Fostering conversation on newspaper sites

Steve Outing, in his latest E&P column, addresses the issue of “news as a conversation.”

Outing starts out with comments on stories, a feature I’ve advocated for a couple of years. We did this in Ventura with great success, and some trouble. The trouble convinced me “virtual communities” were the answer. Of course, the term “virtual community” dates me, but this is what we called it when I started; however, my fascination with creating community online really goes back East County Online. In Ventura, we needed an effective way to control the bad actors. The best we could do it (with available resources) was tie comments to registration, which has proven somewhat effective, but I think a robust profile system will help foster accountability and a stronger sense of belonging to a community.

I don’t know of any newspaper site that has really implemented it, yet, quite what I have in mind.

I favor attaching comments to stories over building out a hosted blog community first. Current events are what drive conversations, and people need to be invited into that conversation. In a sea of blogs, it takes an exceptional blogger to attract an audience blind. But with comments, people are focused on topics, not personality, and can come to learn about fellow community members through discussion and debate. This is what fosters community, and will ultimately make user blogs more successful.

Outing has a number of good ideas.

  • Specifically ask for reader comments in the story
  • Pose questions in the story for readers to answer
  • Ask in print, not just online
  • Let readers subscribe (I say e-mail and RSS) to conversations
  • When someone comments, they automatically become subscribed to the conversation (I say have an opt-in/opt-out feature for each conversation)
  • Enhance comments with multimedia (harder to manage, but possible)
  • Let readers upload photos to comments
  • Add a most-commented-on feature to the Web site.
  • Add photos of users to comments (or even an icon they choose)

You should also be able to click-through to a user’s profile and see his or history of comments.

A Slashdot-like feature allowing users to rate comments and commenters would also help, and of course there should be a mechanism to report abuse.

I would also ad that a community manager is needed — somebody who watches the interaction, provides guidance for proper behavior and even chimes in with an opinion or two — somebody that users can see as a real person and identify with. This gives that person not only civic authority, but persuasive authority to help keep the community running smoothly. Good communities need feeding and weeding.

Outing has never been a fan of newspaper site registration, but in this context he clearly sees the importance of registration to manage user profiles. Outing favors allowing anonymous comments, however. I disagree, to a degree. I don’t support complete anonymity on news pages. There needs to be a level of accountability where news managers can reasonably (within the the limits that on the Net people can and do lie about their identity, though there are ways of managing this) identify users. Registered users should be able to hide their true identify behind an online persona, but complete anonymity rarely fosters thoughtful or useful conversations. Allowing complete anonymity is just a flame war waiting to happen.

Of course, I think some day newspaper sites may be able to do away with registration, or at least lower the threshold of stories read before registration kicks in — and user profiles, comments, blogs and other UGC will all become part of what makes it possible, along with sign ups for useful services, like a multitude of e-mail newsletters, SMS and other mobile services, business ratings and feedback, etc.

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