn them into enemies.

I’ll admit it. I first bristled a bit at John’s comment, but as I recommend to other journalists, I never respond to a comment in anger. I bristled because as I said in response:

If there was a moment where I stopped short reading your post, it was because I felt it was a call for digital staff to keep putting out more effort to engage than sceptics. Yes, it’s still the reality we live in, but it’s not a fair or realistic expectation for digital staff to be more magnanimous, especially when we’re often in the weaker political position in our organisations.

And I drew a distinction between sceptics and obstructionists, saying: “I don’t even see this as sceptics versus digital natives conflict. Journalists are all to some extent paid sceptics. I see this as a problem with obstructionists.”

I’m glad I waited to respond until after we had exchanged a few e-mails, and I had a chance to understand where John was coming from. He responded with some really good advice on how to win over the sceptics and not only achieve short term goals but encourage cultural change. It’s a great comment, well worth reading in full. He gives a specific example of project he worked on and the lessons he learned:

  • Become intimately familiar with the processes that you are trying to change before changing them.
  • Be sure to get input from the people who will be most affected by the changes you’re considering.
  • Do your homework on your plan. The more detailed, the better. Vague pronouncements tend to draw more skepticism for being impractical. Play the role of the skeptic and assault your plan for all its shortcomings so you can anticipate some of the criticism and devise solutions/responses.
  • As much as possible, pitch your plan from the perspective of how it will benefit the people who will have to change their routines to make it work. The biggest motivation anyone has for changing their routine is how it will help him/herself (aside from the “do this or your job is in jeopardy” thing, which is a threat, not a benefit). Your plan’s main goal may not be to benefit those people, but as long as it gets their support, who cares?!
  • Be willing to make some compromises as long as they don’t jeopardize the major goals of what your plan is trying to do.

Thanks John for sharing some really good advice.

I think one of my biggest challenges in the last few years has been shifting from a journalist with licence and autonomy to innovate to being an editor with management responsibilities. I’m going to keep these tips handy.

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‘Brick walls let you show your dedication’

I thought I had shown this video to Suw. The link is probably in her inbox, but she hadn’t seen it. And I hadn’t watched it the whole way through. But when I saw the story that Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch had died from cancer, we sat down and watched it together. What a loss in so many ways, but his ‘Last Lecture’ is such a gift from a talented and dedicated teacher, husband and father. It’s an hour and 16 minutes long, but it’s worth every minute.

I took two things away from the video. One, I’m even more dedicated to enjoy every minute that I have with friends, family and with Suw. Condolences to Randy’s wife, children, friends and colleagues.

Two, Randy said several times that brick walls give you the opportunity to show how much you want something. Sometimes in my work as a journalist, I feel frustrated as I push against brick walls. The simple equation for calculating work is:

Work = force x distance

Sometimes, when you’re pushing against the brick walls, the equation looks like this:

Frustration = force x resistance

And sometimes it seems that frustration reaches an infinite level because the resistance increases in direct proportion to the amount of force applied. But throughout Randy’s talk, he kept coming back to the ‘head fake’, the Jedi mind to help you achieve your goals. For example, his team has worked on a programme called Alice that will ‘trick’ students into learning computer programming. They will learn programming through telling a story. I am hoping to download it myself, and Suw is planning on showing it to our niece. It sounds like a truly great professional legacy that he is leaving.

Thanks Randy for reminding me to focus on my dreams and dedication and not the obstacles. I’m taking stock of my dreams and thinking new ‘head fakes’ for the dreams that I am working on now. Bis vivit qui bene vivit

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links for 2008-07-25

Local can work, complete with facts and figures

In the recent round of virtual mud-slinging in the ‘curmudgeons’ versus digital journalists, one of the arguments by way of assertion is that hyper-local doesn’t work. It is, of course, a reductionist argument, lumping together a wide range of strategies. A lot of the assertions are short on facts, but Vickey Williams at the Readership Institute highlights two dailies that are succeeding in creating local community. From the Bakersfield Californian:

My thought is that it’s because this paper lives up to its role as an essential connector and network builder. Some stats from Molen this week: 1,192 individual blogs launched since the newspaper’s site began hosting weblogs two years ago this month; 314 updated within the last three months. Add in the newspaper company’s nine other sites (including MasBakersfield, NorthwestVoice, NewToBakersfield; and their newest, and the number goes to 2,780 blogs launched, of which 655 have been updated in the last three months.

That community content represents about 18 percent of’s traffic and 25 percent of total traffic throughout the local network of sites, Molen said. “It is easily the fastest growing source of traffic for us.”

Another interesting metric is the number of people who have created public profiles in the company’s online social network, and in doing so, essentially endorse its brands. For, the number is 16,792; across all 10, it’s 31,868.

I would be curious to see their frequency numbers. What is the average frequency of their visitors? Is it better than the average visit of two pageviews per visitor per month?

links for 2008-07-24

Required reading for public media executives and programme makers

I have followed the trajectory of (US) National Public Radio’s Bryant Park Project because they were experimenting with so many social media tools and ideas, and more than that, they seemed to have grokked the ‘social’ in social media. Their Twitter feed wasn’t just an automated bland, bloodless promo for the programme but rather a way that the staff showed their humanity and personality as well as worked to engage people with the subjects on the programme. Just look at one of their latest Tweets:

Bryant Park Project Twitter

For those of you not familiar with the Bryant Park Project, I’d direct you to Robert Paterson’s post on BPP and their use of Twitter. I use Robert’s phrase ‘wrapping content in a community’ as the title of a presentation that I give on social media and journalism. (Looking through Robert’s recent posts, he and I are eerily on the same wavelength in asking why public media isn’t being successful in innovating. Like many media organisations now, the cultural and political conflict is increasing as organisations shift from considering change strategies to, in some cases, fighting for survival.)

