Newspapers get the kind of communities they deserve

Mathew Ingram on one reason, among others he covers here, on why reporters should get involved with the community frequenting their stories: “Another thing that seems to escape many journalists is the direct connection between their own indifference to interacting with readers and the parlous state of their comments. If my research has taught me anything — not to mention writing columns and a blog for 15 years — it is that the surest way to improve the tone of the debate in forums or comments is to get involved in them.”

Newspapers get the kind of communities they deserve

Why commenting on news sites still stinks: Further notes on the commenting survey results

The most striking conclusion I’ve come to based on the results of the commenting survey that 49 online news folks answered over the last week or two was this:

Commenting on news stories is still broken.  Busted.  Stinks.  It’s a mudpit.  Still.

I’ve been writing about how to improve commenting on news sites for a couple years now, but all my ideas — and really, most of the systems I’m borrowing ideas from — are technological solutions.

And that’s fine, and good, and necessary, but the feeling I’m walking away from these survey results with is the feeling that no matter what technical solution a news organization implements, there are still a set of very human problems to be solved in the newsroom if you really want to raise the quality of the comment threads on your stories.

In short, you can let readers “report as offensive” and ask questions and e-mail to a friend and vote comments up and down and recommend comments all day long, but if there’s not a journalist managing the community — participating in threads, asking and answering questions, and generally continuing the conversation — your comment threads will stay a mudpit, all technology, identity, and registration aside.

So here are a few ideas.  Thinking out loud here, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments here.

  • Take an hour or two one day, Web producer or online editor, and make sure every reporter and editor in the newsroom is registered (if necessary) for your site’s commenting system.  Send them their login and password information for it, and follow up at their desk — get them to log in while you stand there if you can.
  • Don’t make one staffer responsible for comment monitoring and moderation every day — rotate throughout the week.  Comment moderation can be a drag, frankly, and it’s easy to get sick of dealing with abuse reports and reader complaints.   Let a few people take a turn, and invite editors and reporters to join in, even if it’s just for a few hours at a time.
  • Take the crazy Air Force flowchart seriously!  Make your own and print it out for comment moderators as a basic guide to which commenters to engage in conversation and when to let trolls have their say.
  • If you’re an online editor or Web producer who sends out a daily or weekly e-mail to the newsroom with a list of popular stories or recommended reading, add a comment of the day to that message, or tack it up on the bulletin board.

What else?  Again, we’re looking to work on the human (as in, your newsroom staff) issues, not the technological ones, for the moment, at least.

Commenting survey results

For a couple years now, I’ve been working with editors, reporters, and commenters on news sites taking the following hypothesis as a given:

Commenters will be the most civil in the place that is the most public.

For example, I expected commenters on news stories, where more people could see their words, to be more civil than commenters on blog posts on a news site, which theoretically have a smaller audience, and I expected the worst of the lot to show up on message boards, buried deep in the bowels of the sites that haven’t flushed them from their systems yet.

I was wrong.

A quick question or two on Twitter gave me enough anecdotal evidence to justify whipping up a quick Google form as a simple survey on commenting for news site managers.

Onward to the results, based on 49 responses as of the morning of January 7, 2009:

  • 23 of you said commenters are the most civil in threads on blog posts; 7 of you said they are most civil on news stories; 3 of you said they are most civil on message boards.

Where are commenters the most well-behaved on your news site?

The following came from a respondent who said commenters are most civil on blog posts and least civil on news stories:

“News stories tend to be about controversy or negative topics: crime, scandals, politics, social issues. These get people riled up, so the discourse is automatically polarized. The blogs are less issue-based, and more stories about life where people find more common ground and tend to relate to each other as real people, not just avatars.”

  • 33 of you said commenters are the least civil in threads on news stories; 5 of you said they are the least civil on blog posts; 6 of you said they are the least civil on message boards.

Where are commenters the least well-behaved on your news site?

For the contrary view, notes from a respondent who said commenters are most civil on news stories and least civil on blog posts:

“We moderate all news story comments and only take down blog post comments if they are offensive, spam or link to another site.”

The responses regarding anonymity were pretty mixed.  I asked where readers have the most and least anonymity when leaving comments on your news sites.  As expected, the answers vary, depending on your registration systems or the lack thereof.

Where do commenters have the most and least anonymity on your news site?

