But will they pay in Peoria?

But will they pay in Peoria?: Journal Star website launching metered format.

That’s one of GateHouse Media’s largest papers/sites in terms of readership, launching a metered access plan (15 free stories a month, unlimited views of “public service news”) with pricing tiers for print subscribers and non-subscribers.

The paywall is being handled by Press+ (neé Journalism Online), and if you were paying attention way back in the day when they announced the incredibly large number of papers signed up to do business with them, you’ll note with a sense of smug confirmation that GateHouse owns around 350 papers.

(Disclosure: I used to work at GateHouse, but I wasn’t involved in any sort of paid content investigation at the time whatsoever.)

Customer service, community management, and comment threads

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been on one side (or quite possibly the other) of an exchange that goes something like this:

PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Sentinel, this is Ryan, how can I help you?
USER: Your website’s all wrong.
PANWWRJ: Really? What’s wrong?
USER: You don’t use XMLT 4.1. It’s still on 4.05. And your feeds are all gunked up with UTF-7. And your reporters talk too much about the city council. They should be writing stories about what the county commission is doing to the street in front of my house! And why can’t I read your forums on my jailbroken Palm Pilot? I can read the [LARGE NEWSPAPER LOCATED ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT]’s blogs on it just fine.
PANWWRJ: Interesting.

Fun, right? Right? Guys?

OK, so maybe it isn’t that much fun to take that call.

But why do we get them? Do print readers give us as much input? What’s the ratio of letters-to-the-editor sent by mail to the number of website comments expressing an opinion on an issue?

Paul Ford, who you might vaguely remember as the guy responsible for scanning and cataloging the archives of Harper’s a few years back, has given the phenomenon illustrated in the above call transcript a name:

Why Wasn’t I Consulted?

Read his piece on the Web as a customer service medium. Now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

To loosely paraphrase, summarize, and otherwise interpret his thesis, for those of you that insisted on continuing to scan this post without pause:

The Web, and related communication methods, provide the instant gratification of a little “swoosh” sound as we send our opinions off into the ether, and a “ding” as they arrive in inboxes, as text messages, or even a handsome little bit of javascript that refreshes a “thumbs up” count next to a comment on a news article as we mash the little thumb in earnest, albeit truncated, appreciation of what’s been said.

Instant gratification.

Funny thing about instant gratification, however, is that it’s the perfect way to set the expectation that my swooshing e-mail, my dinging text message, and my refreshing little thumbs-up have an effect, a value, an importance. When my vote is added to the poll results, I feel I have been consulted on the issue.

Here’s Paul Ford on “Why Wasn’t I Consulted”:

It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Let’s go back to our call transcript, and see what our news website user is trying to express, exactly.

USER: I am important, and my opinion matters.
PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Of course you are, and it does. Honest.
USER: So next time you decide to upgrade your webserver to Venus 5.89 instead of Mars 4.12, you should ask me about it first. Why Wasn’t I Consulted? I probably know more than you about it, anyway.

A-ha.

Sound familiar?

“My readers know more than I do.” — Dan Gillmor

So if we’ve established that the Web is the best medium ever to feed the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” need, and we’ve established that in the broad, overarching sense of the relationship of a single reporter to the public at large connected by the Web, that our readers know more than we do, what are we doing to tap into that need and that knowledge?

Well, there’s an obvious spot on news sites where we can tap in, but we don’t always.

Comment threads.

A few ideas:

  • At the bare minimum, it’s easy to recommend that reporters pay some amount of attention to comment threads on the stories they report.
  • Giving users an up and down voting mechanism on individual comments is probably also a prerequisite to doing this efficiently.
  • From there, your reporters should now have a way to sort comments based on the thumbing-up users have taken care of for you. (Wasn’t that nice of them?)
  • Now, rather than jumping in to rehash, argue, or troll-feed the problem users (whose comments have now been voted down, and in an ideal world of commenting systems, you’ve collapsed and made all but invisible in the thread), your reporters can evaluate the best comments in the thread and participate, clarify, answer questions, or even just say “Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea and we’ll look into it.”
  • That’s that kind of feedback that meets a user’s WWIC need at a much higher level. Even if you’re just engaging users to say “thank you,” they’re now participating in a conversation instead of a one-way rant/complaint/critique, and are likely to behave accordingly.

If you’re a social media manager, or a community manager, or an online editor, or a web producer, or bear the weight of some other title that involves this sort of work, you’re probably already doing this, right?

More to think about

Metafilter founder Matt Haughey — and if you know anything about Metafilter, you know they do WWIC right — tells a story about spending a few hours in an airport with Craig Newmark:

“He was literally chasing down forum spammers one by one, sometimes taking five minutes per problem, sometimes it seemed to take half an hour to get spammers dealt with. He was totally engrossed in his work, looking up IP addresses, answering questions best he could, and doing the kind of thankless work I’d never seen anyone else do with so much enthusiasm.”

Is that how you handle customer service?

If not, what sort of software and systems would make the job easier?

Be a silobuster

Remember the great print vs. online war of 1995-2005?

Well, some of you are probably still fighting this war, eh? Not everyone got the news yet, but the war is over, and the silobusters won.

Anyway, you’re going to think this is crazy, but lately I’ve spotted a new silo developing, over there in the corner office.

It’s the mobile silo.

Wait, wait, before you go, I’m not the crazy one here; I know how important mobile delivery of information is, and I know you need to pay special attention to it, and I know that people like me have been telling folks at newspapers and media companies for years that they should be paying special attention, too.

But I see a funny thing happening, in large media companies and in job listings — I see mobile as a full department being split off from the Web or “online” silo. Yes, yes, some of you are doing a great job at calling the whole department “digital,” and if it works for you, go for it.

Now, I’m not here to tell you how to run your silos, and I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to do it, if only to make sure there’s someone responsible for iPad app development and WAP sites and a text alert strategy and heck, let’s throw Android into this sentence, too, just to make sure we don’t offend anyone.

What I wanted to say was this:

As always, there’s a huge job opportunity for individuals who make a habit of busting silos. If you’re the person who can get mobile, Web, and print teams on the same (ahem) page, make sure each knows what the others are up to, and help them not repeat work or work at cross-purposes, you might be a silobuster.

Let’s make a short list out of this.

You might be a silobuster if:

  1. At summer camp, you were friends with kids from at least four different cliques. (This was a harder trick to pull in school, just as it’s a harder trick to pull at a large corporation.)
  2. You’re equally at home talking about CSS, CS5, and CB4.
  3. Your idea of “playing politics” is walking into someone’s office and asking them a straightforward question.

What else should be on this list? Jump on in anytime here, folks…

Conclusion: You should expect media companies and news organizations to continue to find reasons (some of them good ones) to segment off different types of development and delivery of news, but if you can see the big picture of how it all fits together — or even better, build the tools that make it all fit together — there’s work for you in this business.