Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Tag Archives: Community
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. Continue reading
In the era of Packaged Goods Media, the journalist played a command-and-control role. He or she determined the news of the day (news judgment), organized it around his or her own sense of importance (news value) and published it to a compliant audience.
The role was linear and uncomplicated.
In the era of distributed media, the relationship between journalist and audience is asymmetrical.
As “audience” transmutes to “community,” and the level of communication and information increases exponentially, as news becomes less ecclesiastical and more egalitarian, the role of the professional journalist is changing.
Fortunately, there is still a role.
Here are six roles the modern journalist should serve:
- The Ethical Role. Yes, journalists get bashed about because of real and imagined lapses in ethics, but the challenge now is to raise the bar on professional ethics, and then provide ethical guidence to today’s participatory audience. We should deal more swiftly and transparently with ethical errors within the profession, but we should also provide teaching tools on information ethics, what ethics means and why it’s important, and how to spot compromised ethics.
- The Guide/Filter Role. Editors and reporters should assume some responsibility for providing their audiences with pointers to the best stuff on the web, be it the best-reported of the important news or the most interesting and entertaining articles and videos. In a command-and-control environment, we cared only about directing people to what we ourselves did. Now our role is to help audiences sift through the glut of information assaulting them daily by providing pointers. This is the value-add role, and if done right it can help overcome the digital-age tendency for people to focus too narrowly on their own interests. If done well, it will bring more people to your site or publication.
- The Understanding and Context Role. Why should the best bloggers get to have all the fun? The best journalists should become the best bloggers. I know many really, really smart reporters and editors. These people should have blogs, and they should serve readers better by taking the news of the day and putting it in context, combing articles for the tidbits that need to be weaved together to make a bigger whole, and explaining what it all means.
- The Conversation Leader Role. Already, our news reports start a lot of conversations with our without our consent. The conversation-starter role should become explicit in our job descriptions. Once started, we should guide it. We should thank and encourage the good contributors, and depreciate the bad contributors We should highlight the smartest things people say. We should provide our own insights and supplemental knowledge to any conversation we find. We should be full participants, not just the lurking overlords of top-down media.
- The Aggregator Role. We should aggressively gather data related to the communities we serve. We should make sure that anything that is knowable about a community we serve is findable through resources we provide. While in the Guide/Filter Role we might provide pointers, in the Aggregator Role, we make data available and let people find it for themselves. This is a role that serves the long tail of information, because we never know what other individuals might find useful, important or necessary.
- The Straight News Role. We cannot, even if we wanted to, and should not, cede our professional responsibilities to uncover news. We must know about everything important going on in the communities that we serve, and we should strive to be the first to tell our communities about the important news of the moment (note: no longer of the day, but of the moment). We must still be out in our communities gathering facts and organizing them in a way that is relevant and useful and then reporting the most important facts to our communities.
Mark Glaser has a good post up summarizing the various positions and approaches media companies are taking to user participation.
“I think quality is more important than quantity,” Landman said. “You have to create a space where the conversation is the kind of conversation that appeals to the people in your world. There are places where the conversation gets really ugly and people don’t go to the New York Times to get yelled at.”
Mark was kind enough to include a couple of words from me. Continue reading
Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, sent me a note and said:
I got sick of reading all the hand wringing by various newspapers around anonymous comments and had our development guys run some stats comparing anonymous comments vs. registered users’.
And that led to this blog post.
While anonymous posts have a roughly 50% higher kill rate, they also account for 3X the comment and commenter volume. If one asks, “where are we getting the most acceptable comments from?”, the answer is clearly the non-registered user base. As pointed out above, that there are as many registered users on Topix is partially due to offering anonymous comments
Also, its important to note that the ability to manage “anonymous” commenters and “registered” commenters is equivalent from a moderation standpoint. It’s just as easy to identify someone by their IP address for the most part as it is through a registration system. While a 50% difference is certainly something to look at, it’s not an order of magnitude, and we’re also looking at a grand total of way under 10% of total commentary.
I think there is a difference between “acceptable” and “accepted.” What the Topix numbers show is 3x as many “accepted” anonymous comments. That does not mean they were “acceptable,” if you define acceptable as A) adding to the civil discourse (as opposed to empty, ranting blather); B) providing useful information that advances the storyline of the article, which is the beauty of a really good user comment string.
