Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news

I’m trying quite hard to stay out of the business of chasing after curmudgeons with a laptop in my hand, shouting “But you got it all wrong!”

Trying. Quite. Hard.

So let this be just a generic blanket response to a common misconception about the business of online news.

The premise, as laid out in hand-wringers running in handsome op-ed columns in handsome print editions all over the world, periodically:

If only newspapers had charged for online access to the news when this whole Interweb thing got started, they wouldn’t be in such a mess right now.

This, my friends, is a false assumption.

So here’s the deal: Putting the news behind a paywall as early as, say, AOL’s heyday – or earlier if you prefer – would have actually served to accelerate the rise of blogs, citizen media, and flight away from news-on-paper.

Why?

Because pulling your content out of the stream of connections that is the Web would have led to members of your community making even more connections themselves, without your help.

Newspapers would have essentially ceded the public forum to the public, an admirable and honorable move, but not a profitable one.

Make it harder for a person to get informed about their surroundings through your product all you want, but please don’t walk around assuming you’re The Only Game In Town.

That’s a topic for a different post, but rest assured that your readers know how to communicate with each other without your help.

They’re not as dumb as you think.

Keep your code of conduct out of my communication medium, thank you kindly

Let’s be clear, here: There are trolls everywhere.

On the letters to the editor pages of our newspapers, on every daytime television talk show, not to mention most hours of cable news, at the table next to us at the coffee shop, the halls of Congress, and yes, in the blogosphere.

These trolls are people who want our attention, and will say nasty things to get it, even if it is negative attention.

This is not breaking news.

And yet, after an episode of what I will only describe as an online display of malice beyond what many people say they find acceptable, regardless of what they watch on television, there is an outcry for a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct.”

To which I say, thank you kindly for thinking of all us little folk out here in the wilderness living nasty brutish lives in an online state of nature, but we can figure out for ourselves how to be nice to one another. The marketplace of ideas on the Web is vast enough that anyone looking for malice can find it if they choose to, and anyone looking to avoid it can do the same.

So take your code of conduct, your rules for civility, your attitude, and your badges, and politely shove them back in the regulatory cave of conduct.

I’ll be out here in the real world, without a badge or a license or a rulebook, communicating freely.

Comment trouble at the Arizona Daily Star

Danny Sanchez points out an explainer from the Executive Editor of the Arizona Daily Star on why comments were deleted from some stories:

“While we created the reader comments feature to give readers a place to talk, StarNet is still our house. And our editors and staff simply do not want guests who make vulgar, abusive, obscene, defamatory and hateful comments. If you want to live in that kind of neighborhood, go create your own online forum.”

First things first, if you’re going to edit individual comments and threads, chances are you’ll have a harder time defending your paper against libel and defamation suits regarding statements made in those comments.

Second things second, that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on? E-mail me if you don’t want to, er, comment publicly.

Third of all, I’m betting this robust commenting system has a function where you can check a box for each story in the system Comments On or Comments Off. Use it.

Cases where comments-on is probably an inappropriate choice:

Cases where comments-on makes perfect sense:

  • every single opinion and editorial piece published in your paper
  • any feature story
  • any enterprise story
  • anything on style, tech, food, arts, entertainment, media, business, sports

What am I missing? What’s a Comments-On story and what’s a Comments-Off story?

Cast your vote…in the comments on this post.

…a bonus point for everyone who knows why the comments thread on that Daily Star note is exactly 255 comments long…

How to juggle multimedia and Digg interactivity

In two back-channel online news discussions this week, folks have been debating how newspapers should be gathering video and how they should handle comment moderation.

The video discussion among Howard Owens, Mindy McAdams, and others, is notable because the question is no longer IF newspapers should be running video online (Yes) or HOW they should be presenting it online (Flash), but How they should be gathering it, Who should be doing the shooting, and What sort of video should they be offering viewers?

On a theoretical note, this could be an indication that newspaper video has taken a step out of the early adoption phase and toward take-up — but that’s not what my thesis is about.

My thesis (still in the way-early stages of paperwork and preliminary data gathering) is about the adoption of interactivity.

A quick primer:

  • Multimedia journalism uses more than one communication medium to tell a story. (Go figure.)
  • Interactivity in a technical/graphical sense gives your readers buttons to push and click to navigate their way through a story.
  • Interactivity in a participatory sense gives your readers/viewers/users a space to talk back to the newspaper and each other.

On the online news e-mail discussion list that Jay Small pointed to, there’s a mention of Slashdot-style comment moderation, and I’ll speak to that by pointing my colleagues over to Digg, where they’ll find a variation on Slashdot’s moderation points theme.

Pick a post on the front page of Digg and click on the comments link:

Now take a look at those little thumbs up and down on the right of each comment.

Close up of Digg Comments page

Readers participate in comment moderation by “digging” or burying comments. You can only do this when registered and logged in.

No need to assign points, moderate the moderators, or worry about coming off as censors.