See what I mean?  Hard to pull any real clean takeaway from that, but let’s look into some other “Other” responses on these questions:

  • “all comments and forums require registered usernames, but we can’t track who the actual user is”
  • “n/a all comments are tied into the same registration system, so none are any more anonymous than others”

Plus a few more responses along the same lines, which is probably a good thing:  If that’s a trend, maybe news sites are doing a good job of integrating news, blogs, and other spaces for reader participation, so one login works everywhere on the site.  That’s no small feat.

Moving on to the goldmine of the other extra notes left by respondents:

(In the survey form, I said I would keep these responses anonymous, so I’ve edited out a couple key details. I think the responses have plenty of value without those details. You’ll see my brackets where relevant.)

On civility:

“We have nearly as many trolls or comments in general on blogs as stories. I wonder if there is a relationship between volume and civility rather than form and civility.”

“We think that readers at [major metro newspaper.com’s name removed] tend to be more civil on blogs because that is a “tended” space owned and overseen by a reporter, so getting out of line there would be  like yelling in someone’s house. Blog comment threads stay more civil even though its the only comment space on the site where we don’t require registration.”

On anonymity:

“Anonymity is a huge issue at our paper — many people believe it is the source of all our problems, while others believe that we need to have it or a lot of people who might provide valuable input just won’t comment at all.”

On systems:

“Traditional shovelware news articles do not ask questions, they act like they contain all available information on the subject. Most of the bile is on crime stories that can flare racial tensions, and the rest of it is typical conservative vs. liberal noise.”

On culture:

“We do little to “cultivate” our commenters and so the inmates have taken over the asylum.  We use [commenting vendor’s name removed] for comments and there is a way for users to flag offensive comments and if enough do the comment if removed, but this does not replace having responsible people weighing in and constructively guiding the conversations — which, by the way, is verboten.  Reporters are frowned upon for commenting on stories.”

On commenters:

“Our readers are vicious idiots who try only to out-zing the person before them. There is little meaningful discourse, and all comments tend to end up blaming minorities, Bush or liberals for the problems of the world.”

“Public comment is like an open sewer. But it keeps people coming back to our site.”

Bonus links:

A quick survey about comments on your news site

I have a little theory.

It’s my opinion that commenters — or anyone, really — is the most civil when they’re speaking in public and everyone can see who they are.

So, I think that news site commenters/readers are most civil on news story comments, then blog posts, then message board threads.  When I popped off about that on Twitter this morning, a bunch of you said “p’shaw” (to paraphrase).

So let’s gather some data, shall we?

This short survey is also posted at Wired Journalists. If you’d like to share it with your friends and colleagues without sending anyone to Wired Journalists or my blog, you can access it directly at http://tinyurl.com/civilcomments

I’ll share the results in a few days.

Thanks in advance!

What your news organization can learn from the Crunchberry project

First, two items for the glossary so I can make sorted references to mixed berries in this post:

Now that we have that out of the way, go check out Angela Nitzke’s Crunchberry post on the team’s “recommendations for journalists, news organizations and media companies.”  There’s a cluster of similar posts the team members have written since presenting the demo to the Cedar Rapids bunch last week, but this one is my favorite.

Here’s a clip:

Enlist young creative minds in developing your digital products. One way to do this, as the Gazette has done for our project, is to partner with universities and their students.  Another approach is to inject people from other fields (e.g.,  software developers).

[snip]

Teach people new tricks. Recruit programmers/developers and teach them how to integrate what they do with journalism, or collaborate with engineering schools. Teach journalists how to better their stories through the use of new technology. The more you know about these technologies the more you know how to make them work for you (and your story). If it’s not practical to teach the technology in journalism school, publicize opportunities to learn it elsewhere on campus and guide motivated students to resources they can use to teach themselves.”

Read the whole thing…

As for my feedback on the Newsmixer project, I think it has a huge amount of potential as a conversation vertical, along the lines of the Guardian’s Comment is Free.  I don’t see Newsmixer running as a mainstream news site, but as a place to substitute for outdated message boards or underused staff blogs.  Populate it with content from your news and opinion sections, and let it stand as the forum for reader feedback, use it as your primary source for comments, letters, and other reader-authored content to run in print.

Heck, if it gets big enough, print the letters and comments as a four page insert once a week, not just in a box on the opinion page.

Of course, because Newsmixer was borne from a Knight News Challenge project, the code is all open source and available to download and implement on your own.