Both A and B should be the goal of a newspaper.com adding comments to a story.
That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a Wild-West approach to comments. The open conversation is better than no conversation. I would simply rather see newspaper.com interaction evolve to a higher level of utility. We catch glimpses of that sometimes in some anonymous comment strings now.
I have a great faith the the majority of a newspaper.com audience to be civil and intelligent, and that providing some tools, techniques and encouragement, we can draw more civic mindedness out of more people. Anonymity does encourage, I have no doubt, a certain level of glibness if not outright bad behavior.
I’m willing to accept some lesser level of participation in exchange for better conversations.
That said, I totally part company with those (referenced in Chris’s post, but original articles no longer available (now there are some newspapers using a bad CMS)) who say there should be no comments unless we enforce registration. At GHS, we’re building a registration-based system, but in the meantime, we’re using an anonymous system. I would rather have the conversation than not, even if that means we have to weed out some junk.
Chris is right on this point:
The “anonymous” issue is just a red herring. Really, what these journalists are threatened by is the nature of truly public discourse on the web. These people are not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up.
They’re your audience
I agree. You simply MUST enable the conversation on your web site (just don’t outsource it to Topix). And you must be a part of it. And you must learn to deal with it. That’s part of being a journalist these days. If it’s not already in your job description, it should be.
You simply must engage your audience. The benefits far outweigh the periodic bad actor post (one of the benefits of the Topix report is that it statistically demonstrates how little actual really bad stuff is part of the submission flow — journalists should be able to deal with this trickle as part of their duties).
One thing that would be interesting is if Topix ran an A/B test on registration vs. non-registration. Of course, it would only really be useful if we had some way of measuring the civic value of conversations, not just how many posts were banned. Also, I would like to see the test involve registration that sets some sort of expectation for real identity. Topix, at least, has the volume of participation to make such a test statistically valid if run over a long-enough period of time (and maybe in a couple of different periods). The A/B test would involve using the same content to spur conversation, but route half the people to an anonymous-allowed site, and half to a registration site. Continue reading
Here’s an example of a GateHouse Media reporter who isn’t afraid of the new medium, is entrepreneurial and forward thinking — Jessica Gaspar, a reporter for our weekly in Hennrietta, New York, has started her own section on an independently run town bulletin board. She calls it Jessica’s Corner.
Jessica uses here posts to ask for story tips, get feedback on articles and promote her own weekly as well as the MPNNow.com web site.
Her posts are fun and lively and some of them generate a bit of conversation. She includes all of her contact information in all of her posts.
Many towns these days have these local bulletin boards that are usually frequented by the biggest news junkies and gossip hounds in town. It makes a lot of sense for a reporter covering that beat to become part of that community.
If Jessica happens by this blog post maybe she will leave a comment about how this has all worked out for her — the upsides and downsides and what she’s learned.
Here’s another plea for news sites to require registration and some expectation of real identity from site participants.
But if news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be as transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media. Certainly, unfettered, ugly, racist, personal and similar sorts of rants do not contribute to civic discourse, but rather undermine it.
If we believe that professional journalism, however it might evolve, has value in the modern media world, then we need to accept a role that goes beyond merely posting the news.
We need to:
- Start conversations — conversation starters includes our journalism, the things we relate and report, but we should also be offering context and questions that help guide conversations;
- Participate in the conversation — be active in the conversations we start, adding context, information and clarifications as necessary;
- Set standards — We make the rules, we enforce them, we offer guidance (including providing some ethical context) for civil, constructive participation, and we set the example for participation.
If we do these things, pre-screening comments becomes largely unnecessary. Healthy moderator participation — and I’ve had a lot of experience doing this — squelches most uncivil participation.
Technical solutions also play a role:
- “Require” real identity (100 percent enforcement impossible, but the effort will go a long way toward keeping people civil;
- Use reputation tools, such as thumbs up/down on posts and hiding unpopular posts;
- Tie participation to socially networked profiles, which brings about greater transparency on identity and persona;
- Make first-time participants go through moderation and e-mail validation;
- Let banned users post, but hide their comments from everybody but themselves.
Part of the new responsibility of the modern journalist, of the wired news organization, is to foster a locally focus online community. It is our job, the way I see it, that we should be hosting all of the most important discussions in our communities. This isn’t just an audience growth strategy (though it will do that), it is part of our charter. In a way, it always has been.
