The Triumphant Return of Commenting

In May of 2009, I wrote about theindependent.com shutting down commenting completely.  I had high hopes that the conversation on our stories could be better handled by taking advantage of ‘Tweet This’ and opening Cover It Live discussions on hot topics, and of course the good old Letters to the Editor.The impetus behind the decision was pretty much what gives any online or newsroom editor gigantic headaches: trolls and idiots incapable of participating in a reasonable discussion.

The decision also came down during a year of layoffs and pay cuts, as well as a transition to yet another new owner in the space of two years. In short, 2009 just sucked balls.

We worried and fretted about having the manpower to read and approve every single comment post before publishing it, as dictated by our new owners. We’re a small paper with a small staff. It just didn’t seem feasible.

Nearly a year later, and we’re ready to give it another try. We never found a better way to promote conversation in the community than via commenting. We tried different Cover it Live shows and while we love Cover it Live, we’re finding that it doesn’t *quite* get the level of conversation we want. Timing is an issue. Most people work during the day when we have our shows, and so we found it difficult to grow our audience (special events being the exception.) Finding a formula that drew people in was another problem.

No, commenting just seems like a better way to get our finger on the pulse of the community. But we still have manpower issues.

After speaking with several of our sister papers who allow commenting, here’s what we’re doing:

  • Commenting will be open only on select stories – at first. We need to get a handle on what the workload will be like, mainly for me because I’m the “first line of defense” as they say.
  • Commenting WILL be strictly moderated, meaning we (read: I) will read every single comment and approve/deny it for publishing. When I am not available, the “second line of defense” takes over the job. That will either be our New Media Director or our Senior Writer – depends on who’s free. When it’s after hours, comments will just be queued until the following business day.
  • We will not respond to complaints like, “My comment didn’t get published”. Frankly, we just don’t have the time. Yes, we are pretty much going to deny any comment that uses vulgarities, name-calling, or troll tactics.
  • One of us will be semi-active in the commenting. Since we’re reading them all, we’re pretty sure questions about a story will crop up and we will do our best to answer them. We have the access to the authors of the articles, so we’ll do our best to clarify.
  • Comments will be on a separate tab within the story.
  • No comments will ever be allowed on crime, accidents or trial stories. Ever.

Here is the quick policy people will see when signing up (a more detailed policy will be available as well.)

  1. Use your real name. If you aren’t willing to post your name, don’t post your opinion. If it’s not good enough to have your name by it, it’s not good enough for anyone else to read.
  2. We read EVERY comment before it is posted. This may take a while. Relax. If you don’t see your comment right away, don’t worry. We’ll read it, make sure it doesn’t break the rest of these rules, and then post it. It won’t happen right away.
  3. Be nice. This is a civil conversation. You don’t have to agree, but don’t be mean. No name calling, profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, threatening or violent comments, sexually explicit or crude comments, or anything just plain rude. A good point doesn’t need to include calling someone a “moron” or “white trash”.
  4. Be factual, as much as you can. Don’t throw out comments you can’t verify. Don’t spread rumors or lies. That doesn’t help anyone. And don’t throw any libel out, either.
  5. We will allow opinions some might find offensive. We will allow conversation that is strident in tone. We will allow criticism of public officials. And we will allow opinions some may find offensive about tough social issues around race and sexual orientation, as long as they don’t break the rules above.

    This is a community conversation, but The Independent is controlling it on our site. Therefore, we set the rules. If you don’t like them, we’re sorry, but they are the rules. Although the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows for freedom of speech, Congress is not in charge of this site. This is a privately owned Web site.

    The opinions are those of the author and not the administrators, moderators or the paper, and therefore the Grand Island Independent will not be held liable.

So there you have it. I’m actually glad to be bringing them back, although I’m slightly wary about having to moderate every single comment. I wish we didn’t have to do that, but we don’t have much of a choice.

We’ll see how it goes! I do still have my whip and jackboots and I’m ready for all the nazi-mod comparisons.

Change. Adapt. Evolve.

Someone asked me what I’d say to newsrooms and editors about how they are run. Ohhh I have some thoughts on that, so I wrote them down and if they don’t think it’s too crappy they might show up in the APME magazine. But since I’m a blogger, I can share here whether they do or not.

I can’t speak for larger papers, or from years of experience in a newsroom. I can only speak as a set of “fresh eyes” on the dynamics of a newsroom in a medium-sized daily. Because I work in the Online Department of my newspaper, I’m going to focus on digital journalism and share some things I’ve learned.

