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June 26 2013

20:57

With gay marriage sure to spark emotional responses, The Washington Post and New York Times try structuring comments

Back in March, we wrote about a New York Times experiment to add more structure to reader comments on big stories. In that case, the story was the election of Pope Francis; The Times asked readers to notate their responses with whether they were Catholic, whether they were surprised by the appointment, and whether they approved of it. That added structure allowed other readers to view comments through those lenses, putting a filter on what could have been, on another platform, an overwhelming “Read 5,295 comments” link.

Today brought some more big news: the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. And today both the Times and The Washington Post brought structure to reader response.

First the Post:

wapo-structured-comments-doma

The interactive — credited to Katie Park, Leslie Passante, Ryan Kellett, and Masuma Ahuja — steps past the pro-/anti-gay marriage debate and instead asks why readers care: “Why do the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage matter to you?” The given choices — “It engages my moral or religious beliefs,” “It impacts someone I know,” and the like — then provide the raw data for a lovely flower-like Venn-diagram data visualization. (With colors sufficiently muted to avoid immediate rainbow associations.)

The open response question also tries to steer clear of pro/con by asking: “Now, in your own words, use your experience to tell us how these decisions resonate with you.” It’s generated over 2,800 responses at this writing, and you can sort through them all via the structured filters.

Now the Times:

nytimes-doma-supreme-court-comment

The Times’ interactive was built by Lexi Mainland, Michael Strickland, Scott Blumenthal, John Niedermeyer, and Tyson Evans. They selected six key excerpts from today’s opinions — four from Anthony Kennedy and one each from Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — and asked readers whether they agree or disagree with each. (There’s also an “unsure” option for those who don’t fancy themselves constitutional scholars.)

Along with that quantifiable response, readers were asked to leave a brief comment explaining their position. The excerpts appear in random order on each load. And, just as the pope experiment separated out responses from Catholics, this Times interactive pulls out comments from people who identify as gay. Like the Post, the Times uses a non-standard call for responses: Rather than responding to a news story, they’re asked to “Respond to the Justices.”

(The responses so far don’t do much to change the stereotype of Times readers as liberal. Justice Kennedy’s four excerpts — from the majority opinion, striking down DOMA — have been agreed with 130 times and disagreed with just four times. In contrast, Scalia and Alito’s pro-DOMA comments are losing Times readers 76 to 7 and 73 to 6, respectively.)

As news organizations try to figure out better ways to benefit from their audiences — ways that go beyond an unstructured “What do you think?” — these efforts from the Post and the Times are welcome. Big stories that generate big emotion deserve custom treatment if you want to get the most of your readers. Comments are just another kind of content, and as content becomes more intelligently structured, comments should follow suit.

August 24 2012

14:00

Mediatwits #53: We're Back! Video Special: HuffPost Live; YouTube Elections Hub

Roy_Hi-Res_Headshot.jpg

Welcome to the 53nd episode of the Mediatwits podcast, with Mark Glaser and Rafat Ali as co-hosts. We were off on hiatus the past few months while Mark was getting a kidney transplant and Rafat was launching his new travel startup, Skift.

This week we are looking at a couple big online video intiatives: the new HuffPost Live video channel that will stream 12 hours per day 5 days per week; and the new YouTube Elections Hub that includes video content from eight editorial partners and will live-stream the upcoming political conventions and debates. We were joined by HuffPost's Roy Sekoff, YouTube's Olivia Ma and GigaOm columnist Liz Shannon Miller.

Guest Bios

Roy Sekoff is the founding editor of the Huffington Post, and is president and co-creator of HuffPost Live. Before helping launch the Huffington Post, he was a writer, producer, and on-air correspondent for Michael Moore's "TV Nation" show, and served as Communications Director for Arianna Huffington's 2003 gubernatorial campaign.

Liz Shannon Miller currently works as a staff writer on G4's "Attack of the Show" and writes a regular column for the tech site GigaOM about online video.

Olivia Ma is YouTube's News and Politics Manager. She oversees YouTube's news programming strategy, working closely with both news organizations and citizen reporters using the site to share news video around the world. Olivia has produced three YouTube Interviews with President Obama and last fall's Fox News/Google GOP Primary Debate.

mediatwits53.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast here

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Follow @TheMediatwits on Twitter here

Our show is now on Stitcher! Listen to us on your iPhone, Android Phone, Kindle Fire and other devices with Stitcher. Find Stitcher in your app store or at stitcher.com.

Intro and outro music by 3 Feet Up; mid-podcast music by Autumn Eyes via Mevio's Music Alley.

Here are some highlighted topics from the show:

Intro

0:30: Mark recovers from his kidney transplant

1:30: Rafat launches Skift.com

4:45: Rundown of topics on our show

HuffPost Live

6:00: Special guests Roy Sekoff and Liz Shannon Miller

lizmiller_smile(1).jpg

8:45: Sekoff: We wanted to bring comments front and center on HuffPost Live

12:00: Sekoff: The focus is on great conversations and not commercial breaks

14:20: HuffPost Live will change with feedback as they go

16:41: Miller: I could enjoy HuffPost Live passively or actively

19:45: Sekoff: We're not about breaking news but we want tohave conversations about the news

YouTube Elections Hub

22:10: Special guest Olivia Ma

olivia ma headshot.jpg

25:00: Ma: Storyful will help curate the best political videos on YouTube

26:45: Ma: Popular political videos are coming from users, candidates and news orgs

28:30: Sekoff: HuffPost was launched around the same time as YouTube in 2005

More Reading (and Watching)

HuffPost Live

Arianna Huffington launches HuffPost Live with combination of new and old at Guardian

HuffPost Live: a terrible debut, but don't rule out online video at Guardian

Overdosing on HuffPost Live at Adweek

HuffPost Live launches at CJR

YouTube Elections Hub

Political junkies take note: YouTube launches new Elections Hub at L.A. Times

YouTube Launches 2012 Elections Hub at FoxNews.com

PEJ Study on Master Narratives in Campaign at Project for Excellence in Journalism

Weekly Poll

Don't forget to vote in our weekly poll, this time about how you'll be following the political conventions:


How will you follow the U.S. political conventions?

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 26 2012

13:59

Gawker: We want to elevate the discourse about frogs who sit like humans [CHART]

Most news organizations would kill for Gawker’s commenters, but Nick Denton is messing with them again.

Denton describes the failure of comments like an economist. It’s a tragedy of the commons, he told Anil Dash at SXSW, or rather, “a tragedy of the comments.”

The idea that without fences, without any delineated rights and responsibilities, that a discussion area gets overtaken. And the larger the sites, the more it will get overtaken, overused. No one really feels ownership, particularly as you get lots of participants and the quality of the environment deteriorates to the point at which it becomes a complete wasteland.

Gawker Media’s smallest site attracts more than 2 million unique visitors a month. It’s a problem of scale. You can switch to Facebook Comments or outsource moderation or encourage journalists to jump into the threads, but at the end of the day Gawker (and plenty of larger newspapers) just can’t scale.