The people in our communities know stuff. They’re smart. They have insights. They often have a greater institutional knowledge than many of the people on a newspaper staff. They can help other members of the community — including the paid journalists — grow, learn and understand. They can help us all make better decisions, whether it’s about who to vote for or which charity to support.
The whole community can become smarter through the conversations we host.
Isn’t it appropriate that a journalistic organization, which I’ve always believed has an obligation to illuminate and inform, should be the hub of community conversation?
If we look at online conversation from this higher-responsibility prism, then don’t we have an obligation to not only host the conversation, but to ensure we do our level best to keep the conversation civil and constructive.
If that is the case, then we need to do everything we can to keep the bad actors, the disruptors and the trolls out of our conversations.
This is why I support real identity for participation. And this is why I believe that every journalist has an obligation to be digitally literate. Real identity is necessary to a journalisticly sound conversation (it’s a matter of ethics and transparency), and only digitally literate journalists can be master conversation guides, leaders and participants.
And being a participant should be henceforth written into every reporter and editors job description.
As I’ve said before, I believe newspaper web sites have a civic obligation to do their best to require contributors to post under their real identity.
Here’s a guest post on Ypluse about the problems with anonymity online.
I think I’d easily trade what’s left of my privacy for some major strides forward in eliminating abuse of anonymity. I say this as a person who truly resents the intrusion on my privacy. I just don’t know what to do anymore.
I believe in free speech. I think we ought to be allowed to say whatever we want to whoever we want. But if we’re not backing that up with our identity, it’s not fair to anyone on the other side of the conversation. We can say whatever we want, and go much further than manners allow. ….
I say this as a person who has kept a blog for seven years hidden under a pseudonym.
But I don’t know how much longer we can live in the wild west.
Anonymity is great in certain cases, but those cases probably should be rarer than we think. Anonymity is easy and it feels good, but maybe it’s something we’re growing out of. Bullying and abuse are not okay, and we’re seeing more of it everyday.
UPDATE: I’ll add this: Identity and profiles help add context. As this post points out, in absence of context, many people fill in the blanks with base assumptions, which leads to insults and invective.
To wit: When you “meet” someone in Halo online, you have only two indicators of who they are — their gamer tag and their voice. You never see their face, you probably don’t know where they’re from (unless you look at their profile), and you don’t know their age. Your competitors are probably from an entirely different city, state, or nation. Faced with this absence of context, people rely on the basest of psychological tropes, i.e., homophobia. How else to deny the sameness of the other than by inverting his/her sexuality.
UPDATE II: Tim D’Avis, in the comments, leaves a link to an interview with one of the founders of The Well, an early digital community.
Brand: Yes and no. I mean, one thing that we insisted on was no anonymity. And lots of the systems out there now like anonymity or encourage it, or individuals absolutely hold out for it. Personally, I would have preferred to see it go the other way. Not so much on the … I mean, The Well’s compromise is pretty good, I think, which is that people can have whatever amusing handle they wanted, but it was linked and it was linked publicly to a real person. That gave the accountability I wanted, which is, I knew that flame wars would go over unless somebody’s nose was identifiable so that if necessary, you could go punch their nose. And they would know that, and you would know that, and that would slightly ameliorate the otherwise extreparous (sp?) behavior. What it did probably, in reality, was connect cyberspace with real space a little better because you always had the sense there were real people and real places behind whatever they were doing online.
The opportunity for local newspapers to build online communities that lead to real-world affiliations is another reason to have some connection to real identity. It’s also another reason not to outsource your community building to Topix. Continue reading
It looks like I’m not the only one concerned about newspapers outsourcing core-responsibility community building to Topix.
Rich Gordon shares his concern:
Still, I would argue that for news organizations, building online community should be more than an outsourced service. I’d go so far as to say that cultivating community is the most important step for news media to take in order to build online engagement. By partnering with Topix, news organizations are essentially making a statement that online discussions are not important enough to build technology and staffing capabilities around.
While Topix is owned by three newspaper companies, I’m not aware of any
Gannett, Tribune (see second update below — there’s at least one each for Gannett and Tribune) or McClatchy newspapers (or any companywide deals) outsourcing its community building to Topix. That’s telling. And my prediction, none of them will any time soon.
