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November 16 2010

15:00

NewsWorks: Back-to-the-future community news

Yesterday brought the launch of a news site with a promising tagline: “For you. With you. By you.”

The evocative motto belongs to NewsWorks, a web portal overseen by WHYY, the public radio station serving metro Philadelphia. Though it’s been built under corporate-parent oversight, the site sees itself primarily as a network, Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me. In addition to reporting that comes courtesy of WHYY staff, NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it. And, in that, it will make a point of featuring the kind of news that often gets lost in the rush of gossip-based, conflictastic stories, providing “balanced journalism that is as interested in solutions and heroes as problems and scandals.”

In other words, Satullo says, the site will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the web.”

It will also be, from the looks of things, everything you love about the web: NewsWorks is something of a proof-of-concept when it comes to the new compact the Internet allows between journalism and its users. The site will emphasize, in addition to information about politics, health, culture, and the like, neighborhood news (with an early focus on northwest Philadelphia, but with plans to expand). User-produced stuff will factor heavily into the site’s content. And conversation will be key. Indeed, NewsWorks’ vision for itself is the product of several little revolutions going on at once — and another step toward the normalization of the pro-am model of journalistic output.

Pretty much every feature of the new site aims at user engagement; for NewsWorks, all roads come from, and lead to, community. In addition to its planned reliance on user-provided content, the site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space (“William Penn designed our city with five public squares. You can build the sixth”) provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate. Junto (so named for Ben Franklin’s storied discussion club) is a discussion area that emphasizes “civil, knowledgeable posts”; Props (“good words for good people”) invites compliments for community members; MindMap offers a self-generated profile of a user’s tastes and preferences; influences and tastes; Snarl (coming soon) will be a blog dedicated entirely to the vagaries — and frustrations — of traffic; Sleuth provides a space for people to ask questions about, and solve, “local mysteries”; and Sixes, taking a cue from Newsweek, asks users to summarize news events — in six words or less.

Though the features range on the scale from silly to serious, the common thread is their earnestness — and their commitment to community. The site offers an ideal vision of the public square as a place not only of community, but of harmony. And that’s evident in NewsWorks’ commenting system, as well. Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc. (Karma systems have, of course, been around in various forms for years.) And from the consumer side of things, users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.

Though NewsWorks, with its focus on engagement and empowerment of users, is experimenting with of-the-moment ideas about journalism, there’s also a distinctly back-to-the-future feel to all of this — a sense of return to the early days of the newspaper, and of journalism in general, as a vehicle for community discussion as much as anything else. Days in which journalism was the people who consumed it. As Satullo put it in the site’s welcome note yesterday:

We won’t be able to do any of this without you. Newsrooms aren’t the teeming masses of eager reporters they were back when I first walked into The Inquirer in 1989, as the 560th employee on the newsroom rolls.

Nor are today’s readers willing to settle for having formulaic news shoved at them, by reporters who have no time to answer questions because they’re already racing to the next bit of fluff or sensation. Rightfully, you want journalism to be a process of continuous engagement between you and those who claim to bring you the news you need.

That’s how journalism will get saved in these troubled times, by a new depth of connection between the reporter and the public.

September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

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