New data we got from Gawker CTO Tom Plunkett demonstrates that scale, though you might be surprised to see how much smaller it has gotten. Comments, like traffic, dropped dramatically with Gawker’s controversial two-pane redesign in early 2011. Plunkett said 40 percent of that drop was in Gawker’s forums, which were de-emphasized in the new design.

Comment volume for all Gawker sites, 2005 to present

So far in April, Gawker’s network of eight sites has attracted 1 million comments on 7,500 posts from 130,000 active commenters. Their database contains almost 50 million comments.

The company has reinvented its commenting system again and again, never satisfied. The latest approach — a proprietary system they’re calling Powwow — was just rolled out this morning on Gawker.com. Gone are the elite cliques who ruled the threads with star badges; now every individual has a role to play.

Commenters are supposed to own their own threads. A new inbox focuses attention on all replies to a user’s comments, and the original commenter must explicitly approve a reply to allow it into the conversation. Ignored or rejected replies are cast away to their own islands, split off into new threads.

And now, instead of depending on humans to promote comments to “Featured,” a computer will do it. Powwow’s secret algorithm parses comment text for length and quality and automatically tries to push the good stuff to the front, the part most everyone sees. (Human editors can intervene, too.) A new URL structure also makes it easier for individual comments or subthreads to be shared on social networks.

Also new: Commenters can sign in with temporary and anonymous Burner accounts, a reference to the throwaway cellphones drug dealers use (greetings, fans of “The Wire”). To create a Burner account, select a user name and system generates a long password — once. Lose the password, lose the account; it can’t be recovered because it doesn’t exist on Gawker’s servers. Burner accounts are Gawker’s way of saying it takes security seriously, after hackers compromised the company’s database of user names in passwords in December 2010 and published the list.

Denton believes strongly that anonymous comments add to, not detract from, online conversations, but there is no system in existence that lets those comments rise to the top. That’s where the Powwow algorithm comes in. Said Denton to Dash: “The most interesting comments, they don’t come from people with Klout scores, they don’t come from people who actually have a long history of commenting on our sites or any sites. Often it’s a first-timer. Often it’s anonymous. Sometimes they’re moved, they’re so outraged by what you just wrote, that they want to set the record straight.”

Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio warned of the change last week and announced, to much outrage, that Gawker would disable comments sitewide during the upgrade.

Denton himself got involved. Needless to say, the comment thread inevitably devolved into a battle over the merits of Gawker itself, an ironic caricature of a Gawker comment thread. Half of people think Gawker is diluting its high-quality material with Chinese goats; the other half think Gawker should stick to Chinese goats and stop trying to do real journalism. Gawker’s best days are always behind it, if you believe the commenters, and Richard Lawson (a former commenter turned writer) should always be re-hired at once.

Daulerio told me he wants comments to be seen as DVD extras, footnotes, an important part of the work itself. He wants the conversations to be about the stories, not about what people hate about Gawker. (“It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” Denton once said.)

“The hope is over time…people will soon realize, yeah, it’s going to take a little bit more than just seniority in order to have comments be part of the featured discussion,” he said.

“It’s going to take on different forms each post, obviously. It’s going to be tough to really add some high-brow commentary to a video of a frog sitting on a stoop. Let’s be realistic here,” Daulerio said.

For his part, Daulerio has described Gawker comments as “a tar pit of hell.” I asked him if the last several days’ peace and quiet made him secretly want to turn comments off forever. He said no. “In some ways, of course, it’s freeing,” he said. Daulerio has not really read the comments for a long time, he admits, because he said he would just get consumed by flame wars.

“I always felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time. I think in this case it’s obviously going to become more and a part of my day for it to actually work. So I have to change my attitude a little bit.”

Daulerio’s own experience at Deadspin, the Gawker Media site he used to edit, perfectly sums up the “tragedy of the commons” conundrum:

They absolutely built up a strong army of readers who absolutely added to those posts. They were hilarious. And they were very, very loyal. I think they got the tone of the site…There was an outgrowth of another bunch of people who were just trying to mimic these people. The more and more it grew, it became a lot more watered down. It also became, it’s almost like they became stockholders of the company. There was this sense of entitlement that these commenters had. It became a little bit strange to come in — I mean, I’m basically coming into this new situation at Deadspin and I have these people saying, Oh, you’re doing it wrong. Oh, this is not how it used to be. Oh, people aren’t going to like this. Blah, blah, blah. The handful or the 50 people that were used to having Deadspin their way were very upset.

At Gawker, the editorial conversation about how to fix comments is one in the same with the technical conversation. Maybe the only way to do commenting right is to build it yourself. “[Denton is] trying to change the culture of comments not just on Gawker but to have it kind of impact the way other editorial organizations handle their online comments,” Delaurio told me. Powwow will be deployed to the other Gawker sites after some public tire-kicking; the company is pondering whether to make the tech available to other organizations.

April 23 2012

23:52

How to Set Up A Chat Using CoveritLive

Step-by-step directions for setting up a live chat between readers and panelists using CoveritLive. [...]

August 03 2011

04:50

Arianna Huffington: How HuffPo got to 100 Million comments

Mashable :: Readers of The Huffington Post like to share their opinions: That much is obvious from the comment counts on its stories, which can frequently number more than 10,000. HuffPo recently celebrated a testament to the large, engaged audience it has attracted: its 100 millionth comment last weekend.

The online newspaper now averages more than 175,000 comments per day, and the site received more than 4.45 million comments last month alone, says founder Arianna Huffington.

In a phone interview with Mashable, Huffington attributed HuffPo‘s success to several factors, the chief being pre-moderation of comments.

Continue to read Lauren Indvik, mashable.com

July 05 2011

20:29

It won't replace Twitter, but what does Google+ (Plus) add to news?

Buzzmachine :: Google+ likely won’t be good for live coverage of breaking events because its algorithm messes with the reverse chronology, promoting old posts when they get new comments. It doesn’t favor the latest the way Twitter and liveblogging do and live news is all about the latest. "I don’t see Andy Carvin making the switch," writes Jeff Jarvis. But what does Google+ add to news?

Here's his first answer - continue to read Jeff Jarvis, www.buzzmachine.com

18:30

With its newest round of Knight funding, DocCloud will figure out how to scale reader annotations

Two years ago, DocumentCloud received $719,500 from the Knight News Challenge to build a tool that news organizations could use to upload, share, and then collaboratively read and analyze documents. Since then, the project has not only made good on its promise to “turn documents into data,” introducing its tool into the workflows of investigative reporters in newsrooms across the country, but it’s also found a way to ensure the tool’s sustainment, at least into the near future: In early June, DocCloud’s staff announced that the project would merge operations with, appropriately enough, Investigative Reporters and Editors. And more good news for DocCloud came later in June, when Knight made it a rare double-winner in its News Challenge, granting the project $320,000 to develop an additional feature: reader annotations.

The idea for an annotation mechanism actually originated, indirectly, with the Online News Association, says Amanda Hickman, DocCloud’s program director. She and the team had been thinking about how to include readers more broadly in the process of collaborative document-parsing; at last year’s ONA conference, Hickman began talking with the Public Insight Network‘s Andrew Haeg about how DocCloud might integrate what it already had — an interface that allows a small group of registered users to upload documents and make annotations — with what Public Insight has been up to: finding, and then tracking, a large group of potential story sources. Their conversations, Hickman told me in an email, resulted in “a very whittled down tool for identifying specific experts and asking them to review specific documents, pre-publication.”