I’ll give credit to NPR’s interim CEO, Dennis Haarsager, for going to the BPP blog to address some issues and share some of the lessons of the project.

We’ve/I’ve learned — or relearned — a lot in this process. For non-commercial media such as NPR, sustaining a new program of this financial magnitude requires attracting users from each of the platforms we can access. Ultimately, we recognized that wasn’t happening with BPP. Radio carriage didn’t materialize to any degree: right now, BPP airs on only five analog radio stations and 19 HD Radio digital channels. Web/podcasting usage was also hampered — here’s the relearning part — since we were offering an “appointment program” in a medium that doesn’t excel in that kind of usage.

I would love to be a fly on the wall and know why NPR stations didn’t pick up the programme, but I probably know why. I worked on World Have Your Say at the BBC, and NPR stations were resistant to that programme because they felt it to be too ‘talk radio’ even though we dealt with substantive international issues. However, the programme dealt with them from the point of view of people and not necessarily pundits and politicians. BPP was trying to attract younger listeners to public radio, but unfortunately, that might have been its undoing. Some NPR stations in the US can make the BBC’s Radio 4 look like Radio 1.

What Dennis Haarsager doesn’t talk about because he probably can’t is the organisational struggle that NPR is going through. John Proffitt who works for a non-profit company that operates a “public TV station, a public radio station and a statewide radio news network” is a little more candid:

For all those saying NPR should have raised money directly for BPP, there’s a political mess you’re not aware of here.

If NPR openly attempted to raise money for any program, with large or small station carriage, the nationwide collection of stations would revolt. And please note the Board of NPR is majority-controlled by stations.

In short, it would never be attempted and would certainly be killed if it were.

There are indeed structural and cultural problems within NPR that make a project like BPP fail and put all forms of new media engagements at risk. But never forget that many of NPR’s most anti-new media anti-innovation qualities are inherited from the codependent relationship with the stations. In a sense, it’s no one’s fault, yet it’s everyone’s fault. And that’s the center of the problem.

But I don’t want to focus on the specific organisational issues that NPR is struggling with. The comments on Haarsager’s post provide some of the clearest explanation of the power of social media. The producers and presenters of BPP tried to foster a community and develop a real sense of relationship with their listeners. I think they succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. I can’t link to individual comments or I would. Here is a sample:

Sent by Matthew Trisler, | 3:54 PM ET | 07-22-2008

It’s been said already on Twitter today, but the thing about BPP that Haarsager misses is that it never served as a “portal,” but as an organic center for community involvement.

Sent by Carlo | 4:49 PM ET | 07-22-2008

People don’t want an API. They don’t want “tailored content delivery” or their “attention tracked.”

Those are buzz words.

It seems to me, somehow, your outlook on the BPP was more about the neat, shiny technology than anything else.

More focused on the “networks” than the “social.”

And that’s too bad.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon @mattsteady | 5:11 PM ET | 07-22-2008

As a reverted NPR listener, a listener who came back to NPR because of the BPP, I understand that the average NPR listener treats their show as a member of the family. Believe or not, the BPP community has an even greater attachment than that, not just to the show but to each other. This isn’t simply a show; it’s a community. Staff and listeners exchange with one another, sometimes on news items and sometimes on more personal stuff. There are many examples of personal and intelligent exchanges between staff and listeners, examples that, if you take some time to look at on the blog, you will find have a depth of affection not found in anything else NPR produces on-line. This is not to disparage those other shows but to show how special the BPP is as a community.

The show looks like it was reaching outside of its youthful target market. Sent by John Riley | 5:48 PM ET | 07-22-2008

I am 74 and live alone. Local NPR stations are mostly music. I get on the net and listen to NPR talk. I just found BPP and enjoyed it very much, intelagent but not stiff. It gave me many smiles and was topical. I wish I could have been saved. The idea of internet show funding should be explored. The net lets me listen any time I wish. The way of the future.

Sent by ronbailey | 8:48 PM ET | 07-22-2008

That’s the sorriest dose of pablum I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. If you say the audience isn’t there for an “appointment program” on the web, then why not focus on formats that allow listeners to time shift the content? Most days I listened to BPP via the podcast around noon Eastern time.

Good riddance, NPR. You guys have screwed the pooch, and you’ve lost me as a listener and a contributer, and more importantly as a supporter via my blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed.

That’s just a teaser from a few hundred of the comments, but I think these listeners have said more about what social media means than most explanations I’ve heard. BPP was successful in using social media tools, a blog, a podcast and Twitter to connect with their audience.

BPP was not going to replace the venerable Morning Edition programme, which as one of the commenters said has been on air for more than 30-years and has some 30m listeners. That is the wrong metric for success, and frankly, that seems to be the problem. They tried to create a programme that would attract new audiences, but to succeed, it would have to displace one of its longest-running and most successful programmes in 9 months. I would never sign onto a project so designed to fail. And now I fear that obstructionists will use the programme as an example of the failure of social media and the internet. From the the comments, I think BPP succeeded as an experiment in social media. Too bad from a strategic standpoint and in terms of NPR’s own structure, it had little chance to succeed as a traditional radio programme.