News Leadership 3.0

November 05, 2009

Learning to love comments

Knoxville News Sentinel’s Jack Lail describes steps his organization took to improve the online conversation.

The hate-hate relationship between news organizations and commenters on their Web sites may be improving, thanks to smart journalists who see the value of engaging their users in discussion on line and are willing to develop strategies to make the conversation better for everyone.

Jack Lail, Director of News Innovation of the Knoxville News Sentinel, exemplifies that attitude. He shared his news organization’s approach to comments at a Webinar at Poynter’s News University Thursday.

The key, Lail said, is to get users involved in moderating the discussion.

“It starts with the users. We asked them to help us moderate what they found unacceptable on the site. We needs the ones who are commenting as wall as those who aren’t commenting to help us keep the conversation healthy.”

Lail outlined five steps to improving comments on
1. Give users tools to help manage the conversation.’s redesign this summer gave community members the ability for community to take down comments or ban users subject to approval by the staff.
2. Recognize mitigating factors. For example, misinformation in comments threads tends to be corrected pretty quickly by other users, Lail said.
3. Develop a strategic understanding.Underscore the value of comments to the news organization and use issues that arise as a springboard to conversation on best practices.
4.Put technology in service of goals.In addition to enabling users to flag inappropriate comments, allows users to hide comments, staff monitor comments from newly registered commenters and freezes comment threads or disallows them on certain stories. Knoxnews uses profanity filers. Editors and reporters can use RSS feeds to monitor comments.
5. Train the staff. The newsroom recently expanded the responsibity for monitoring comments to virtually every editor on the staff and reporters are encouraged to be present in comments on their stories—responding to commenter questions, for example. Lail said the newsroom has held brown bags to discuss issues around managing comments, including when to take them down or ban users, “terms of engagement” with users, and setting and enforcing boundaries of civil debate.

Lail’s organization focused on comments as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors Credibility Project and NewsU will present five more Webinars on APME credibility project. I was particularly interested in attending because civic engagement with news is a focus of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Lail said decided to look at comments after being inundated with racist and other unacceptable comments on stories about a horrific murder case in which the victims were white and the suspects black. In May, the news organization hosted a community forum that included the mother of one of the murder victims. As a result of that session, decided to “be more ruthless” about taking down offensive comments and banning trolls (users who live to pick fights) quickly.

Lail’s message—that comments can be kept civil and that they must be part of any news organization’s agenda—is an important one. The digital public isn’t going to be leaving the civic table any time soon. The real question is whether journalists and news organizations will play host to the public or it will find engagement elsewhere.

August 18, 2009

In California’s state finance meltdown, State Worker blog flourishes

Formula for success: Hot issue, big interest group and an inclusive approach make this blog’s most popular

The Sacramento Bee and blogger Jon Ortiz have a winning formula with the State Worker Blog, which recently passed its one-year anniversary chronicling California state government’s financial meltdown from the perspective of its employees.

It started with a hot running issue that’s lasted a lot longer than many expected. It has a well-defined constituency of about 240,000 state workers. It got 52,000 hits its first week in late July 2008, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to pay state workers only the federal minimum wage until he settled a budget dispute with the Legislature.

Since then, monthly hits have increased more than ten fold, it gets somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 unique visitors monthly and it’s the most popular blog on

Ortiz has taken those advantages a step further with the goal of covering “politics from the bottom up, instead of the traditional top down way” that focuses on officials,  press conferences and other events. “Instead my aim has always been to go from the ground up and talk about how the troops in the trenches see these battles.”

“It’s an exchange,” Ortiz said in an interview. “It’s not writing about them. It’s more than that. It’s letting their knowledge permeate the journalism.”

The result is a blog that attracts frequent comments. Ortiz said he also gets about 200 e-mails a day, many of them tips that turn into stories.

Ortiz estimates about half the blog commenters are state employees and about half are not. He targets a weekly print column at a more general readership.

He tries to post three times a day. “Many times the news will drive me beyond that.” Once he had 10 posts in a day. “The news just kept hammering me.”