That tool is currently in place in the DocCloud system — with the important caveat that, to use it, you have to be invited by a newsroom to do so. From the news organization’s perspective, “there’s a practical limit to who you can invite,” Hickman points out, and “there’s a certain degree of trust involved,” since a public document means, also, public annotations. “It’s a tool that makes sense,” she notes, “if you’re dealing with a few people who aren’t part of your newsroom who need to look over a document.”

It’s a tool that makes less sense, though, if you want broader public input in a given document — which, increasingly, news orgs do. So the reader annotations project faces a tricky task: taking the interplay between expertise and trust that has worked so well in the invite-only annotations system…and building it, somehow, to scale.

And that’s where the Knight funding comes in. With it, DocCloud will figure out how, exactly, to build out the tool’s existing efficiencies to facilitate, and encourage, broader public participation. The goal is pretty much the same as it was when Hickman and Haeg first chatted: to marry DocCloud’s existing annotations infrastructure with the Public Insight approach that helps newsrooms to connect with more sources, more diverse sources, and untapped sources of expertise.

An added twist, though: Whatever system the DocCloud team builds will likely need to interface with outlets’ existing comments infrastructures. Which is both practical and problematic. “We’re not here to reinvent anyone’s moderation system,” Hickman noted in a phone call, “so we’ll have to sort out how to let newsrooms moderate reader annotations,” she says — in basically the same way they already moderate comments. They’ll have to build flexibility, in other words, into a single system to accommodate different outlets’ different approaches to reader commentary.

And they’ll also have to figure out a UI that leverages both the (hoped for) abundance of contributions and the (definite) need for operational efficiency. Visual and otherwise. “If one or two reporters annotate a document, they can make their own decision about how cluttered or uncluttered a page should be,” Hickman points out; with reader annotations, on the other hand, “there’s going to have to be some way to access an uncluttered page if you just want to read the document.”

And that necessity will only expand as the tool’s document set does — especially since a document whose content is meaningful in one way, at one point in time, might take on an entirely different relevance later on, in a different context. So DocCloud will be tasked in part with “figuring out how you present a document that’s annotated in a different context,” Hickman notes. “It’s a really interesting puzzle.”

June 17 2011

13:00

Alicia Shepard: Anonymity allows “the loudest drunk at the bar” to dominate online conversations

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its summer 2011 issue, “Links That Bind Us,” which focuses on the role community plays in journalism. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow at the Lab, but go read the whole issue. In this piece, Alicia Shepard writes about quality of online discourse (or lack thereof) during her three-year tenure as NPR ombudsman.

Nieman Reports summer 2011 coverIt might be hard to believe, but one reason NPR was inspired to build its social media community is what it found in personal ads like this one — “Female golfer, loves NPR, travel and skydiving, is looking for like-minded man.” With NPR squeezed into the middle of self-portraits, the network figured that if it created a digital public square, people would want to congregate there.

So three years ago NPR invited its 27 million listeners to gather at this virtual water cooler to share ideas, suggest stories, offer comments and criticisms, and participate in civil dialogue. Joining NPR’s digital community requires creating an account. Individuals need to log in each time they comment on a story, though using real names is not required. So far 500,000 people have signed up as members of the NPR.org community.

Since the launch in 2008, those tasked with oversight of this digital community’s dynamics at times have felt as though they are riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo ring. Those feelings hit hardest when contentious issues surface, and it can be challenging to maintain civil dialogue as conversations devolve into downright meanness.

Keep reading »

May 19 2011

18:45

In Lithuania, an Overdue Crackdown on Online Hate Speech

Online hate speech is becoming more and more widespread in Lithuania and until recently, comments like, "The world needs Hitler again to do the cleansing job," which was posted on a website called Delfi, or "Expel dirty Roma people out of Lithuania" would have gone unheeded by criminal justice.

"Although the Lithuanian Criminal Codex includes sufficient law provisions to prosecute instigators of hate and enmity, these provisions have been largely ignored by criminal judges," Vitoldas Maslauskas, former Vilnius County prosecutor, said last month.

Most law enforcement officials, Maslauskas said, ranging from high-level prosecutors to ordinary investigators, turn a blind eye to the practice of web hate speech for one simple reason: Criminal judges are swamped under real-life infringements and don't have time to chase down Internet bashers who, as a result, go untouched online.

Combatting Hate Speech

tja.png

One non-governmental organization though, the Tolerant Youth Association (TJA), is slowly but surely helping to harness the hate speech, with and without help from criminal justice.

"Although we have been actively carrying out various tolerance-inducing projects since the establishment of our association in 2005, it is only in recent years that we have been fighting against the practice of online hate speech," said Arturas Rudomanskis, chairman of TJA.

The association has initiated 58 pre-trial investigations this year into cases instigating hate and enmity: "It represents a rise of nearly double compared to last year's figure of 30-plus-something cases," Rudomanskis said.

"Until last year, we would pinpoint online hate-mongers to prosecutors. This year, however, we changed our tactics by creating an autonomous system allowing people to file complaints against online bashers directly to the prosecutor's office. This has undoubtedly worked out well, as conscious people extensively report hate cases to prosecutors," Rudomanskis said.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tolerant Youth Association, the online slanderers mentioned at the beginning of this article have been traced, prosecuted and punished.

Only a few years ago, it is likely that they would have escaped the law.

Bringing online slanderers to justice

The man instigating hate against Roma people turned out to be a 28-year-old manager of a company in the city of Utena in northeast Lithuania.

The District Court of Utena ruled that the man incited hate against Roma people and instigated to discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity. In his affidavit, the manager admitted the wrongdoing and justified his act by arguing that he had only voiced his opinion. He received a fine of LTL 1,300, which is roughly the equivalent of $535.

In such cases, local courts often seize the offenders' computers as the tools of crime. However, the Utena District Court decided not to confiscate the manager's computer.

Zamzickiene.jpg

A 36-year-old inhabitant of the town of Anyksciai, who had urged to have "all gays" slain in an online response to an article about the first-ever Lithuanian gay pride parade, whimpered at the District Court of Anyksciai, explaining that he had merely intended to express his discontent against the gay march.

The judge was not impressed and punished him with a fine of nearly 400 euros ($570). District prosecutor Vigandas Jurevicius admitted the case was the first of its kind in his career.

"I launched the investigation following a complaint by the Tolerant Youth Association. To be honest, had it not been for the complaint, I would have not sought prosecution, as it is simply impossible to keep track of the post flow on the Internet," the prosecutor acknowledged.

Just starting the fight

In the meantime, TJA chairman Arturas Rudomanskis notes that the number of Internet surfers who report online slanderers is increasing and calls for a "more substantial" involvement of Lithuanian criminal justices against online hate speech.

