News Leadership 3.0

May 07, 2008

Keeping comments clean

News organizations find balance
in monitoring user comments
How does your site encourage debate?

News organizations seem to have a love-hate relationship with user comments. As I mentioned earlier, journalists often respond to the topic with eye-rolls, forlorn sighs or frustrated shrugs.

Clark Hoyt, Public Editor at The New York Times, typified a somewhat grudging view last fall, when the Times began allowing comments on a few stories. The newspaper, Hoyt wrote, “is struggling with a vexing problem. How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?”

I would turn that around. While recognizing the challenges that offensive comments pose, I think sites will have more success if they focus on what their users experience and less on self-image (which is not the same as credibility).  Perhaps the question for news organizations is something like this: “What can we do to create an online environment that engages our community, empowers people to share their perspectives, and encourages them to suggest fresh, relevant angles and stories?”

Obviously, a free-for-all that allows offensive comments does not foster such an environment. Rigid control of comments, including screening them before publication, as the Times does, is the opposite end of the pole. It may work for the lofty Times, but the practice sends a message of distrust and takes resources that might better serve journalism in the public interest elsewhere.

Many news organizations have moved to a middle ground of practice. As I noted here, the Miami Herald recently moved from an open, anonymous system to a registration system in an effort to clean up site comments. Another newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, recently dropped the practice of previewing comments.

“We switched earlier this year to moderating comments after they are posted automatically. We put in a flagging system that allows users to object to comments for various reasons. Previously, we reviewed every comment before it went up.  It was very labor intensive, not immediate and we couldn’t keep up,” says Ken Chavez, assistant managing editor for interactive media at the Bee.
“The flagging system has greatly reduced the number of comments we have to review.  A flagged comment comes off the site and is sent to a queue for our review. We either delete the comment all together or restore it to the site, where it can no longer be flagged since it has already passed muster.”

In Newark, The Star-Ledger also requires registration and relies on post-publication monitoring by a central Advance Internet Interactivity Group.

“Members of the group monitor comments, forum posts, user-submitted photos and videos and contributions to our new public blogs. In each of these areas, there are also tools that allow users to alert the group about inappropriate content,” says John Hassell, deputy managing editor. “Newsroom staffers have the ability to remove inappropriate content, but we rarely do; instead, we alert the interactivity group, and they act quickly. Generally speaking, this system works well, and the level of interaction on our sites is very high. The quality of discourse varies wildly, of course, but there is no question that user contributions make our sites better and more engaging. ... Ultimately the quality of the discourse is driven by our community of users, and the more open and accessible we are, the better.”

Encouraging users to report inappropriate comments is key: It helps assure a productive discourse and it reflects new rules of user ownership on the Web. And if comments on a particular story or topic get out of hand, the site always has the last resort of simply shutting comments down while things cool off.

If you are thinking about how to handle comments on your site, here are a couple of resources:
Amy Gahran’s tips on Poynter Online.
Rich Gordon’s advice (via Beth Lawton at Newspaper Association of America)

If you recommend additional resources or have tips and experiences to share, please do so in the comments. (And keep it clean grin)

May 06, 2008

Search optimization tips

A good SEO primer
for news sites

Mark Glaser at PBS Media Shift has a thorough and easy-to-follow list of steps news sites can take to draw more traffic.
Do you have more tips to share?

April 28, 2008

In Miami, a Reader Exchange Editor

New newsroom job tracks blogs, comments, online traffic
Herald becomes more sophisticated about the Web
How is your newsroom handling interactivity?

