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?

Comments

Great post—and I’m glad to see news management supporting (indeed, requiring) engagement via comments.

One thing I’ve found is that many journalists are VERY reluctant to engage in open public discourse online. Hence, they’re more likely to send private e-mails than post comments.

Also, I’ve heard many journalists complain that dealing with comments takes too much time, is a hassle, etc.

How have News-Record reporters been responding to this directive? Are they doing it, and with what attitude? Do they think they’re getting any benefit from this process? That would be an intriguing followup.

Also: I’d encourage the News-Record to update their CMS so that reporters get “pinged” when new comments arise on their stories—by feed, e-mail, text, whatever works for them. That’s more likely to work than expecting them to check all their posts daily for new comments. Comments often come from stories that are weeks, months, or years old.

- Amy Gahran


Reporters here are warming to the idea of responding online to their readers, but there is not as much taking place as I hope to see next year. I served as City Editor before moving over to Online Editor, so I am accustomed to dealing with both the reporters and the readers.
Therefore I am the one who offers most of the responses back to the readers. The response from the readers is outstanding, with a number of them now contacting us with news tips, adding great insights into events they were witness to, and helping to create some outstanding community debates because we participate rather than just sit back and be observers.
The willingness to respond to the online readers in the story comments section has given the readers a feel their voices are heard.


Thanks Dan for sharing your experience—a very encouraging one. My hope is that as journalists move away from an abstract idea of comments (bad, trouble, not our job) and see more of the examples that journalists like you provide, they will understand the value and the fun of engaging with their users.

Amy, I like your questions (as usual smile. I will ask John Robinson and others at the News-Record to discuss them in a few weeks after the newsroom has a little more experience.


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