"Actually, we have just started the fight," he said. "We are far away from seeing any major breakthrough just yet. However, I see much more support in Lithuanian society and in the media for online perpetrators of hate to be addressed in full force by the law."

According to Rudomanskis, online hate speech cases that reach court break down as follows: 70 percent of the cases are related to hate against homosexuals, and the rest is equally split between anti-Semitic and xenophobic abuse.

"Obviously, Lithuania remains one of the most homophobic countries in the European Union. This is directly reflected in Internet posts," Rudomanskis said.

TJA has succeeded in shutting down a gay hate-laden website set up by a member of an ultranationalist Lithuanian organization, as well as its Facebook page filled with anti-gay slurs.

The role of journalists in tackling online hate

"We have to admit that there are many angry people in Lithuania," said Zita Zamzickiene, the Lithuanian ombudsman for Journalism Ethics. "This is partly due to our recent heritage that goes back to the Soviet era. Homosexuals and ethnic minorities, unfortunately, fall in the category of people who most often become a punching bag. We can tackle the intolerance by educating our people and carrying out prevention programs."

Obviously, Lithuanian journalists can play a key role in curbing Internet slanderers by educating the population and promoting universal human values such as tolerance. For a small country like Lithuania that is still suffering from the post-Soviet syndrome, it may be an issue of utmost priority.

Linas Jegelevicius, 40, Lithuanian, obtained his master's degree in journalism at the Vilnius University Institute of Journalism. Between 1994 and 2004, he lived in New York and Miami, where he contributed to the Miami newspaper Wire. From 2001 until 2003, he edited and published his own newspaper, South Beach AXIS. Jegelevicius currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas, in the resort town of Palanga in the west of Lithuania. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times and Ooskanews.com. He has published two books, and his interests include politics, economics, journalism, literature, the English language (particularly urban English), psychology, traveling and human rights.

ejc-logo small.jpg

This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

May 18 2011

13:43

You must be the conversation you want to see in the world

“A great community isn’t something that you just set up and periodically patch. Running a great community is a full-time job, not a weekend hack project.” — Alex Payne

The last week was a valuable learning moment. The launch of the Beyond Comment Threads challenge stirred up a lot of conversation around the Web: on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, and also on the MoJo community list.

Around the same time, I was busy kicking the hornets nest again with a post over on the PBS MediaShift Idealab (related Hacker News thread).

It was an incredible opportunity to see the potential of online discussion, comments, and debate applied to the very challenges that have been presented:

  • Re-think the relationship between news users and producers;
  • Demonstrate new forms of user interaction with news;
  • Push beyond the ways we currently think about comments and online debate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been speaking with a number of publishers about the tension between their aspirations for discussion in the context of news, and the realities that one must face when the comment switch is flipped to the on position.

I’ve tried to distill some key themes below, but I’m hoping that you can also weigh in with your own experiences.

  1. The “Eyes on the Street” theory still holds online: Most publishers now agree that it’s critical for them, their staff, and the authors of the content to play a role in the community that they are convening at the end of their articles. Without visibility and natural surveillance, comments threads can quickly become a no-mans land.

  2. There is no free content: CP Scott may have said that “Comment is free,” but convening the specific type of online discussion & debate that many publishers aspire to have on their sites comes with a cost. The cost of having moderators, community policing tools, and — in many cases — the liability insurance quickly starts to add up. For many sites with active comment threads, just reviewing the comments that are reported as ‘offensive’ can take up significant time, let alone reading through to look for comments that are insightful, informative, or contain new information.

  3. Publishers & authors are still ‘on top’: No matter how you slice it, the pristine words of the bourgeoisies & intellectuals still sit high above the comments of the unwashed masses, the rabble, the proletariat (how these filthy ‘wage slaves’ have time to comment all day continues to defy all explanation). In all seriousness, this visual presentation can work to re-create the classic divides in society, with both groups feeling inaccurately reflected or simply not respected.

  4. Comments become the culture of a site: If a publisher is lucky enough to become the flash point for lively conversations — especially conversations that happen between commenters, and not just ‘up’ toward the original article — it often becomes evident that a specific culture starts to emerge. It is that emergent culture that becomes the environment that other passers-by (and, um, potential advertisers) use to assess and evaluate the community. Is it a ghetto full of broken windows? Or is it a bohemian coffee house brimming with spirited debate? It is this culture that is both the risk and reward for publishers.

To keep up with expectations and aspirations, publishers appear to have two choices:

  1. Create better systems: This is the focus of the current Knight-Mozilla innovation challenge, and is often a controversial option. There rarely is a one-size-fits-all solution, and interventions that work incredibly well in one context can easily fail in others. What looks visually uncomplicated to one, may appear like an inaccessible mess to another. Most worryingly, I fear that publishers looking for silver bullet will turn to “real names” as the only answer and that the open web will lose the identity battle, while commenters lose the choice to be anonymous.

  2. Create better commenters: It is this idea that intrigues me the most today. What does it mean to create better commenters? Is it simply the badges and reward systems that sites like Huffington Post are experimenting with? Is it an extension of the kinds of ideas that the Sacremento Press is working on where contributors earn virtual accreditation by attending workshops? Or is it something else entirely, where those who comment have to pay or earn their spot on the virtual podium? Or perhaps a system where one can endorse another, similar to sites like LinkedIn?

What are your experiences?

May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

Thumbnail image for slashdot.jpg

Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

May 04 2011

13:30

MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups

Do groups have genetic structures? If so, can they be modified?

Those are two central questions for Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational structure and group intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In a talk this week at IBM’s Center for Social Software, Malone explained the insights he’s gained through his research and as the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which he launched in 2006 in part to determine how collective intelligence might be harnessed to tackle problems — climate change, poverty, crime — that are generally too complex to be solved by any one expert or group. In his talk, Malone discussed the “genetic” makeup of collective intelligence, teasing out the design differences between, as he put it, “individuals, collectively, and a collective of individuals.”

The smart group

First is the question of whether general cognitive ability — what we think of, when it comes to individuals, as “intelligence” — actually exists for groups. (Spoiler: it does.) Malone and his colleagues, fellow MIT researchers Sandy Pentland and Nada Hashmi, Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley, and Union College’s Christopher Chabrisassembled 192 groups — groups of two to five people each, with 699 subjects in all — and assigned to them various cognitive tasks: planning a shopping trip for a shared house, sharing typing assignments in Google Docs, tackling Raven’s Matrices as a group, brainstorming different uses for a brick. (For you social science nerds, the team chose those assignments based on Joe McGrath‘s taxonomy of group tasks.) Against the results of those assignments, the researchers compared the results of the participants’ individual intelligence tests, as well as the varying qualities of the group, from the easily quantifiable (participants’ gender) to the less so (participants’ general happiness).

And what they found is telling. “The average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group doesn’t predict group intelligence,” Malone said. Which is to say: “Just getting a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make a smart group.” Furthermore, the researchers found, group intelligence is also only moderately correlated with qualities you’d think would be pretty crucial when it comes to group dynamics — things like group cohesion, satisfaction, “psychological safety,” and motivation. It’s not just that a happy group or a close-knit group or an enthusiastic group doesn’t necessarily equal a smart group; it’s also that those psychological elements have only some effect on groups’ ability to solve problems together.

