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Sept. 18, 2009, 11 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Sept. 18, 2009, 11 a.m.
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