If you’re not doing comments right, you shouldn’t do them at all

Maybe it’s time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site’s commenting policy.

If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren’t part of the clique, maybe it’s time to reconsider your policy.

If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.

If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it’s time to reconsider your comment policy.

Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I’m an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.

And while I’ve noted that comments can help increase page views, I’ve never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it’s always been about building community.

Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn’t very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she’s probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband’s parents.

If you aren’t managing your comments well, you’re doing your newspaper more harm than good  Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours — at least the smart ones do — and your readers are questioning your professionalism.

This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won’t dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who).

I don’t bring this up to bash my competitor — in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty — but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.

If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?

Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?

Here’s how you fix your comment policy:

  1. Assign one person on staff — ideally, make this a full time job — to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
  2. Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
  3. Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site.  The smaller the community – where reputations can be broken so quickly — this is especially important.  People will often say anonymously (you’ll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won’t they won’t say when people know who they are.  Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
  4. Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn’t require this, but journalism ethics does.  This is also why you need a pro managing your comments.  All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I’m not sure I always get this right.
  5. A subtext to all of this — make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.

If you’re unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.

How registration is going, leading to thoughts on the value of registration

So far, 18 people have registered to comment on howardowens.com.  For a fairly low traffic blog, I think that’s pretty good.

What’s interesting is how many people have registered — the majority — without then leaving a comment.  They just registered.

That’s a phenomena we’ve observed at GateHouse, too, where we recently launched a registration system for comments.  People just register.

I’m not sure why:  Is it a matter of trust with the brand; they want to affiliate themselves with that brand? Or just anticipation of commenting later?

I will say most — but not all — of the people who have registered on howardowens.com have commented previously.

Only two people registered without their real names, but in both cases they use handles I know and recognize (one person is somebody whom I know his offline identity).

Observationally, I would say my comment traffic is about what it was before registration — some, but not much.

There’s still some people who think all of this registration tied to participation is somehow anti-net, or that it kills participation, that people will never accept it.  It’s a fool’s delusion to fight against the web’s built-in bias toward anonymity and unfettered communication.

Balderdash, I say.

At GateHouse Media, the level of participation and registration is quite healthy, and the feedback generally positive.  The vast majority of people want a safe, civil environment to hold conversations about topics of interest. They trust their local newspapers and don’t mind giving up a little personal information in order to achieve that worthy goal — if registration will cut down on the flamers, race haters, insult idiots, etc. — then they see registration as not just a necessary evil, but an absolute positive step.

The information ethic of the web is trending toward a bias in favor of real identity, or at least reliable persona (we may not know your real name, but we know who you are — you present a consistent persona online that we can trust).  In order to be credible, you need to be a trusted user.  Trust can be built over time in an open system, or a certain level of instant trust can be gained through a site owner’s registration system.

Some of what inspired these thoughts this morning was a post from Nick Carr about Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia moving away from the language of the bazaar to the language of the club (Carr’s characterization).

Wales described Wikipedia: “the online encyclopedia in which any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing entries on any encyclopedic topic.”

Which makes his conception of Wikipedia today far more insular than it was ten years ago, when anybody could do anything.

I’m fine with that. Rules and expectations are good. Apparently, Carr, who advises Encyclopedia Britannica, thinks Wales is selling out.

In part, I go back to Kevin Kelly’s post on how economic value is derived from something that can be endlessly copied — such as digital content.  When content wants to be free, content only gains value through non-tangible values that cannot be copied.  One of those values is trust.

Registration in exchange for participation helps establish trust.

Trust is not one of the values mentioned in Kelly’s post, but it is a value that obviously can’t be copied, so it fits within his thesis.  Registration, however, does mesh with another one of his values — authenticity.  Users want to know that there is a real person who stands behind the content — be it a news reporter or a person leaving a comment on that reporter’s story — whom they believe to be real with a reputation to protect.

Of course, any registration system can be gamed, but gaming — false registrations for the purpose of deceit or incitement — can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by an engaged community manager.  It isn’t difficult.

In an era when news is increasingly treated as a commodity by the market place, it’s essential for news site owners to recognize the true value of what it is they can deliver to an audience.  Among those values are trust, authenticity and a safe environment for participation and conversation. Registration can help us achieve those goals.

As I suggested previously, it isn’t a magic bullet, but it is a step toward better online communities.

Topix getting more aggressive in going after local information franchise

I’ve told you before, Topix is not your friend.  They’ve been taking your headlines and links, even your photos, and using them to build a community of people interested in those local topics, your franchise. And all the while, trying to build a local classified network of FREE classifieds.