So how do you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively? First of all, seed them with, basically, caring people. Group intelligence is correlated, Malone and his colleagues found, with the average social sensitivity — the openness, and receptiveness, to others — of a group’s constituents. The emotional intelligence of group members, in other words, serves the cognitive intelligence of the group overall. And this means that — wait for it — groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men. (As Malone put it: “More females, more intelligence.”) That’s largely mediated by the researchers’ social sensitivity findings: Women tend to be more socially sensitive than men — per Science! — which means that, overall, more women = more emotional intelligence = more group intelligence.

Which, yay. And it’s easy to see a connection between these findings and the work of journalists — who, whether through crowdsourcing or commentary, are trying to figure out the most productive ways to amplify, and generally benefit from, the wisdom of crowds. News outfits are experimenting not just with inviting group participation in their work, but also with, intriguingly, defining the groups whose participation they invite — the starred commenters, the “brain trust” of readers, etc. Those experiments are based, in turn, on a basic insight: that the “who” of groups matters as much as the “how.” Attention to the makeup of groups on a more granular, person-to-person level may extend the benefits even further.

The group genome

But where Professor Malone’s ideas get especially interesting from the Lab’s perspective is in another aspect of his work: the notion that groups have, in their structural elements, a kind of dynamic DNA. Malone and his colleagues — in this case, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas — are essentially trying to map the genome of human collectivity, the underlying structure that determines groups’ outcomes. The researchers break the “genes” of groups down to interactions among four basic (and familiar) categories: what, who, why, and how. Or, put another way: what the project is, who’s working to enact it, why they’re working to enact it, and what methods they’re using to enact it. (So the “genetic structure” of the Linux community, for example, breaks down to relationship among the what of creating new tools and shaping existing ones; the who of the crowd combined with Linus Torvalds, and his lieutenants; the why of love, glory, and, to an extent, financial gain; and the how of both collaboration and hierarchical ordering. The interplay among all those factors determines the community’s outward expression and outcomes.)

That all seems simple and obvious — because it is — but what makes the approach so interesting and valuable from the future-of-news perspective is, among other things, its disaggregation of project and method and intention. Groups form for all kinds of reasons, but we generally pay little attention to the discrete factors that lead them to form and flourish. Just as understanding humans’ genetic code can lead us to a molecular understanding of ourselves as individuals, mapping the genome of groups may help us understand ourselves as we behave within a broader collective.

And that knowledge, just as with the human genome, might help us gain an ability to manipulate group structures. When it comes to individuals, intelligence is measurable — and, thus, it has a predictive element: A smart kid will most likely become a smart adult, with all the attendant implications. Individual intelligence is fairly constant, and, in that, almost impossible to change. Group intelligence, though, Malone’s findings suggest, can be manipulated — and so, if you understand what makes groups smart, you can adjust their factors to make them even smarter. The age-old question in sociology is whether groups are somehow different, and greater, than the sum of their parts. And the answer, based on Malone’s and other findings, seems to be “yes.” The trick now is figuring out why that’s so, and how the mechanics of the collective may be put to productive use. Measuring group intelligence, in other words, is the first step in increasing group intelligence.

Malone and his colleagues have identified 16 “genes” so far, as expressed in groups like Wikipedia contributors, YouTube uploaders, and eBay auctioneers. “We don’t believe this is the end, by any means, but we think it’s a start,” he said — a way to rethink, and perhaps even revolutionize, the design of groups. Organizational design theory in the 20th century, he noted, generally focused on traditional, hierarchical corporations. But as digital tools give way to new kinds of collectives, “it seems to me,” the professor said, that “it’s time to update organizational design theory for these new organizations.”

Image via ynse used under a Creative Commons license.

April 20 2011

14:00

The writing on the wall: Why news organizations are turning to outside moderators for help with comments

When a news organization decides to have someone else to deal with their online comments, it’s sometimes seen as waving the white flag or the equivalent of dumping a problem child at a boarding school. (And that’s before the word “outsourcing” starts getting thrown around.) But look at it from the angle of time and resources in a newsroom: Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?

It’s straightforward arithmetic, though somewhat slanted depending on the value you place on comments (i.e., whether you think they contribute to your site) and whether you have money. To borrow a line from The A-Team, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…comment moderators.”

Most recently, The Boston Globe joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in, as the name hints, moderating online content. The sacrifice in going outside is giving up the hands-on approach to building online community — but some news orgs probably don’t want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool.

Keith Bilous, ICUC’s president, says hiring outside help with comments not only frees up newsroom resources, but also makes outlets consider what they want out of comments. “The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of ‘let’s just get as much comments as we can,’” Bilous told me.

Defining the goals of comments

And that’s because the first order of business when you hire a company like ICUC is to layout your commenting guidelines and procedures — essentially what Bilous calls “the Bible to how we manage the content and community.” While this is a necessary step for ICUC’s moderators to know what’s fair or foul, it’s also a chance to clarify why to have comments and what role they play on a site, he said. There’s a need to guard against slander or libel in your comment threads, not to mention the ever-swelling and always creative list of naughty words — but beyond that things start to vary.

“Moderating for the CBC is different than moderating for The Boston Globe or The San Francisco Chronicle,” he said. “They’re all very unique in the way their content is managed.”

One area where sites diverge is on whether to moderate comments before or after being published. There’s a case to be made for both approaches — the idea of honoring the audience’s ability to have their say immediately versus the ability to carefully tend the garden as it grows. Bilous argues either can work.

“Look at TSN, by volume of comments that come to the TSN website and CBC site — which are through the freakin’ roof frankly — they’re all pre-moderated and going up every month,” he said.

If there’s a more pressing question news sites should be dealing with, it’s knowing when to throw the off switch on comments. Not in the “Christmas is canceled” way, but in the “maybe this isn’t the best story to include comments on” way. Bilous calls it “situational comments,” because he’s seeing more sites become selective with what stories they’ll allow comments on. A number of newspapers, like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, automatically turn off comments on stories about topics like suicide, race, or gay rights. The challenge for editors, Bilou said, is knowing when stories can lead to useful community discussion and when they’ll descend into chaos.

With that in mind, Bilous has three pieces of advice for editors and managers to consider about comments: Be transparent about your policy and decisions. Always be willing to ask if comments are needed on an individual story. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to take a hit if bad things are said about your publication.

“We’re never going back to a web that is static, as in ‘here is a story no one can comment on,’” he said. “The audience is only being encouraged and conditioned to participate.”

March 14 2011

18:54

When is an online comment defamatory?

Rob Minto looks at two recent cases that leave the field of libel online as confusing as ever.

For several years, newspapers, bloggers and other online publishers have been waiting for a landmark case to clarify defamation online.

The unanswered questions have been along the lines of: who’s responsible – the author or publisher (or even ISP)? What jurisdiction will it fall in? What kind of audience is required (if at all?)

In the UK, in quick succession, there have been two cases which have, if anything, muddied the waters.

