A brash public personality running a newspaper: Is this German editor a throwback or a modern rock star?
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.
While I would certainly prefer that you do something potentially productive with your time other than whine about how little of it you have, I’m particularly pleased that so many of you (almost 2,000 comments as of this morning) have found it.
That’s right, I’m happy to see you there, because to find it, you must have either been reading about journalism online, or you have a friend who does. So, whine on. At least you know how to use a Web browser, which is a plus.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent uplifting comment from Angry Journalist #1973:
“I can accept the low pay, low respect, uncompensated overtime, etc.
What I can’t accept are these jag offs who talk about the importance of community journalism but keep me from wandering through the community looking for worthwhile things to write about. The most important thing j-schools should teach is that the largest obstacle a reporter has to overcome daily are the people that logically should be helping him but are too worried about covering their own asses to let him explore instead of punching a time clock at the copy factory.”
(Not pictured: HappyJournalist.com.)
We talk a lot in the circles I run in about a new skillset for reporters and about how a wired journalist in 2008 should be keeping up with the technologies and communities that are quickly looking like Michael Johnson in 1996, looking back at newspapers over their shoulder, smugly.
Yoni Greenbaum walks right into the glass office and says editors need a heaping bowl of New as well:
“If I was a publisher, corporate officer or even an employee, I would want an editor who is active online; who blogs and uses Facebook and MySpace; who has a digital camera and knows how use it and how to upload those images; who has a cell phone that use beyond just work emergencies; who knows how to identify Flash applet on a website; who knows that Ruby on Rails is not a MySpace band; who uses a newsreader; I could go on, but the point is the old skill set of paying their dues and being a wordsmith and possibly an amateur accountant just does not cut it anymore, honestly it hasn’t cut it for a long time.”
Plenty more where that came from.
If I were a reporter looking for work, I’d be looking for a gig somewhere where the editor has a GMail address for his or her personal e-mail. That’s a simple barometer, but the second I see a potential boss reach for the Hotmail bookmark in IE6 during an interview, I get a little queasy.