Now comes word that they’re going after your event listings, your business listings and your movie listings.

So why are you still letting them scrape your headlines and links?

It would be one thing if they were sending you traffic, but they’re not.

Topix wants to own your local information franchise.  How much help are you willing to give them?

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

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.

Kentucky lawmaker wants to ban anonymity

A government law requiring online posters to provide real identity strikes me as a tad unconstitutional, but it’s worth noting.

Kentucky Representative Tim Couch filed a bill this week to make anonymous posting online illegal.

The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site.

Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted.

While I believe newspapers should know the identity of people posting to their site (or at least make an honest effort to gather real identity), it seems some level of anonymity on the Web is +1 for society.

Besides, the law would be unworkable.  It’s unconstitutional because it smacks of the government trying to prohibit speech it finds objectionable (going far beyond merely banning hate speech); it’s an unenforceable burden on publishers to expect them to enforce real identity with 100 percent certainty; and the way the web is built, it is absolutely impossible to require real identity.

Unique job opportunity with GateHouse Media

Here is a chance to do something completely different.

GateHouse Media is looking for two ambitious, entrepreneurial individuals to help us reinvent local journalism.

The ideal candidate:

  • A recent college graduate (or graduating this spring)
  • At least six months experience blogging
  • Capable of shooting and editing his or her own video
  • Ready to do more than sit in an office and make phone calls or pull the latest agenda item from a city council meeting and try to turn it into a story
  • Believes in local news and local community and sees a role for journalism in helping a community communicate and learn about what is happening in that community

In this job, you will have a chance to define a new role for community journalists. You will be doing more than trying to shove five W’s and an H into an inverted pyramid. This job is about figuring out what a community of people really wants from its local community site.

What we’re looking for is people who can work on their own, willing to try new things and not be bound “that’s how it’s always been done.”  You will be expected to be responsible for coming up with new ideas for your site, both in coverage and presentation, and for growing audience.

We will provide you with the technology and tools to get the job done.  We will expect you to grow readership and participation.

Chances are you will be required to relocate.

Applicants should e-mail me at howens -at- gatehouse media (oneword) dot com.

Newsaper sites should guard against abuse of Section 230

I’ve written before about the value of newspaper web sites trying to create community around profile/registration systems, and possibly even working toward requiring real identity.

Here’s another reason: Allowing unfettered anonymity could spur Congress to take away the protections of Section 230 for internet postings.

I thought of this while reading TechCrunch about JuicyCampus, a site that openly allows anonymous comments about fellow students. Naturally, the site is filling up with hate and bile.

Section 230 is important to our industry. It gives us a greater latitude in creating community than we would have without such protections. Losing that protection would be a serious blow to our audience growth prospects.

There are all kinds of sound journalistic reasons to run online communities in a responsible fashion. Protecting Section 230 is just another reason to set up communities that require some checks and balances.

Also, this recent post from Mark Potts is a very important round up of the key issues surrounding participation associated with news stories.  You can really learn all you need to know on this topic from that single post.

I need more friends on Digg … maybe

If you’re on Digg, you can find me here.

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to start trying out Digg.  There is a perception out there that Digg isn’t as good as it used to be, since it got away from its tech roots.  I actually find it more interesting now.  It does surface some pretty amazing stuff that I might otherwise miss.

It’s a little difficult to submit items (Scott Karp did right with Publish2 by creating a tool bar), but I’ve been making a submission here and there (and not just my own stuff).  But with only three or four friends, and not much of a reputation, my original submissions get little notice.

Maybe if I had more friends … I don’t know … my participation in Digg is still in the “experiment” stage … so next step is to see if having more friends does anything for me.

Too much, too easy anonymity is a bad thing

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.

More on Keven Kelly here. His personal site starts here.

Previously: Real identity helps foster healthy communities.

Covering Super Tuesday socially

If you need something to spice up your Super Tuesday, why not help cover it socially? Check out the Publish2 Super Tuesday project.

There’s a huge opportunity to help voters find the best election coverage in the sea of election content. Yeah, you can do it by yourself — but on the web, the larger the network, the more influential the linking — time to break down those traditional media silos.

Great chance to learn and experiment with journalists using web 2.0 tools to engage audience.

UPDATE: More on Super Tuesday … a regular reader from the Chicago Tribune dropped sends along word that they’ll be doing interactive video chats tomorrow.

Why newspaper sites will continue to struggle with reader participation

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?

Not much.

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.