Most recently there was the case of libel between Caerphilly town councillors Eddie Talbot and Colin Elsbury. Mr Elsbury claimed on Twitter that Mr Talbot had been removed by police from a polling station. Mr Talbot has successfully sued him for libel, and Mr Elsbury had agreed to pay Mr Talbot £3,000 in compensation, to publish an apology on his Twitter site, and pay legal costs.

At time of writing, Mr Elsbury has 30 followers on Twitter, a group that could easily fit into a pub (relevance will be clear later).

Some clarity, you might think – but earlier this month, Jane Clift lost her case against the Daily Mail, in which she was trying to get the identities of two commenters on a Daily Mail article to sue them for defamation.

This from Out-Law:

Mrs Justice Sharp said that Clift’s case was not strong enough to merit the identification, and that she should not have taken the comments as seriously as she did.

“It was fanciful to suggest that a sensible and reasonable reader would understand those comments as being anything more than ‘pub talk’,” she said in her ruling.

This raises a lot more questions than it answers. In no particular order:

  • The Daily Mail has an audience of millions. That’s far bigger than a pub. How is it not defamatory to post something libellous on a website? If the comments were not defamatory, then give her the names, let her try and sue, and she can lose that case in a court of law.
  • If the comments were not defamatory, then why has the Mail removed them?
  • Was Ms Clift penalised for looking like too much of a complainer? Originally, Slough council put her on some watch-list for complaining about a drunk, she then sued them (and won), and then has taken a legal case against the Mail. On paper, that looks like a lot of complaining. But then, what was she supposed to do? She’s in a Kafka-esque chain where one (legitimate) complaint has led to another, and to her life being up-ended. She’s using the courts, which is what they are there for. Except for libel, where she’s been restricted.

So, to sum up: if you post something libellous on Twitter about a local rival politician, and have only 30 followers, you can get sued. If you say something potentially libellous, using a pseudonym, on a UK newspaper site, with page views in the millions, you’re fine – that’s just “pub talk”.

I’m quite confused.

[Disclaimer: I work as the Interactive editor at the Financial Times. On FT.com we have users comments on our blogs and other sections of the site, and operate a post-moderation policy.]

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

March 04 2011

16:00

March 02 2011

17:20

Facebook Pushes Comments Upgrade, But Will Publishers Bite?

Bit by bit, feature by feature, Facebook is making inroads into sites that live outside of Facebook.com. Major publishers now sprinkle their sites with Facebook plug-ins, from fan page widgets to friend recommendations to the ubiquitous "Like" thumbs-up. And hey, why not? It's a win-win, with publishers getting more engagement and increased traffic from Facebook News Feeds, and Facebook getting more embedded in more of the web.

So it is not a bit surprising that along comes a Facebook Comments plug-in upgrade, offering added moderation for comments on publishers' sites with these very nifty features:

> Simple upgrade: Publishers only need to add one line of code to their site for the new comments box.

> Enhanced moderation: Publishers get control to make specific comments private (only seen by the commenter and their friends); or publishers can delete comments and blacklist users.

> Commenting in the News Feed: Users can now share the comments they've made on publishers' sites in their Facebook News Feed; their friends' comments on the News Feed update are automatically posted back to the publishers' sites.

The last feature is perhaps the most important viral/social element of the Comments system -- the chance to get comments to reach beyond a website and into the Facebook social stream and bounce back to the website itself. That kind of easy sharing was missing from comments previously.

So, for instance, when I posted a comment on the Facebook blog, I made sure to share it with my News Feed on Facebook, as you can see here:

comment on news feed.jpg

And then, when Jen Lee Reeves and I commented on that comment on my News Feed, our comments were posted both on the News Feed, as seen above, and on the original Facebook blog post, as seen here:

comment on facebook blog.jpg

Plus, there's the much vaunted advantage of making people comment with their real names and affiliations showing, cutting down on trolls and ne'erdowells. (At least, that's the hope -- until they figure out a way to create fake Facebook accounts and return with their invective flowing.)

The new Comments upgrade was announced yesterday, with publishers such as Sporting News, Examiner.com and Discovery jumping on board (and TechCrunch is trying a test as well). According to a discussion summary at Quora, the pros of Facebook Comments on TechCrunch so far are real identities, while the cons are loss of anonymous comments by people who are uncomfortable saying who they are. And more troubling is that you can't log in to Facebook Comments with Twitter or Google.

I spoke to Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky yesterday to do a quick interview about the release of the upgraded Comments. Below is the full audio interview, and the edited transcript of that call, including one interjection by Facebook spokesperson Jillian Carroll.

osofskyfull.mp3

Q&A

What was your overarching goal with the update of Comments?

Justin Osofsky: We're always working to iterate on our products, and this update is a natural evolution of our existing plug-in, which we first launched in February 2009. Over the past couple years, we worked really closely with partners, and listen to their feedback all the time. One of the consistent themes we heard related to Comments was that partners wanted a system with great moderation, which led to a quality discussion on their site and provided great distribution. That was the spirit behind the product we released today as an upgrade.

My team works with media partners, and listens to their feedback and helps them understand how to use Facebook's tools to derive value for their business. In regards to Comments, we heard two themes from [publishers] outside of moderation. One is they use Facebook as a distribution platform. Comments offer a great opportunity to get distribution. Users can easily share their comments back to Facebook; the average user on Facebook has 130 friends, so they can extend the conversation around the web.

The other theme we heard from partners is that they really wanted a quality conversation around their content. They cared more about quality than quantity. And as the number of blogs and content sites we visit every day grows, it should be easy to see the highest quality comments first -- based on feedback from your friends and the rankings from other readers.

Many people have said, including social media power user Robert Scoble, that they like the new Comments feature because it will lead to more civilized discourse because people have their names associated with comments. But I've seen the opposite on well trafficked Facebook pages because people can punch in their comments so easily without having to register first. Sometimes they will throw things out quicker than they should.

Osofsky: We think we can facilitate a higher quality conversation. The Comments plug-in makes commenting online more like having a conversation in the real world by leveraging authentic and persistent identities to create more quality and meaningful dialogue across the web. We think that will lead to a higher quality conversation when it's your real identity and you're representing your real self in the comments you're making.

How have you seen publishers adopting the new Comments plug-in? Are they using just Facebook Comments on stories, or using other types of commenting systems as well?

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Osofsky: We're seeing a lot of publishers who adopted Facebook's commenting system as the exclusive commenting system on their site. Sites like SportingNews.com and Discovery Communication and SBNation launched with Facebook Comments today.

You allow either Facebook or Yahoo log-ins now to comment on these sites. Where are you at with allowing people to use Google or Twitter log-ins?

Osofsky: As part of the update, we added Yahoo as a third-party log-in and we hope to add additional major providers in the future. We're always looking for ways to improve the product and add more flexibility for partners, but we have nothing further to announce today.

Who do you see as the main competition for your Comments plug-in? Do you think there's a way for you to co-exist with established players like Disqus (used on MediaShift), Echo, and others?

Osofsky: When we develop products, we focus on meeting the needs of our users and developers in creating really good solutions. Basically, this release is based on feedback from users and developers and partners. We plan on continuing to iterate on it, but we think that the greater moderation that's built into this product, the distribution of reaching Facebook's more than 500 million users, the higher engagement through the conversations -- threading on both the publisher's site and on Facebook itself -- and the quality makes us a really compelling product for publishers.