imageThe job title caught my eye right away. Reader Exchange Editor, Miami Herald. Exchange Editor. Exchange. It’s the first time I’ve heard a reader-related job title at a major news organization that captures the idea that digital interaction is a two-way, even multiple-way street. (Please let me know if there are others.)
The new Reader Exchange Editor, Shelley Acoca, got my attention quickly too. The challenge of user content and comments often induces eye-rolls, forlorn sighs or frustrated shrugs from those who have to manage it. Two minutes into a phone conversation with Acoca, I thought: She’s up to her eyeballs in this stuff and she’s loving it!
This is the second of two posts on the Miami Herald. As I explained here, Miami participated in Knight Digital Media Center’s Leadership Conference in 2007 and has implemented a number of organizational changes since then.
Like many news organizations, the Herald is learning an important new dance with readers. Rick Hirsch, Managing Editor/Multimedia, said creating the position was a recognition of the importance of user interaction to the future of the news organization.
“We feel pretty strongly here that the whole area of user content and comments and sharing of our our content, the desire people have to interact with our news is a really important part of our future. It’s an undeniable way things work now. We were moving into that space enthusiastically but randomly.” Hirsch said. So the Herald decided “We ought to have a really smart journalist engage with this content, interacting with people, studying how this develops, and really developing a strategy for us for this whole aspect of news and information in the digital space.”
Enter Acoca, who had shown her enthusiasm for developing user content in print and online with efforts including an art contest and a Hispanic cartoon contest as features editor.
Since taking over as Exchange Editor late last year,  Acoca has focused on:
- Bloggers. Hirsch said the idea was to elevate the quality of the Herald’s blogs, challenging bloggers the same way editors challenge other journalists. Acoca edits bloggers, as well as columnist Leonard Pitts. Her responsibilities include how-to coaching (what’s a widget?), working with journalists to develop concepts for successful blogs, and coordinating live chats. With the help of Mindy McAdams, Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of Florida, Acoca developed these guidelines for bloggers.
Acoca’s advice for new bloggers?
“Shout about your blog from the rooftops. Email your sources, other bloggers, bloggers you don’t know. Getting the word out is critical in insuring long-term success.
“And, oh yeah, have fun—this is *your* space in a way a traditional newspaper can’t be—the words, the pictures, the videos, the widgets. It offers a broad range of ways to express yourself. Experiment. Learn. Enjoy.”
- User comments. Under Acoca’s guidance, MiamiHerald.com recently began requiring commenters to register, a switch that has mostly cleaned up offensive commenting and cut the total number of comments in about half. Based on the experience of other McClatchy newspapers, Acoca hopes that the number will slowly increase over time. “Mostly people have gotten it or they’ve gone elsewhere. It was very few people who were posting lots of bad comments all day long,” Acoca said. Since registration began in mid-March, Acoca said she has had to deny access to about one commenter per week for using offensive language after being warned.
Acoca is very enthusiastic about the value of commenting. Comments, she says, are a way for the public to get information that journalists might not be able to get.
- Online traffic. Acoca is trying to provide MiamiHerald.com with a more sophisticated view of its online traffic, particularly tracking readers of different content seem to go onto the site so the Web site can serve up updates at times that make the most sense for different topics and readers.

Acoca is on the frontline of the changing role of news organizations in the digital age. “Part of it is community building. We aren’t the ones who are going to do that. We’re the facilitators. We should let other people take that ball and run with it. It’s worth reading the stuff that people put up there. they have some really good ideas. Newspapers lost ground for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons might be that we were victims of our own arrogance. we served up the same menu every day. The food we liked as opposed to the food they liked. Now we’re giving readers choices.”

Acoca also has a good vantage point for seeing change in the culture of the Miami newsroom. “We’re all learning together. That’s created a more collegial situation. It’s all learning from each other. There’s not big expert who can teach you everything any more. It’s a much more egalitarian thing.”

First, the leadership emphasized that she didn’t need to have all the answers right away. Rick Hirsch told her ” ‘Don’t worry if you have days when you don’t know what to do with yourself,’ ” Acoca recalls. I did have a lot of those days. There’s no map.”

If I were starting a new and challenging job, I think that’s one of the most helpful things the boss could say.

What are your strategies for engaging with the public online? Please join the conversation.

Patrick Hogan offered this comment when I mentioned the Reader Exchange Editor in an earlier post:
“The Reader Exchange Editor position is intriguing, although it’s something smaller papers (which you’ll find frequently have the same volume of comments or more), can’t afford”

That’s a very good point. At the same time, your newsroom might consider allocating even a few hours a week of a journalist’s time to reader issues that are a priority. For example, someone might be able to spend a few hours each week analyzing online traffic. Or developing resources on blogging and training bloggers. Try to identify the activity that will help your organization the most, right now. Set realistic goals and tease out a little time each week. I think you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.

 

April 18, 2008

A roadmap to blogging

Mindy McAdams outlines newsroom training for bloggers

Mindy McAdams offers a link-studded outline of her blogging training for newsrooms. Looks like a great training resource.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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