News site participation is not a ‘set it and forget it’ venture

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).

If any news rooms are ready to make a commitment to participation and community management, here’s a helpful post Tish Grier on the traits of community managers.