One of the features that's interesting is that when you see someone's comment, a friend of yours, on your News Feed on Facebook, you can respond to it, with the comment going back on the third party site. Do you think that might take people a little while to get used to?

Osofsky: I think users will understand the natural conversation. What's cool about this product is the most interesting content on Facebook is the stuff I discover through my friends. Over 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It's a way to find content through friends and other people.

What the commenting system enables now is -- when I am commenting on an article on, say, MediaShift -- I immediately have social context and the opinion of my friend that is being delivered on whatever the article is on your site. From that, I think there's a very natural discussion that takes place that's unified on both sites. So users will see that lead to a richer, authentic dialogue on publishers' sites and on Facebook.

One thing I'd like to see is all the conversations happening about an article all over the web in one place. And Facebook has FriendFeed, which does that a little bit. Can you see sometime down the road that this might be a unified comment system that brings together comments from other sites too? So you'd see them all in your Facebook News Feed?

Osofsky: We see the News Feed as a way of discovering content from your friends. So if I comment on an article on the Sporting News and Discover and the Examiner, my friends can now see it on their News Feed. So it's a great way to discover the conversations that are happening among the friends you are most interested in.

But as far as being an aggregator of comments from other systems, you don't see that happening at some point?

Osofsky: No. The News Feed will always be a good way to make social discovery of content, but that's the way we view it. You go to Facebook to find out what your friends like. When you show up to Facebook.com and I show up to Facebook.com -- even though we typed in an identical URL -- we're having fundamentally different experiences because we have different friends and different interests, and they are sharing different things about their lives and from publisher sites. That's the experience that will continue on Facebook.

When I look in my Facebook News Feed I can see when people connect their tweets to their status updates. So I am seeing things from other services outside of Facebook. That's why I'm wondering whether other comments could be brought into the News Feed like that.

Osofsky: When we launched the platform in 2007, we basically opened it up for developers to allow people to connect with the things they care most about, and the entities they care most about -- whether it's a sports team, whether it's a celebrity. And because of that, I think that Facebook is a great way to find things in your life, and that's the way that Facebook works, and that's the way it's going to continue to work going forward.

When you talk about comment moderation, you said comments from friends and top-rated comments would rise to the top. Some comment systems have a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." Will you continue to have just the thumbs up or would you consider a thumbs down as well?

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Osofsky: We will listen to feedback on how to best surface the best and most relevant comments. We have no immediate plans to change what we launched today. But essentially we want users to see a really quality conversation, and we think the way you do it is you first see the comments from your friends and then the comments ranked highly from other readers on a publisher's site.

There is a way to block comments that you don't like, or report them?

Osofsky: As you're reading, you can mark comments as spam or report them as being abusive.

And it's up to the publisher to decide what to do with those reports?

Osofsky: We will naturally surface the most highly ranked comments, those will be the ones you'll see more than other comments. And we also give moderation controls to publishers. Based on their feedback, we added a lot of moderation controls as well as "blacklist" controls so website administrators can control the visibility of a comment from making it private [i.e., only shown to the commenter and their friends] to hiding it completely. Or they they can block content or specific words -- such as foul language and spam -- all from their own moderation dashboard.

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Will a reader see a highly rated comment above their friends' comments or which one comes first? And can the publisher adjust that?

Osofsky: Each individual reader that goes to a publisher's site, on the site, they would see a different view. Just like you or I have different friends, from that, what you see in a comments box and I see would be different. The publisher has an administrative dashboard that also shows the comments that are being made on their site.

So which would be ranked higher, the friends' comments or the ones ranked high by readers?

Osofsky: The product seeks to surface the highest quality comments first, and the way in which we built it, we'll continue to evolve our approach to this to make sure there's really quality conversation.

Part of what you see with the comments is the person's affiliation or where they went to college. Is there a way to adjust what shows there alongside a person's name next to a comment?

Jillian Carroll (Facebook Communications): It's an interesting situation. If you made your school network public but not your work, then your school would show up even if it's more relevant where you work. Part of this will be addressed by privacy controls and people adjusting those.

Osofsky: When we release products, we respect people's privacy settings. And if they want to change their privacy settings, we give them the control to do that.

One other piece of feedback I heard was that TechCrunch had implemented Facebook Comments and they're not seeing a number on the number of comments for each article, that there are "48 comments" or whatever. Is that something you will be adding?

Osofsky: We believe our product encourages quality instead of quantity of comments. What I think you're seeing today on publisher sites is a very real and interesting dialogue in the comments section. One of the consistent things we heard from publishers, who we've been talking to the past couple years, is you often get so many comments, one can't surface the relevant and interesting comments. That's what this product is trying to address.

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What about people who aren't on Facebook? Would they still be able to comment on a story?

Osofsky: You can log in on Facebook or you can log in on Yahoo, and we'll be looking to add additional flexibility going forward in terms of log-in providers.

So at the moment if you don't have Yahoo and you don't have Facebook, then you're not able to make comments in the system.

Osofsky: The two ways to comment in the system is through Yahoo and Facebook, correct.

*****

What do you think about the upgraded Facebook Comments plug-in? If you run a site, would you use it? What do you see as its strong points and drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 09 2011

15:00

NewsTrust Baltimore takes a local approach to media literacy and showcasing new journalism

NewsTrust sees its mission as helping readers find “good journalism” by giving people the tools to separate good from bad. But when it comes to journalism, good and bad aren’t exactly universal truths anymore. Is a story good if it adheres to facts but lacks strong writing? Is a story bad if it’s on a blog, regardless of how it’s reported? And what if its told through an ideological or political lens different from your own?

While NewsTrust has previously employed its tools for vetting journalism on a national level, their newest test, NewsTrust Baltimore, takes things to a smaller scale — namely one where readers’ connection to news is based on geography (will a new school be built? is the police department cutting staff? did the legislature cut taxes?) and necessity.

That familiarity, with both the news and outlets reporting it, could make for a better experiment in media criticism as well as media literacy. Who better to judge the Baltimore Sun or WYPR than the people who live in the area?

When I spoke to Fabrice Florin, executive director of NewsTrust, he said their two-month Baltimore project makes sense because of the upheaval in local journalism, as staffs and resources have shrunk at traditional media outlets in the region. At the same time new blogs and alternative media, some created by former journalists, are cropping up.

“The news ecosystem in Baltimore is fascinating. It’s extremely diverse right now,” he told me.

That’s reflected in NewsTrust Baltimore’s partners, ranging from The Sun and WYPR to Baltimore Brew, Urbanite Magazine and local Patch sites. Stories from these sites are aggregated on NewsTrust Baltimore where local reviewers can rate them. (NewsTrust also has a widget that a number of partners are using that allow readers to review stories without having to leave their site.) The rating tools let reviews decide whether stories are factual, fair, well-sourced, well written, and provide context. Beyond that, it also asks whether reviewers trust the publication and would recommend the story. A glance at a recent review shows promising signs:

This would seem to be an in-depth investigative piece, presenting multiple points of view. I can cite no part of it that I know for certain is erroneous or slanted. Therefore I must cautiously assume it to be an informative article. However, I have past experiences with this publication that cause me to bring a skeptical eye to it.

