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Nieman Journalism Lab
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Newspapers get the kind of communities they deserve

Since I became the first “communities editor” for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto almost a year ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes for a good community — a healthy community — and what makes for a bad one. I’ve looked at every newspaper I can think of and tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve looked at non-media communities like Metafilter and Slashdot and even (so help me) 4chan. I’ve looked at research into real-world communities and how they evolve, and why some thrive and some die out.

There are all sorts of manifestations of community on news sites — blogs, wikis, etc. — but one of the most fundamental elements of community is reader comments. Some media outlets only allow comments on certain stories; some pre-moderate, while others wait for readers to flag unpleasant comments and then remove them. Some sites do the moderating themselves; others outsource to companies like ICUC in Winnipeg. But everyone sees the value of comments, right? Wrong.

The reality is that — as Alfred Hermida of the University of British Columbia journalism school writes at MediaShift — many newspapers still see comments as some kind of necessary evil: a bone tossed to readers to help drive traffic, but something that produces little else of value. Hermida writes about research presented at the recent Future of Journalism ’09 conference in Wales (where he presented his “Twitter as ambient journalism” paper) that said most journalists see comments as containing very little news — and mainly view them as a nuisance.

As Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out in a recent post, this kind of attitude is revealing. What it says is that for most journalists and newspapers, having comments isn’t something fundamental or necessary — or even beneficial. If they don’t produce useful news, then many don’t seem to see the point. The idea that creating a real community around the news — or rather, enhancing and appealing to a community that already exists — might be valuable all by itself never seems to enter their minds. (Some newspapers get it, however, including the Telegraph and the Guardian, and both have done an excellent job on the community front.)

Another thing that seems to escape many journalists is the direct connection between their own indifference to interacting with readers and the parlous state of their comments. If my research has taught me anything — not to mention writing columns and a blog for 15 years — it is that the surest way to improve the tone of the debate in forums or comments is to get involved in them. Writers who do, both at the Globe and elsewhere, uniformly say it has a significant effect on the civility of the comments they receive afterwards. On top of that, there is almost always a pleasant surprise on the part of readers that a writer is actually responding.

Our comments routinely point us in the direction of new angles for stories, and in many cases commenters have become sources for future pieces. They do fact-checking for us, which we should be grateful for. And they let us know which stories they care about and which they don’t, which is invaluable market research. But those aren’t the only reasons why comments are important. Giving people a place to talk about important issues has value in and of itself, and the more we restrict that and impose limits on it, the more we risk losing the trust of the people formerly known as the audience.

As Craig Newmark has noted, trust is “the new black,” particularly in media — by which I think he means that trust is the only competitive advantage we have, in an age when anyone can gather and publish a majority of the information found in any major newspaper, and in most cases can do it faster and cheaper. Take a look at Net News Daily sometime. Looks nice, doesn’t it? That site was founded by two 12-year-olds 13-year-olds in their spare time. The point is that if we see aggregating wire stories and posting witty headlines on them as our core competency, then we have already failed. Kids are doing that. [UPDATE: Scott Campbell of Net News Daily emails to note that he and his partner were 13 when they started the site, not 12, and that they do some original reporting too. Duly noted. —Josh]

All we have left is the trust that our readers — that our community — have in us. And how do we gain and keep that trust? By telling them the truth — but also by listening to them and valuing their input, and making them an equal partner in what we are doing. Only then will we get the kind of community that really matters.

Photo by Premasagar Rose used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • joanne saliby

    In our local online edition of the Wenatchee World, I look for comments and often add my own. Nothing turns me off faster than commenters who rant and rave, call names, SHOUT, use profanity and can’t spell or do not have a working knowledge of grammar. It is often possible to get a different perspective on a story by reading a thoughtful, well-written comment, and I feel a sense of community when someone agrees (of course) with my opinions.

  • Alfred Hermida

    I found the same thing when I was a journalist at the BBC. If you get involved with readers, the level of discourse improves significantly. This also came out of some of the research presented at the Future of Journalism conference.

    Unfortunately, many journalists think their job ends when the story is published, rather than seeing this as a continuous process.

  • Jill Van Wyke

    I agree that reader comments are one way to build a community around the news, and that such a community is essential to the success of newspapers online.

    Particular story topics seem to trigger a flood of the more irrational and offensive comments: those dealing with race, homosexuality, immigration and (sickeningly) personal tragedy.

    What do you think of simply turning off comments on such stories? A reporter could lose days monitoring and responding to the hundreds or thousands of comments that pour in.

    Or is there a better way to handle comments on those particularly volatile stories, keeping in mind the staff constraints at newspapers?

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  • Darren

    As it happens, I recently wrote about newspapers, their staff and their disdain for ‘anonymous’ comments:

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for the comment, Jill. I don’t like closing comments on any story — although the Globe does so on stories involving legal cases and criminal trials because our legal counsel is concerned about contempt of court.

    We know that certain stories will draw offensive or abusive comments — the Middle East, abortion, etc. — but at the same time those are some of the issues that people feel strongly about, and deserve to be allowed to discuss.