If you look at Topix leadership, you see these are not newspaper people, but Silicon Valley pros. This is just another bubble play for them. Their strategy isn’t aimed at helping newspapers, but how to harvest audience and revenue from newspapers.
UPDATE: 2007 NAA Online Innovator winner Steve Yelvington weighs in:
I’m in Howard’s camp on this one. This is not the same as outsourcing obituary guestbooks to Legacy.com (which I think actually makes sense). This is core.
This is a great opportunity to listen to the community that’s being thrown away. You can’t grow to understand what people care about, what’s on their minds, behaving like an absentee landlord.
We don’t listen enough. Voicemail systems and security guards separate our newsrooms from the real world. Beat reporters talk to beat sources, who have an agenda, and rarely to civilians. Normal life rarely shows up in the news report.
The Internet gives us a powerful opportunity to reconnect with communities of real people. Handing that opportunity to Topix, regardless of how well Topix might perform, squanders a treasure.
Yelvington points out that online news pioneer Steve Outing takes a more nuanced approach to the topic, but Outing does say:
If any news companies are looking at the Topix offering and thinking, “Great. We can outsource our audience interaction and get back to the news business as usual,” well, that’s nuts. User comments are just one small element of interacting and engaging with your audience.
But the problem is, for any news organization that doesn’t have the fortitude to handle community conversation itself, that is exactly what is going to happen, especially if it’s a companywide mandate, such as Media News is doing. It’s inevitable.
I realize my rhetoric has been a little heated on this topic, but it’s a major issue of survivability for newspapers on the web.
UPDATE II: Here’s a post about Topix planning to partner with local newspapers on hyperlocal news pages. Of interest, contrary to what I write above, it notes a Gannett and a Tribune paper that are using Topix to manage forums. Continue reading
Local news is a vertical.
To succeed going forward, local newspapers need to treat local news as a vertical product.
Newspapers, traditionally, are horizontal, serving many interests and needs with a single product.
Web sites need to be more singularly focused.
Look at the way Glam.com now owns the fashion vertical, or how American Idol has create a vertical for own product that now covers multiplatforms (TV, the Web, CDs, books, concert tours, mobile phones, etc.).
Local newspapers should aim for the same ownership of local news and information across multiplatforms, and especially dive deep on the Web — breaking news, video, community participation, databases, classifieds, IYP, and every thing else a publisher, editor or content producer can think of to ensure complete ownership of local. That’s what hyperlocal really means.
The last thing you should do is outsource community participation. You need to own your relationships with your best customers — your readers and your contributors, the people in the local community that make it what it is — a community. Letting another company own that relationship is a strategic mistake of monumental proportions.
That’s why Media News signing a deal to turn over commenting functions to Topix is just dumb beyond belief.
Ironically, Media News owns the Denver Post, which of late has been doing a fantastic job of trying to become the hub of community conversation, both through its main news site and its innovative Neighbors site. Those efforts are completely incompatible, as I see it, with the Topix business model, which Chris Tolles is quite blunt about: “We’re aiming to be the number one local news site on the web …”
There can be only one number one, and if it’s Topix, it ain’t your newspaper.com.
I’ve written about Topix before. Topix is not your friend. If your newspaper.com serves small, defined geographic communities, and you are not actively prohibiting Topix from crawling your content, you are giving away your crown jewels for pretty much nothing in return. The last thing you want to do is turn over your commenting system to a vendor with an express intent of beating you in your own market.
UPDATE: Upon further reflection, my strong use of the word “own” could be misconstrued. I don’t mean “own” in the command-and-control sense of traditional business models, but rather being in such a strong position that you’re a the center of the community conversation. That’s more than a business model, to me; that’s a core mission of a healthy local journalistic enterprise.
And a point I forgot to make is that comments are just one spoke in the wheel of creating online community – - if done right, they lead to things like profiles and social networking and stronger bonds with the community and more contributions from community members. That’s why comments are so vital to a web site’s success and shouldn’t be outsourced.
And as the first commenter on this post has already pointed out — partnerships are great and necessary and should be pursued, but only where they make sense, and partnering core functionality to Topix makes no sense.
UPDATE: Editor’s Weblog linked to this post, which is where Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, chose to respond. And I responded back. And he responded. And I responded. And there may be more. Of course, I can’t share our much more entertaining behind the scenes private e-mail exchange. Continue reading