Instead, you let the readers most authoritative and passionate about the topic (registered users bothering to click through to the comments on a particular story/message board posting/blog entry) do the work for you.

They’ll be happier, and you’ll be happier.

I’m planning on taking a closer look at Pligg, an open-source CMS tool based largely on the Digg interface.

What are some other ways we can harness the wisdom of the crowd without muzzling it?

The truth about online community building at newspapers

Let’s get something out of the way here.

From an idealistic, do-gooder, journalistic point-of-view, building a community around/at/affiliated with your newspaper’s Web site is all about giving people a place to talk to each other, find like-minded individuals, debate, discuss, share, and participate in local and far-flung news.

That’s great. In fact, it’s so great that I believe in it and talk about and think every newspaper should be doing what they can to create online communities where local readers can gather in a public forum.

But that’s not how you sell the idea in the conference room.

You sell it like this:

Community = page views.

Advertisers still love page views. Call them views, impressions, or measure them as visits instead, but newspapers sell advertising based on how many readers/users check out the site every day. That’s how our advertisers know how many eyeballs are on their ads. Yes, there’s been lots of back and forth about the Death of Page Views, and the unimportance of eyeballs, but in the news business, I’m pretty sure this is still the metric in question. Stop me if I’m wrong.

At the same time, a newspaper needs to develop more than just page views in order to keep readers coming back for more.

It needs to develop its brand.

If your readers/users/participators are going to plant their little blog/wiki/forum flags on your URL, you’re going to need a Brand they trust.

On the other side of the ink waterfall, developing a community online gives your former audience a stronger allegiance to your print edition.

There’s a lot more to this.

Ross Mayfield covers some of the bases, including the sort of off-the-newspaper-site branded functionality you can give your users to draw them in for more than just headlines.

Mindy McAdams wonders whether urban sprawl makes communities based on something other than geography a bit more viable.

How is your newspaper learning to offer more than just the news in order to draw the local community into your online community?

Don’t fear the user-created content?

Do online news sites need to reinvent uploading and editing tools to gather user-created content?

Steve Outing says no, making the case that YouTube, Google Video, and myriad third place finishers do the heavy lifting, hosting the video and spitting out the little block of code that a user can paste into a post in your community site’s forums.

That’s fine for a community page, and inappropriate posts can always be deleted as necessary, but would you open up a news site to this sort of unfiltered visual participation?

Chi-Town Daily News, which calls itself “an online newspaper written by and for Chicago residents,” is posting photos pulled from a Flickr tag.

We considered that idea at the Spartan Daily last semester, but opted to ask readers to just send us their photos by e-mail instead. Why? Mostly to prevent anything obscene from making it to the online pages of the Daily, but also because it seemed easier for non-Web2.0-savvy readers to figure out.

Citizen Journalism sites are a great place to try this out, although the number of digital vandals in a narrow audience will probably always be smaller than those reading a major metropolitan newspaper’s site. The readers at a hyperlocal or topical site are there on purpose. The few rotten strawberries at a gazillion page view online news site might make work for moderators faster than you can say wikitorial.

What do you think? Would you let readers post video and photos, depending on moderators to weed out obscenity and libel?

No really, listen to your readers

Jeff Jarvis runs down another list of advisements to local news organizations trying to stay relevant online.

“7. Start a Digg edition. Go ahead and make your front page. But allow readers to tell you what they think is most important on their front page and let that guide your resource and news judgments.”

I like that one. Whatever the new NYTimes.com’s “My Times” is going to be is one option, although then you’re just seeing what you want to see instead of what everyone want to see. Another flavor is the branded aggregator, of the sort that Newsweek/Newsgator rolled out recently. The Guardian’s got one of their own, and anyone could really do it, but that’s not what #7 on Jeff’s list is after.

A Diggified newspaper site would need a commenting system, and everyone who clicked on “Your Mercury News” (just using the Merc for example’s sake…) would see the same dynamic page, the numbers of recommendations of each story, and could click through to read the story and comments. Not that difficult, really.

Some of Jeff’s other suggestions aren’t on my own top 10 list, like letting readers vote on what a reporter should cover (one story at a time could fly, but not beat by beat), or holding Meetups. I’m not sure we really want reporters physically interacting with readers in quite that direct a way. For all the flamewargarbage one finds online, it sure does feel like a safer way to talk to the public than handshakes and pretzels. Maybe this depends on the setting — I think this could work as an event hosted by the news org for the public to talk to each other and the editors, but it’s too easy for this to become an Us vs. Them disaster.

Blogging the news meeting makes sense to me, but asking the public which beats to eliminate when layoffs roll around is going to leave some readers feeling cheated – whoever doesn’t get what they want isn’t going to take it out on their fellow readers; they’ll take it out on management.

SO, readers: How much “listening” is too much? Is providing readers with their own space to choose-the-news-they-use enough, or should there be a virtual reader in the room when all the big decisions are made?