Why newspaper sites will continue to struggle with reader participation

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?

Not much.

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.

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  • http://www.mattwaite.com/ Matt Waite

    I agree with you Howard that reporters and editors should be involved with and engaged in the discussion on their stories. If nothing else, it’s a good exercise for reporters to answer questions people ask because then you know better what people want to know, what maybe you wrote around too much, etc.

    That said, I wanted to point you to an example of a blog that turned comments on, then turned them off very fast. And, if you’re a baseball fan, it’s a very high quality blog: firejoemorgan.com. It’s a blog that just savages bad sports writing and TV commentary about baseball. They also had never allowed comments. That was, until Dec. 3. They even tried, in that post, to lay some ground rules and keep the wheat from chaff ratio manageable. And, 86 comments later — most of them violating the ground rules and many more of them begging the blogs authors to turn them off — they reversed course and turned them off.

    So quality of blog matters, but I wonder if some blog styles or subject matters are just going to be prone to the worst of internet commentary no matter what you do or how you participate. Not sure what the answer is, or if there’s a lesson in the firejoemorgan blog example.

  • Anna

    What are the best examples of well-‘gardened’ newspaper commenting communities?

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Matt, maybe if they had kept them on and maintained policing actions, they would have comments without problems today? From what you describe, they gave up too soon.

  • http://www.newmediabytes.com shawn smith

    We’re dealing with that too at MLive. We have encouraged our papers to encourage comments and respond to them when necessary. The Flint Journal (www.mlive.com/flintjournal/) has a community reporter who has even pitched story ideas generated by comments to stories that went online days before they were printed in the paper.

    But you’re right. Comments have to be gardened and watered, and the blog author needs to keep things in line and guide the conversation. That’s one thing I’m not sure most papers have time to do. However, if a reporter is really into their blog, I’ve seen them take more care of it and generate conversation.

    ownership is the key, like you said

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Shawn, it’s too important to let reporters and editors get away with, “there’s no time.” Make time.

  • http://kiyoshimartinez.com/ Kiyoshi Martinez

    BoingBoing is another example of a blog that’s extremely popular and didn’t allow comments until very recently. And if I understand it right, they have someone monitoring the comments to “keep the locals in line.”

    I’m going to say that community management is important, but it’s going to require the full-time attention for someone, especially if it grows popular.

    It makes more sense for a reporter to spend time hunting down sources, doing stories (in any format) than to spend the time monitoring their comments constantly.

    Given that burnout and stress rates are high enough already, I’m not sure that “make time” is the kind of thing a reporter’s anxious to hear. To me, that sounds a lot more like “do more with less.”

    To me, this sounds like the job more suited for a public editor, but I just don’t see a lot of smaller papers having the resources to do this.

  • http://www.cloudbrain.com Daniel

    I have to disagree in part. I think the big reason trolls are a problem for newspapers and not so much for blogs is due to growth rate. Most blogs start out very small: Just the author and his/her friends. Things grow slowly with a small, close community discussing what interests them and the occasionally new person chiming in. By the time the trolls and the rest of the world discover the blog, their is already a strong community with unspoken leadership roles hierarchy and standards of conduct. A single troll is quickly drowned out before lots of trolls can ban together and ruin the place.

    A newspaper’s blog, on the other hand, does not grow slowly. The newspaper publishes a story about their new community and runs ads inviting people to “participate”. Bad move. Everyone rushes in at once, including all the trolls. Since trolls (by definition) are loud and post often, they quickly overwhelm the community. And since there is no other discussion going on or established leaders to drown them out, they quickly take over.

    My advice for newspaper.com: Start a blog under a different name but don’t tell anybody. Use your resources (writing staff, research, reports) to create compelling content and your staff and their friends to create a great community. Let it grow organically. By the time it reaches its tipping point and everyone discovers it, it will be too late for the trolls to make a difference.

  • http://patrickbeeson.com Patrick Beeson

    I think while there are several reasons for newspapers not becoming part of the conversation, there are two that stand out:

    * The “it’s not my job” mentality of the newsroom (reporters, editors)
    * The fear that by responding to comments, the newsroom opens itself up in a way that might damage their journalistic standing

    While both of these points are valid, they don’t make sense in terms of an effective Web strategy.

    I can’t say that I’ve seen any newspaper put forth an effort to manage the conversation in story comments by doing anything but deleting comments, or banning users.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Daniel, while you make good points about newspapers starting blogs, what we’re talking about goes well beyond just blogs.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Kiyoshi, it simply must be part of the modern journalists job description that he participates in the conversation. There is really no choice.

    The idea that a reporter can hold himself apart and above the conversation is as outmoded as steam-driven presses.

  • Doug

    I think that commenters should be required to use their real names when posting their thoughts, especially on news sites where the credibility of the entire site (editorial, public opionion, etc.) is key.

  • http://www.joethink.com Joe Murphy

    There’s a structural reason that could keep reporters from keeping tabs on their articles: Few newspaper-dot-coms provide an index of articles organized by byline. If a reporter has to search for their byline, or rummage through section indexes scanning headlines each time, each time they want to check their articles … well, that ain’t user-friendly.

    An ideal solution would be to have a system that emails a reporter every time a comment is posted on an article of theirs.

    A “wow, we must be in heaven” solution would be an RSS feed of article comments on all a particular reporter’s articles, and a reporter that has the wherewithal to actually subscribe to that feed.

  • http://www.scribblesheet.co.uk/blog JohnofScribbleSheet

    The funny thing is that journalists often have more time than bloggers.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    We provide an RSS feed on a publication basis, though not a byline basis. That’s a good idea. However, our RSS feed would be pretty easy for a reporter to scan for his/her stuff.

  • http://www.thewayoftheweb.blogspot.com Badgergravling

    It’s ironic, but I actually get asked to come and post on the site I worked for as a journalist.

    Simply because the forum users etc all know me, and will listen to my explanations.

    Mainly because I listened the them.

    It also gave me some great stories, and some great contacts.

    And the time invested is far better placed than in churning out a rewritten press release that has already appeared elsewhere…

  • Anna

    Just an fyi, it appears that McClatchy has commenced disemvoweling (evidence: 4th comment on this story)

  • http://christopherwink.wordpress.com/2008/12/01/look-at-the-comments-stupid/ Look at the comments, stupid « Christopher Wink

    […] media guru Howard Owens posted on this earlier this year. He seems to say the same, the better the comments, the better the community and, in the end, […]