Ortiz offered advice for anyone starting a blog:

1. Get to know your audience.
Get out and talk with people. Ortiz occasionally posts an open invitation to lunch on Twitter and 10-12 people may show up.

2. Pay attention to the comments.  Elevate comments that are particularly thoughtful or provocative into the main blog or set up a feature to highlight good comments. Respond to questions in comments. Let people know you’re looking at what they’re saying.

“There’s a lot of flaming between commenters, and sometimes they take shots at my journalism, but I view it all as part of the conversation,” Ortiz said. “And I sometimes get good tips or suggestions in comments, so I always read them.”

Ortiz is enthusiastic about the way the blog enables users to participate. “There’s no way we can learn everything there is to know about state government. There are people who know more than we do. We can fight that or we can embrace it and I chose to embrace.”

July 01, 2009

BlogHer: Keeping the conversation civil

The mega network of women bloggers fosters a clean online conversation with clear guidelines and engaged users. “The Internet is perfect for passionate debate about issues people really care about. However, these debates must stop short of abusive behavior ...  if the community is going to thrive,” says CEO Lisa Stone

I still hear complaints from journalists at established news organizations about vile comments posted on their sites and the amount of time they spend monitoring them (either before or after the comments go live). Sadly, the frustration gets between journalists and communities they need to engage.

BlogHer is a network of women bloggers that reaches about 14 million women each month. With thousands of bloggers and such a large audience, you might expect a deluge of problematic comments, right?

Not so, says BlogHer CEO Lisa Stone. Other than SPAM, take downs are fairly rare, Stone says. She believes having clear guidelines for comments and engaging users in helping enforce them is key. Guidelines, Stone emphasizes, not rules that limit expression.

“The First Amendment is a key part of my personal religion as a journalist. And I don’t believe in a universal code of conduct for all sites on the Internet—sites on the Iraq war should not be held to the same standards as sites about children’s programming.

“That said, my experience working with women online since 1997 has convinced me that Web conversations are consistently more predictable and valuable to a community if they are moderated within certain guidelines. I’ve learned that civil disagreement should be encouraged. The Internet is perfect for passionate debate about issues people really care about. However, these debates must stop short of abusive behavior (harassment, abuse, stalking) if the community is going to thrive.”

Stone wrote the BlogHer guidelines in 2005, when she and two colleagues founded the network. She says they still work today. In “What are your community guidelines?” BlogHer explains its commitment to civil discourse and describes types of comments that are unacceptable and will be taken down. It’s a fairly long list with specifics.

Stone says they work for BlogHer’s bloggers and for the site’s advertisers as well.

The site’s content management system (Drupal) makes it “easy for any user to report content that violates these guidelines. And that’s the key. If you have an engaged community, where members care about the environment and conversation, users will help moderate and protect the space. Our amazing contributing editors have always reinforced our guidelines, but the guardians now are our users.”

I see an important distinction here. BlogHer sought to create a community around blogs and comments and has succeeded in growing it and making money from it. I suspect many traditional journalists still see comments as a sideshow to be tolerated rather than a main event. I think that perspective has to change before news sites can achieve anything close to a robust, civil conversation. Unfortunately, newsroom staff reductions make that ever more challenging.

In addition to guidelines, there are other practices that help foster good conversation online. I recommend this post by Mark Potts for details.

(Thanks to Susan Mernit for pointing out BlogHer’s guidelines.)

May 22, 2009

Weekend reading: Comments, please

This week, readings in KDMC class on social media offer guidance on commenting practices and managing good community discussions.

Here’s what the class is reading this week in “Using Social Media to Build Audience:”

Essential skills of a community manager,” by Chris Brogan

The trouble with trolls,”  by Sean O’Driscoll

What Does it Take to Manage a Community?” Fast Wonder
“What Is Web 2.0?” by Tim O’Reilly

Comments on News Stories a Double-Edged Sword,” SFGate

Page 1 of 2 pages  1 2 >


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

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

More Leadership at KDMC:
Leadership Seminars | Annual Leadership Reports

Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute


@michelemclellan on Twitter

Recent Entries





Tag Cloud