Florin said the value to news organizations is a balanced, structured system to offer feedback. (Contrast that review with what you might see in the comment section at the end of stories.) “Going through the review process the participant is forced to explicitly give criticism,” he said. “The rating system is based on journalist qualities, and when they click on rating buttons they’re giving actionable feedback to the journalist.”

Of course, a smart series of buttons does not automatically make one a media critic. Florin said they offer helpful explainers to what “fair” or “factual” mean to a story. Additionally they’re putting together a library of guides on media literacy and the basics of thinking like a journalist — although that too can be contentious turf.

The goal isn’t to a better informed citizenry, not to make readers think like journalists. That also means trying to foster a broader news appetite among readers. That means exposing readers to the wider variety of media outside of traditional news sources. “There are people who are doing good journalism on the fringes and not necessarily getting the recognition they deserve,” Florin said. “This is where NewsTrust shines.”

They’ve created a formidable regional news aggregator, one that is headed up by editors and a community manager, which makes NewsTrust Baltimore something of a news hub for the region. “In a different world, if we were a for-profit, we could offer a very credible news consumer destination,” Florin said. “We’re really proud of our feed. We really do aggregate the best journalism in Baltimore.” In that sense, NewsTrust Baltimore is more than just an experiment in media literacy or a response to shrinking news sources. By presenting a menu of local news sources, NewsTrust Baltimore is encouraging people to sample broadly and rate their server.

Food analogies aside, NewsTrust could potentially set up franchises (sorry) around the country, with NewsTrust sites for communities with an abundance of new and traditional news sources. Though the Baltimore project is expected to run two months, the NewsTrust team did apply for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue their work and develop funding models to make the project sustainable.

“We’re careful, we don’t want to disrupt the ecosystem. We want to add value to it,” Florin said. “We don’t want to replace the people who are there.”

November 23 2010

19:00

Catalysts: The Globe and Mail’s community brain trust

One of the Big Existential Questions facing journalism right now is the extent to which news organizations are just that — organizations that produce news — and the extent to which they’re also something more: engagers of the world, curators of human events, conveners of community. Should news outlets focus on news…or should they also be sponsoring conferences and creating film clubs and setting up stores and selling wine?

There’s a lot of variation in the way they answer that question, of course, but many news outlets are currently skewing toward the “community” end of the continuum, preparing for the future armed with the idea that news production is only part of their mandate — the notion that to succeed, both journalistically and financially, they’ll need to figure out ways to cultivate community out of, and around, their news content.

One particularly interesting experiment to that end — a worthwhile initiative, you might say! — is playing out in Canada, where The Globe and Mail, the country’s paper of record, has convened a community of users to help guide its engagement policies. The Globe Catalysts are a kind of external brain trust for the outlet, a community charged with helping to ensure that the paper’s path is the right one for its users.

“We wanted people to know we’re taking this seriously,” Jennifer MacMillan, the paper’s communities editor, explained of the project. And at its core, the Catalysts experiment is about demonstrating that engagement is a mutual proposition. “We wanted to make sure people felt valued.”

The paper came up with the idea over the summer, MacMillan told me — as a project that would be a part of the paper’s print and online redesign that rolled out this fall. (The idea, actually, was Mathew Ingram’s — the Lab contributor who, before he became a writer at GigaOm, was the Globe’s communities editor.) To test the waters of user interest, MacMillan and her team sent out a Catalyst invitation to the users who subscribe to The Globe and Mail’s e-newsletters (“people we knew were engaged, and who might have an interest in helping us shape where we’re going”) — a form asking for basic info like name, postal code, gender, and profession. And they got, to their shock, floods of replies in return — “several thousand,” in fact. Which was not just a surprise, but also “really encouraging,” MacMillan notes — a show of users not just expressing interest in the paper’s future, but acting on it. “A sign that they wanted to play a bigger part in the experience of the Globe.”

From there, the paper streamlined further, asking respondents to write a short explanation of their vision for the paper. Looking for a cross-section of background and location, interests and perspectives — and employing the services of the digital communications firm Sequentia Environics for help in whittling down the applications — the paper selected a group of users who are charged with helping to oversee the community elements of the paper’s content. A group of 1,000 or so users, in fact, MacMillan told me. (And, of those, about 800 accepted the offer to be Catalysts.) From there, they created a special, members-only section of the Globe and Mail site and then “just started chatting” — about the paper’s future and about the best way to cultivate community around it.

And a big part of that community is the content that it generates: the comments that flesh out a story’s life in the world beyond its text. Per MacMillan’s introduction of the Catalysts project, its members will:

— Help out commenters when they need a hand

— Help keep discussion on-topic

— Intervene when discussion becomes immoderate or personal

— Bring particularly poor behaviour to the attention of Globe staff

— Act in any manner that is representative of a community leader

— Add thoughtful posts that add background info, perspective

— Recommend/vote on comments that add insight and contribute to the discussion

It’s a broad mandate that’s along the lines of Gawker’s starred commenter system and HuffPo’s “Moderator” badge. And so far, it’s yielded good results: “We’ve had very good feedback,” MacMillan says, “and I think a big part of that is that we’re giving readers what they were looking for.” The paper’s recent series, “Canada: Our Time to Lead,” made use not only of Catalyst moderation, but also of the Catalysts’ connection to the newsroom. Globe reporters waded into the Catalyst forum, which led to conversations and new (crowd)sourcing opportunities, MacMillan notes. “We’ve never really done something quite like this before, where the contact has been so direct” — and “it was a really fruitful discussion.”

As for the comments, their volume has held fairly steady since the Catalysts started doing their thing in early October — a recent piece on Canada’s failed bid for a seat on the UN Security Council garnered over 2,000 comments — but their overall value, MacMillan says, has risen. Which is a trend we’re seeing among several of the news organizations that employ a select group of users to do their comment-moderation: investment leads to accountability leads to higher quality. (And to add a bit of incentive, the paper has made a practice of picking a particularly punchy quote from a user comment, and running that quote, via its “You said it” feature, across its homepage.)

But what’s the incentive for the Catalysts themselves? The fact that the community has a high barrier to entry, and no financial reward, begs the question: Why? Why are people willing to take time out of their presumably busy lives to participate in a project whose work isn’t compensated? Is this the cognitive surplus, playing out in our news environment?

To some extent, yes. Financial gain is by no means the only incentive for participation, of course — and there’s something inherently rewarding about seeing your ideas play out “in living color,” MacMillan notes. And togetherness — being part of something — can be its own compensation. One benefit of the Catalyst approach could simply be that it’s making its members part of a community; and in this fragmented world of ours, that alone is a value. And though the project is a work in progress, it’s been gratifying to see what can happen when put some effort into transforming your users — anonymous, atomized — into something more meaningful and productive: a community. “They’re interested in seeing where this is going,” MacMillan says — “just as we are.”

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.

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