On IdeaLab: Reporter-turned-blogger covers the island of Alameda

Over at the PBS IdeaLab blog, I interviewed Michele Ellson, editor and publisher at The Island, a local news site devoted to covering the city of Alameda, which sits to the west of Oakland in San Francisco Bay. (Yes, it’s an island.)

Michele left newspapers in 2007 and launched The Island in early 2008, continuing a 17+ year journalism career.  I worked with Michele on the regional desk at ANG, before it became BANG, but you know it more informally as the cluster of newspapers in the Bay Area owned by MediaNews.  Back then, she was an investigative/enterprise reporter winning awards for a long series on the failures of group homes for young people and the developmentally disabled.

I talked with Michele about moving from a print-focused newsroom to a Web-only culture where she is the reporter, editor, community manager, and communications officer of her own organization:

“That’s another thing that I think was a shock for me in moving from print to online – the shift in what your readers want and expect from you in terms of their psychic needs (which shift from information to attention-getting, sometimes) and the kind of engagement they anticipate. I figure it’ll take a lot of work for me to fine-tune that engagement level.”

Read the whole thing at IdeaLab.

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.

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!

Dear Blogosphere, There’s more to newspapers than The New York Times

I’ve been holding back on this for a long time, and I write enough about the Web development team at nytimes.com enough to be held to this as well, but really, I’m incredibly tired of reading media and technology bloggers debate the future of news as if the only existing newspaper in the world is The New York Times or other papers of its size, scope, or readership.

Here’s a link to an extremely incomplete list of all the newspapers in the U.S. on Wikipedia.

So please, when you talk about “newspapers” or “the future of news” or anything of the sort, please stop thinking about what will replace The New York Times.  The answers to that are obvious, and we see them now at Politico and HuffPo and niche blogs and even Twitter from time to time.

The far, far more interesting question, from my point of view, is what will replace all those other, smaller, newspapers on that long list, especially the ones in towns without blankets of TV coverage, or public radio, or an existing blog community.

The massive changes in the way we get informed that everyone can easily see the negative (for newspapers) evidence of in the form of major metro layoffs and cratering circulation numbers certainly are taking longer to fully filter down to smaller newspapers in smaller towns, but they are certainly filtering down.

So, if it’s journalism that you’re interested in saving, please don’t worry about solving the problem of the NYT.  Worry about solving the problem of keeping communities informed about themselves as what used to be the easiest way to do so becomes economically unwise.

As the printing press fades from memory, the question isn’t going to be, how do you feel about there being no New York Times, it’s going to be something like:  How do you feel about how much you know about your world?

My world happens to be both bigger and smaller than all the news that’s fit to publish.

/minor rant