News Leadership 3.0

November 25, 2008

Comments: RSVP

Online user comments are a key part of a new communications circle. How will journalists respond?

I was delighted to see this post from News-Record Editor John Robinson announcing that the news site was moving to enable user comments on news stories. As Robinson noted, the move was a long time in coming—but faster than most news organizations judging from what I’ve seen.

Here’s Robinson:

“That gives us one more way to talk with, listen to and help our readers, to say nothing of letting them help us. As you know, our ultimate goal is to help build a community of people who want to talk with each other in a safe, civil environment. As the local newspaper, we can provide that.”

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Then Robinson, in a memo to staff republished on his blog, moves to a key link in the communications chain—how journalists respond to the comments:

Your ownership of your story doesn’t end when it is published. You have introduced the story into the community, and you maintain some responsibility for hosting the conversation.

When you participate in the conversation—answering questions, correcting assumptions, acknowledging commenter corrections of you, and encouraging people to help you—you show you care about your story and the community. It also gives the discussion more credibility because people know that the person who wrote the story is there to talk with.

We do not expect the toxic atmosphere that you may have read about elsewhere taking over the site. As the host of the Debatables blog for the last year, I can assure you that 99% of the comments are not only worth publishing, but they also provoke a good discussion.

Remember John Lennon: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” So be professional and respectful. Your civility will be contagious. If you have a problem with a comment or a commenter violating our terms of service, holler. We aren’t afraid of deleting offensive comments or banning violators and trolls, if it comes to that.

My expectation is that when you’re working in the office you check your story for comments throughout the day. More likely, you’ll be in and out all day. At a minimum, check in before you leave for the day. (Unlike the blogs, you won’t get an e-mail every time someone leaves a comment.) You don’t have to respond every time a comment is left, but don’t be a wallflower, either.

Robinson’s memo itself is a lesson in leadership. He states the reason for the new practice as well as the benefits. He gets in front of potential concerns and addresses them. His temperate tone is a model for journalists who may be responding to user comments for the first time. Then he sets a minimum expectation (“check in before you leave”) but refrains from micro-instructing, which could only strengthen any resistance by a) insulting the intelligence of his folks or b) closing off opportunities for interaction that Robinson cannot anticipate.

This bodes well for the News-Record staff’s response to this new adventure. (Robinson’s been ahead of the curve on blogging and other online practices, so I suspect his staff is open to this.)

Robinson’s memo also sums up the new role of engagement that every journalist must tackle and that part bears repeating:

“Your ownership of your story doesn’t end when it is published. You have introduced the story into the community, and you maintain some responsibility for hosting the conversation.

“When you participate in the conversation—answering questions, correcting assumptions, acknowledging commenter corrections of you, and encouraging people to help you—you show you care about your story and the community. It also gives the discussion more credibility because people know that the person who wrote the story is there to talk with.”

Robinson practices what he preaches. He’s received a few comments on his blog about enabling them—and he has responded! Take a look here.

Does your site enable comments on news stories? How does your staff respond? What are your tips for successful interaction with commenters?

October 19, 2008

What if you threw a ‘comment’ party and nobody came?

Medill’s Team Crunchberry
examines barriers to participation
Why don’t young people comment on your site?

Rich Gordon and a Medill student team are at it again, this time offering great insights to any news site that would like its users—especially young ones—- to engage more fully. Gordon summarizes the team’s research so far into participation at gazetteonline, the Web site of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The student team has been surveying young people in Eastern Iowa to find out why they don’t comment more often on the Gazette site. At the Mediashift Idea Lab, Gordon offers a preliminary cut: “The Five Biggest Barriers to Participation—And What to Do About Them.” And take hope. In the full post, Gordon offers several possible solutions for each obstacle.
Here is Team Crunchberry’s list of the barriers:
- Don’t think existing comments are valuable
- Lack of payoff or gratification from participating in online discussions
- Lack of interest in communicating with strangers
- Participation is intimidating
- Don’t think comments are believable

What have you learned about attracting good comments to your online site? Please comment!

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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