First, don’t be afraid to try new things. Even if the venture fails, there are lessons to be learned. If someone in the newsroom has an idea that seems even halfway plausible, develop and encourage it because it may just be the next popular thing your newspaper will do. The things that catch on with readers can be hit or miss, but it never hurts to try. My paper put out a twice-daily news report complete with an anchor, script and producer for a little over a year. It did not work out, but we have been able to refine the kinds of videos our readers do want to see, and we now have several staff members trained in video editing/producing.

Second, your job will evolve with or without you. It’s up to you to evolve with it or get left behind. This applies to everyone from reporter to editor to manager and beyond. Yes, you may have a shiny journalism degree, but there will always be more to learn – do you know how to pull video off your cell phone and post it on the web? Have you heard of Twitter? Do you understand how Twitter can be used to enhance a reader’s experience? If you answered, “Yes” to any of those questions, great! If not, then you need to get on the ball and evolve. (For a good idea of what journalists should be learning these days, Read Mindy McAdams’ Reporters Guide to Multimedia Proficiency on her blog.)

Third, don’t shy away from interacting with your readers – beyond the letters to the editor. Use your forums if you have them. Read and respond to comments they leave in stories. Get on Twitter and ‘tweet your beat’ by letting your followers see what stories you’re working on for them. Or use a Cover it Live liveblog to cover big, ongoing, or breaking stories, debates, or sporting events. This will give your readers another avenue to your content, drive traffic to your website and could generate revenue by selling sponsorship of the coverage.

At the end of the day, you will be ahead of the game if you can use a variety of tools out there (many of them free) that allow you to engage with your readers. Interaction is a huge key in developing the all-important trust factor that gets them to come to you for news and information and not your competitor.

Useful Links:

Examples:

The Twitter Revolution

I got an email out of the blue earlier tonight from Kari Cobham, a reporter at the Daytona Beach News-Journal asking some excellent questions about using Twitter and how to pitch it to her newsroom. The questions she asked actually came verbatim from her editors. Kari sounds like a reporter who “gets it” and I totally love her enthusiasm! She is meeting with these editors tomorrow and wanted some ammo to take in with her. I don’t know if I gave enough ammo, but I sure do talk a lot.

Here are her questions, and my answers:

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Wow, someone read my blog 🙂 Thanks! Let’s see if I can be of help to you. The revenue question doesn’t sound like your biggest hurdle, but the awesome website Old Media New Tricks (http://www.oldmedianewtricks.com, @mediatricks on Twitter) had some wonderful responses to this question:

  • This effort is more about marketing our brand than a direct dollar-for-dollar payback. If we do this right, our brand is seen as a part of their lives. Besides, these social media tools are (generally) free. We have little to lose by trying.
  • If we don’t do this, then we risk becoming irrelevant. This is the way people are communicating at an increasing rate, and we are in the communications business.
  • This can be used for good customer service. Social media allows for us to respond to customers swiftly and effectively. It’s hard to measure the effect of good customer service, but it is easy to measure the effect of bad or nonexistent customer service.
  • It’s not about making money right now, but this just might make money in the long run. If we don’t plant our flag now and learn to do this the right way, we’ll be behind the curve.
  • We can reach an entirely new audience for our product. That’s the holy grail, isn’t it? With the economy the way it is, now is the time to try to reach out to new people.

The rest of your questions, let me take one-by-one.

How do we do it with with a shrinking staff?

I have a newsroom of 6 beats, 3 sports guys, 1 videographer and 2 photogs. They all have twitter accounts. So far only 1 photog and the video guy will tweet. Neither of them have quite got the hang of it yet, but I give them mega points for effort. My paper’s main Twitter account is me. I use Twhirl (twhirl.org) and keep it running in the background while I work. I watch for any updates the newsroom posts, I tweet it immediately. I listen to the chatter in there and tweet anything that will be newsworthy.

To answer your question, you need someone who will be willing to do this. I don’t think you will have much luck getting everyone to do it – yet. I haven’t. But you should find someone in your newsroom, or if you have an online team – a web editor, something – I don’t know how your newsroom is structured. Ours is sort of weird. Ask them if they would be willing to tweet headlines a few times a day. Or it may end up on your shoulders.

You have to build a network too. Someone must take some time and start following people in your area and get them to follow you back. Once you get the ball rolling, it grows fairly quickly especially if you tweet your headlines manually and engage with your followers. But someone simply has to to do it. Don’t expect the other reporters to jump on the bandwagon especially if they are worried about ‘one more thing’ they have to do.

