Some tips for newspaper people new to community management

For newsrooms willing to take control of their participation and conversation on their own sites, here are some tips and suggestions I hope they find helpful:

  • Make checking comments on stories, forums and other venues for reader-submitted content a routine part of your job. There’s no need for this to overwhelm your other work. Keep a browser window open to your latest story, or the RSS feed or e-mail inbox for where comments appear as they come in. Glance at it between phone calls or before you get up to get another cup of coffee. Make it a habit to periodically check.
  • Make sure your site has an enforceable terms of service and guidelines or rules for all participants to follow. Here’s the GateHouse TOS. We also have something we call “pool rules” adjacent our comment box (you need to be registered and logged in to see it). The Star has something similar on its stories. (Of course, Terms, rules and posting them aren’t something the average news staffer can control, but they can advocate).
  • Registration should be required. This helps cut down on the drive-by nuts, makes it easier to ban bad actors and streamlines moderation time. No technical solution, however, relieves a newsroom of its responsibility to pay attention and participate. Ideally, your registration system includes publicly available user profiles. Contrary to myth, registration does not stifle participation. (Again, the typical newsroom staffer has no ability to require registration, but he or she should advocate.)
  • Take ownership. Top editors own the entire web site. Sport editors, for example, own the sports section on the web. Sports writers own the stories they post (or get posted for them — really, though, every individual in the newsroom should be posting his or her own stuff). Ownership means you pay attention and you care. You won’t let guests trash your house or apartment, so don’t let them trash your stories. Assert your ownership on your section or your stories — readers should recognize you as the owner.
  • Participate. When a reader posts incorrect information, offer up a correction or clarification. When a reader posts an assertion that would benefit from factual support, ask for it. When someone makes a statement that reminds you of an interesting quote or event that didn’t make your story, leave your own comment about it. Your participation not only makes the conversation more interesting, and keeps people coming back, it gives you credibility when it comes time to play cop.
  • Say “thank you” when people say or do something you appreciate. This also gives you credibility and it encourages future participation from others.
  • Act quickly to remove the most egregious rule violations. The worst of the worst posters should be banned immediately. It’s a judgment call on who gets a second chance.
  • Ban and remove only for violations of rules, not simply because you don’t like a post. This might seem obvious, but I’ve found that some journalists struggle with this point. Editors are tempted to remove posts simply because they contain factual errors or don’t like the tone of the comment. We had a situation recently where a post was removed because the writer had referred to Obama as a Muslim. By removing this post, we missed an opportunity to offer up a correction, and left ourselves open to charges of bias (because now the original writer is left to think the post was removed for political reasons, not because it was factually incorrect, since she still believes Obama is Muslim).
  • Learn how to deal with trolls. Trolls are people that know how to push your buttons. Their comments aren’t quite over the line, not quite personal attacks, but they get under your skin. If you take the bait from trolls, you get into arguments you can’t win, that make you look bad, and get the conversation off topic (I know, because I’ve too often taken the bait). It’s important to learn to recognize trolls and ignore them, and encourage others to ignore them as well. It isn’t outside the bounds of good community management to ban habitual trolls.
  • Keep your emotions out of it (see trolls, above). While your communication style must be personal, you can’t get personally involved in the community. Be friendly, but not a friend. You can’t take sides. You can’t get sucked into arguments. You can’t show anger. You need to treat everybody fairly and equally. (This is advice I could do well to follow better myself.)
  • When you remove comments or ban a user, you may want to let the community know. The public act of policing lets everybody know there is an owner of the forum asserting control. The good participants appreciate it, and once you set the tone, some volunteer moderators may even arise. In fact, good ownership will eventually give the owner the ability to step aside and let the community run itself.
  • Don’t forget the back channel communication. You should know who your regular participants are and how to contact them individually via private e-mail. And they should know how to contact you. Back channel e-mails might be about moderation issues, attaboys or just a little personal chit-chat. These e-mails foster better relationships and lead to more civil communities.
  • Reward your frequent contributors. Host a picnic, give away movie tickets, acknowledge them on your web site. These people are helping you build your business, so show them some love. They’ll appreciate it, be more likely to continue the participation and others will be encouraged to become one of them
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  • http://www.theindependent.com Stephanie

    Great post. I’ve sent this text to my newsroom here. I hope they will take it to heart!

  • http://www.wmhartnett.com/2008/06/18/links-for-2008-06-18/ links for 2008-06-18 : William M. Hartnett

    [...] Some tips for newspaper people new to community management – Howard Owens “For newsrooms willing to take control of their participation and conversation on their own sites, here are some tips and suggestions I hope they find helpful …” Good advice. (tags: community newspapers commenting) [...]

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    These are *excellent* tips Howard! You are very right about enforcing the Terms of Service, which I’ve heard some folks have a tough time doing (news as well as non-news sites.) Some say it’s a fear of being sued over freedom of speech issues–a reason Twitter management gave recently in an incident. Others say they think that to do so would be censorship. Yet if the offending comments are coming from anonymous sources, there’s a low probability that the anonymous person would sue or scream censorship (and wouldn’t have much credibility on the latter anyway.)

    As for participation–I’ve also gathered from talking to folks that some organizations forbid participation. This is where newsrooms should have a designated community manager, not someone who’s a reporter as well. Reporters should be able to go to the community manager with concerns and the community manager should be empowered to take the types of actions you suggest.

    But, do newsrooms have money for community managers? Well, they should if they’re going to do community in a positive and engaged manner. That person should also be an experience community manager, especially so that he/she can recognize when they’re getting trolls-which can be vastly different from libelous speech. Rampant trolling can kill a board so fast it isn’t funny. And throwing a troll out of a community isn’t censorship–it’s good community management.

  • http://www.andydickinson.net/2008/06/18/links-for-2008-06-18/   links for 2008-06-18 by andydickinson.net

    [...] Some tips for newspaper people new to community management | Howard Owens More lists but great stuff from Owens (tags: community journalism newmedia newspaper newspapers ugc) [...]

  • http://david-black.org/2008/06/19/links-for-2008-06-19/ links for 2008-06-19 « David Black

    [...] Some tips for newspaper people new to community management – Howard Owens “For newsrooms willing to take control of their participation and conversation on their own sites, here are some tips and suggestions I hope they find helpful” (tags: internet newspapers newspapersites participatory journalism community ugc comments moderation tips) [...]

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  • http://www.frankwatching.com/archive/2008/11/27/online-community-management/ Online community management – Frankwatching

    [...] Outstanding tips for community moderation [...]