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: participation
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
There is a tendency among some (many? most?) editors and newsroom staffs to take a “set it and forget it” attitude toward online community.
“We’ve got comments on stories? Great. Now we can get back to real journalism.”
Here’s a headline for you: Online community is real journalism.
In 2008, the notion that all a reporter needs to do is uncover a few facts and write 12 inches, while editors edit “professional” content is a quaint relic of antiquity.
The modern journalist participates.
It should have been that way since 1995, frankly, but getting newsrooms to see it that way has been like trying to make a rock float.
Last night, while looking for something totally unrelated, I came across this old Alan Mutter post about the Ventura County Star when we first launched comments on stories in 2005 (when no newspapers I knew of had active comments on stories (though it had been tried before)).
The experience “showed the unfortunate underbelly of the Internet,” wrote the chagrined John Moore of the Star. “The anonymity offered by the Internet on comments like this seems to encourage people to say the meanest, ugliest things about other people.”
UPDATE: The Star now has reinstituted public comments with a number of restrictions, including filters to remove a growing dictionary of offensive words. Earlier the paper said it would permit comments only if it didn’t”require us to hire a full-time babysitter.”
First off, I don’t recall John being at all chagrined. There was no embarrassment over the situation. Bringing direct participation to our site was an expression of our desire to make our web site more webby. In fact, the editorial leadership of the Star was quite committed to finding a way, within limits, to make comments work (the Star has always been one of the most progressive newsrooms when it comes to the Web). The Star has continuously had comments on stories May 2005, and today, they even have them on racially sensitive stories.
Of course, as the quote above shows, that commitment stopped short of dedicating a full-time staffer to community moderation, or asking reporters to police their own stories.
Neither suggestion got much traction during our internal discussions.
And in the past three years, I can’t say that much has changed in newsrooms across America (and I have no specific information on the Star’s current moderation practices).
It’s not that news staffs see comments as a nuisance, or an undesirable appendage foisted on their news sites by over zealous web heads. It’s just something that isn’t important enough to waste time on.
That’s a shame, because participation is basically the way digital journalism works these days. It’s all just a conversation, whether the individual journalist sees it that way or not.
By not participating, journalists cede that competitive advantage to others, diminish their own journalistic output, miss opportunities for better stories (and rob their employers of business opportunities for growth).
In an age when information flows like a million Mississippis, we need to have an ethics about information.
In an age when access to information is as open as a billion galaxies, each individual is responsible for handling information ethically.
In an age when we are all information creators, contributors and consumers, we share a responsibility to each other not to mishandle information.
The information ethic begins with each person who both understands the power of information and the scourge of misinformation.
This is a role not solely for journalists, but journalists as the paid purveyors of information must not slip in adherence to high ethical standard (the ethical burden on journalists has never been greater); this is not a role not solely for bloggers, but bloggers as the vanguard of a new information river, must take on the burden of protecting and cherishing information; mostly, this is a role for all participants in the conversation, both the creators and the followers.
Not all participants will rise to the occasion, increasing the burden on those of use who recognize the responsibility.
The information ethic requires that we strive always for honesty, transparency, accuracy and fairness.
We must teach ethics as well as we practice ethics.
This is the ideal. Not all participants will recognize nor care for even a shadow of the ideal, but those of us who do must hold ourselves to the highest standards of information ethics.
This is no code of conduct we sign, no pledge we take, no oath we swear, no authority we obey. It is just something we do within ourselves.
And if we do, society will be better for it. Continue reading
I just stumbled across this post from Kevin Kelly on the dangers of anonymity.
However in every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common, the system fails. The recent taint in the honor of Wikipedia stems from the extreme ease which anonymous declarations can be put into a very visible public record. Communities infected with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind an invented nickname. Or voting, where you can authenticate an identity without tagging it to a vote.
Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These elements are a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it’s good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, or persecuted fringe. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system.
There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body into to make it stronger.
For the newspaper.com, it’s not enough just to confirm an e-mail address — identity is important. Even if you will not require (or try to) real identity, there should be a mechanism for enforcing some sort of identity, even if it’s persona-identity, but even then, it should be traceable to a real-world person.
Communities built around anonymity eventually lack cohesion.
I started down the Kevin Kelly path this morning because of this post on “Better than Free.” Kelly’s point is that in a world where free copies are abundant, economic value is derived from other factors. In context of this issue, a newspaper.com that makes trust/transparency, authenticity/authority part of its brand promise (which goes hand-in-hand with requiring identity from contributors), then it is building value — a competitive advantage into its online efforts.
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
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
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.