We’ve spent many words recently debating the best way for newspapers to manage user participation, particular comments on stories and forum posts.
Most journalists value quality communication and are distressed to see rants, insults, cursing, lies and innuendo pass for online commentary, especially on their own newspaper.com.
It’s an understandable position.
There are a number of strategies to try an elevate the nature of the discourse on a newspaper.com, such as enforcing real identity, or using a Slashdot/Digg-style reputation system, or pre-screening comments (my least favorite), to outsourcing the entire headache to Topix.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why quality blogs usually have quality discussions?
Consider, for a minute, how quickly a discussion on your newspaper.com would spin out of control if you allowed comments on a story about butts on TV. Now look at the interesting discussion on this Lost Remote post (maybe not the best example I could find of a great conversation, but it is a logical contrast to what might happen on a typical newspaper.com).
Some blogs get more and better reader discussion than others, but you rarely hear any more about bloggers debating whether to disable comments and wondering if this whole commenting thing is really worth it (as you do from some editors).
Sure, blogs use some form of pre-screen (first-time commenters on howardowens.com, for example, go into a moderation queue), but any filters on blog comments these days have more to do with trying to block spam than worries over the content of reader comments.
Why is that?
I would say, primarily because blogs get the close attention of their owners. There is little opportunity for trolls to get a foothold on a well-run blog. Most blog owners apply high standards for the conduct they will allow. They monitor closely. They participate in the conversation. In other words, they are actively engaged and involved. They are owners.
How involved are reporters and editors involved in participation on their web sites?
And until we fix that weak link in our participation strategy, we will continue to struggle with developing the kind of online community our newspaper communities deserve.
Newsrooms need to develop an ownership attitude about participation on their web sites. Only then will the technology solutions really work. There is simply no substitute for real, sustained, dedicated participation in the conversation by editors and reporters. Without it, newspaper sites will continue to struggle to grow and retain audience.