The flipside to the above, is that manually tweeting the headlines isn’t all that time-consuming. At least for me. I tweet a hello message in the morning, answer an @reply or two, and then just tweet headlines I think the readers might find cool, or of interest to them. I include feature stuff, a good letter to the editor, the latest column or blog post from our community bloggers… it doesn’t always have to be a headline tweet. But I find something at random times, tweet it and then go back to whatever I was working on. At the end of the day, I tweet what we’re working on for tomorrow.

How do we get around the current prohibition against posting anything without first getting and editor to read and approve it?

This is tricky if your newsroom is really a stickler about this. The headlines I tweet are ones I can link to, so they don’t go on Twitter until it’s on the site, which means it’s been approved. I will tweet something like ‘Photogs have just been sent to check on a car accident’ or even stuff like ‘The Governor is in our office right now to talk to _____ about his budget plans’ or something. But if you check out my tweets at http://twitter.com/theindependent you’ll get a feel for the kinds of things you can say. And don’t be afraid to retweet your competition too 🙂

Can reporters Twitter in an interesting way, and engage in conversations with readers, without voicing an opinion, which is required to do their job? Will this have to be limited to columnists, who can have an opinion?

There are many ways a journo can use Twitter. They can use it simply to network with other journalists and make contacts. They can use it to cover meetings, events and breaking news – just look at how it was used during the Mumbai attacks. Watch CNN reporters on Twitter to see how they are doing it and use it as a guideline. I don’t quite feel qualified to answer this question very thoroughly, and my answer here might not be workable. But there are a lot of comments in this article you might find helpful: http://is.gd/aiRY – but no this does not need to be limited to columnists.

Will it generate sufficient audience to make it a worthwhile use of our reporters’ time?

Yes, but you have to take the time to build that audience. You can’t just start tweeting and expect them to come. You need to pimp the hell out of it in print and online. Reverse publish. Make the latest tweets visible somewhere on the website. Have the staff add ‘Follow Us on Twitter’ with the link to their email sigs. Follow people in your community from your paper’s main feed. Heck, follow people outside the community. I ended up searching for all Twitterers in the entire state. My logic was that perhaps they have ties to my town. And if not, then no harm. They know we exist. Invest in the time to grow the community in the beginning. Once it shows signs of growing on its own, then I think that would be the time to try and pull in other reporters and staff to maybe help out, or start their own account.

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Apologies to poor Kari for the length, but I hope it’s at least helpful.

So long and thanks for all the fish

My newspaper was sold today for the second time in 9 months. It’s the weirdest feeling ever. I’ve never been through a takeover before, let alone two of them and it’s been quite the ride.

When GateHouse purchased us, along with 13 other properties, from Morris, it was like a bombshell announcement that took everybody by surprise. There was excitement mingled with a healthy tinge of fear. What does this mean? What about my insurance and retirement? How do we keep the site running with new tools? Aw man we *just* did a redesign and now we have to do it again?

But GateHouse was good to us. Right after I found out about the news, I blogged it in my personal blog, and not even a day later I had a lovely ‘welcome to the family’ message from Howard Owens. That right there went a long way toward making me feel pretty good about our new owners. GateHouse worked hard with all 14 Morris papers to get us integrated quickly. We had some battles and we tried hard to fight to keep our new design, but we understood the importance of maintaining a sense of uniformity among all the papers in the company – both from an administrative and branding perspective. once we got over ourselves, we could see the wisdom in it.

I’ve enjoyed meeting GateHouse peeps on Twitter. I love being a part of something as awesome as WiredJournalists (started by some GHS folk.) I haven’t known them very long, but they’re good people. I can just tell. And I’m sorry to be leaving them. They have the right ideas when it comes to online journalism and I hope they keep that enthusiasm for it.

At the same time, when the announcement was made this morning that the Omaha World Herald purchased The Independent and York News Times, I was, to put it mildly, floored. They sent pretty much every Very Important Person in the company to welcome us (and they brought juice and cookies! :)) so there was a real emphasis on this being a great thing for The Independent.

Only time will tell. But I’m a glass half full kind of person, and I hope this means great things for my paper and this job I love.

So, thank you GateHouse, I learned so much in the brief time I got to work with you guys and I wish you all luck. You’re all wonderful people.

And Hello Omaha World Herald and Co. I’m looking forward to working with you!