    But (and I have this argument at work all the time) if we close comments on contentious stories because we’re afraid of offensive speech, then we will only have comments on innocuous stories — which then raises the question of why we are bothering in the first place.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for that link, Darren — I agree with your defence of anonymity. That’s another battle that I fight almost daily :-) I think the anonymity issue is a red herring, frankly. Not to mention that there is a long tradition of anonymous political speech in North America, and I think we shouldn’t toss away that kind of protection lightly.

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  • Katherine Warman Kern

    Agreed. But I think expecting Journalists, among other media & advertising professionials, to be comfortable, let alone enthusiastic, interacting with their audience, without changing the game is unrealistic.

    Journalism, music, film, advertising, television have reached a very high level of professionalism through obsessive control, scrubbing out every flaw for perfection. An image of an operating room comes to mind, right down to the anesthetized patient.

    However, as we all know this “clinical” style does not fit with today’s market. Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC says, “who doesn’t want to just sit there but to take part, debate, create, communicate, share.”

    Media professionals must feel like a surgeon being asked to operate with the patient awake, complete with responding to the patient’s questions and input during the surgical procedure.

    To change the game, think about how the internet’s advantages of real time interactivity may add value to both the journalist and audience. Here’s an example. A news story breaks on the radio, cable tv and on search engines. Most of these stories aren’t black and white. They are complicated. The audience has a wide variation of pre-existing knowledge.

    But the journalist has a core audience, inherently representative of a significant percentage of the journalist’s audience, who want camaraderie with the journalist. They have the potential to help a journalist develop a community.

    Currently when news breaks, a journalist researches and writes in a vacuum and hopes their readers will “get it” and pass it on. By tapping core readers’ understanding and questions, a journalist can start to the build the story from the perspective of what the audience is most curious about. And instead of writing one comprehensive story. The story may unfold in segments, with core audience responses helping the journalist guide the way the story builds.

  • Jill Van Wyke

    Point well-taken, Matt, on how shutting down comments squelches the conversation. You’ve convinced me.

    Do you think, though, that reasonable, insightful readers stay away from the comment forums when the conversation sinks into abuse and offense? I want those readers in the conversation; we need them. They could steer the conversation back to civility and confront intolerance. But I sense they want no part of something they deem unseemly and unruly.

    And how should we handle personal attacks? I’m thinking of a sad case here in Iowa when a middle-schooler died of a prescription drug overdose at a “pharm” party. Some Des Moines Register readers posted vitriolic comments disparaging the boy’s mother, by name, accusing her of awful things and blaming her for her son’s death. The comments were later removed, but were up for several hours.

    Generally, I’m in favor of the free-for-all, but cases like that one give me pause. I think we’re on shaky ground legally and ethically in such a situation.

  • Mathew Ingram

    I definitely share your concerns, Jill. There’s no question in my mind that comments involving personal attacks should be removed — and we make a point of doing that at the Globe (or trying hard to do so). Unfortunately, the term “personal attack” covers a wide range of behaviour and is difficult to define.

    To answer the first question, I think reasonable and thoughtful readers definitely stay away from the comments because they too often descend into mud-wrestling with idiots. The only way to make comments more appealing, I think, is to be diligent in removing outright offensive comments, and to actively respond to those intelligent comments that do get posted — which creates an incentive for others.

    I agree that there are legal and ethical issues involved — in fact, the first of these is the main reason why we close comments on stories that involve legal cases, crimes and stories that might lead to slanderous or libelous comments.

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  • LynJ

    Interesting piece. I’ve always been struck at how comment and discussion forums play a much larger role in online Chinese media than they do in the U.S. Not that Chinese journalists pay more attention to the comments than their American counterparts (though the government certainly does). But for savvy Chinese readers, the comments are as or even more important than the media piece itself.

  • Joe Clark

    When a large newspaper outsources its “fact-checking” to anonymous cowards in comment fields, maybe it’s time to pack it in and take up a job, say, co-owning a for-profit conference on the same topics you cover for that newspaper.

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  • Mathew Ingram

    Always a pleasure to hear from you, Joe :-) As far as “outsourcing fact-checking,” that’s not what we’re doing at all – we’re just recognizing that we can’t possibly catch everything.

  • Charles Borwick

    I’ve spent a lot of time on this subject myself and agree totally. When the editorial staff get involved they are endorsing the value of discussion and instead of being a footnote to their soapbox, the comments become part of the piece itself.

    They also create a model for the proper behavior by being adopting a civil tone and by responding to the people who have made valid contributions. If you think that a good comment will get noticed you are encourage to be good.

    Personally I think comments are of great value but I have spent the last couple of years focusing on Social Q&A where the community can ask the questions that matter to them and the community can provide their opinions. This moves them out of the ranks of the footnote altogether and creates a community where people can get a reputation.

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  • Joe Clark

    That isn’t what you wrote, Matt: “They do fact-checking for us, which we should be grateful for.” You didn’t say anonymous cowards fill in that tiny 1% of errors your august publication could not possibly be expected to catch.

  • Karen McAllister

    Great piece, Matthew. I’m the audience editor and also have recently looked at how a number of other sites handle comments.
    I find here and elsewhere that the quality of comments rises to a higher level when writers/bloggers are involved in the conversation. I think readers would be less inclined to post petty/obnoxious comments if they knew the writer was part of the conversation and offering feedback.

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