Dear Newspapers: Time To Focus On Enabling The Community; Not Limiting It

from the try-this-again dept

As we keep hearing from newspaper execs (and sometimes, reporters) insisting that paywalls or micropayments are the solution to what ails the industry, we keep asking why people will pay. The whole reason why newspapers used to work as a business model was that they collected a community around news. But, these days, there are much better communities out there. The newspapers haven’t kept up. And, when it comes to news, people want to participate. They’re not passive. That might mean contributing to the news or commenting on the news, but just as likely it means sharing and spreading the news, as well. But nearly every proposal from newspapers looks to limit that ability, which only makes it less valuable to the very community the newspapers need, driving them elsewhere. We’ve been saying for years that newspapers need to focus on enabling communities, but that still seems to be the last thing on most of their minds.

For example, this rather depressing discussion of research presented at the Future of Journalism conference concerning participatory media suggests that many in the newspaper business view the whole “participation” thing as a pain to be dealt with. Very few look for ways to better enable the community — most seem focused on how to prevent the community from doing something bad, or looking for other ways to somehow limit the community.

And then you have situations like this:

Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.

From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.

They’re viewing the entire thing backwards. First, they’re complaining that there’s “little news contained in comments.” But who said there was supposed to be? It’s the basic difference between reporting and a discussion. But the newspaper folks are so focused on having to be “reporters” that they’re missing the fact their community wants to have a discussion around the news. Instead, it’s seen as a bad thing that it’s “not news.” Furthermore, rather than being seen as a way to enable the community, comments are reduced to a way to attract more visitors. If you’re just looking to attract more visitors, there are all sorts of things you can do. If you want to enable the community, it takes a different mindset.

Of course, not every newspaper person thinks that way. Techdirt reader Shane Richmond, who is the head of technology for the Telegraph, has written up a report for the Nieman Foundation, discussing the various ways that paper is looking to enable the community. As you read through it, it’s not about page views or having the community submit stuff for journalists to do the real work on, it’s actually all about enabling the community: enabling them to have a voice, enabling them to connect with one another and even enabling them to have an audience. As Richmond notes, there’s still a lot more to do, but it looks like the Telegraph is approaching this with the right mindset. It would be great to see more newspapers follow the same path.

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Comments on “Dear Newspapers: Time To Focus On Enabling The Community; Not Limiting It”

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PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

What is value

I think a big problem is the misconception that people have of value. We see it time and time again when someone claims that because their intellectual monopoly is being violated, value is being destroyed. That is wholly inaccurate. Value is not how much money is made off your product. Value is the total benefit that people are getting off your product. And for most people, that is much higher than the price of your product. For those of you who don’t believe me, draw a supply and demand curve. The rectangle formed by the origin and the intersection of supply and demand is the value you capture. But, the triangle above that is the value you do not capture. Intellectual monopolies are about redistributing some of that value that normally goes to the consumers and giving it to the producer. Now, what Mike is talking about complicates things a whole lot as you create more value out of your products but, the more people use your product, the more value is created whether you capture some of it or not. Let me say this again: value does not go away simply because you are not making money…

Archbishop says:

My local paper has a comment section that’s unreadable – 90% trash and trolls. They asked what they can do to improve it. I pointed them towards slashdot and said the code is open source. I think papers need to adopt a simple thumbs up/thumbs down ranking system with moderators so it doesn’t get out of control. Let the newspaper staff moderate and choose other moderators. If you mis-moderate then moderation is taken away from you. I don’t know if that moderation system would work or not, but it seems to me that most people like to share and help. Like a moderated version of topix only if the papers did it themselves, they’d have more ad space to profit from.

DS says:

That’s the very thing that happened with my local paper. But worse. The editor of the paper was also the moderator of the forum. So some things were removed instantaneously (any sort of critique of the paper, or questioning of it’s policies, regardless of how valid or well thought out the question was, linking to outside news sources, asking the editor questions, and a few very valid newsworthy posts about things that were in a blind spot for the newspaper), but abuse of other members, calling police pedarists, an invasion of trolls from another city’s forum, and and the like, they was left. The only excuse given was that he didn’t have time to watch the forum 24/7, but some things were gone within hours of posting, when the vile posts stayed forever.

Until THAT policy was brought into question, the editor actually started to bash anyone who questioned him as living in their parents basement, calling them freeloaders, and then closed the entire forum in a huff.

PhillipBaker (user link) says:

Free networks vs. free stuff

Brad Burnham of USV wrote a great post recently. His point was that free Web services that create networks represent a fundamentally different exchange compared to our traditional marketplace of buyers and sellers:

“Both sides of the debate about Free do not seem to acknowledge how fundamentally different the relationship between suppliers and consumers is on the web. Services are not offered for free at all. There is an exchange of value between users, the creators of the raw material – data, content, and meta-data, and the network where that data is converted into insight.”


The problem isn’t that news organizations gave content away for free, it’s that having done so, they never set out to capture the other side of the exchange that users seem only too happy to provide in return – sharing, voting, recommending, commenting, discussing etc – by building the network. This was (and still is) because news organizations do not see the shift to or the benefits of a free network: they only see the free stuff they are giving away.

Anonymous Coward says:

i dont think you get it. on every site with the kind of traffic that NYT gets, the stupider the comments become. look at youtube or digg. crowdsourced moderation is crap — try saying anything bad about apple on digg, or anything good about microsoft on slashdot, or anything bad about any liberal on dailykos. all of them will get buried so fast, regardless of how meritorious the comment is. on top of that, virtually every single non-spam comment is an uneducated and uninformed opinion. nearly 0% of comments are by business owners, attorneys, politicians, engineers (and i don’t mean people who are studying to become one…) or anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

PhillipBaker (user link) says:


This is a real and unsolved problem but I don’t think it is because no smart people are commenting. Every smart people in the world could participate and 95% of comments would still not add anything.

The Web has moved us to a world of “publish, then filter” (see ‘Here’s Comes Everybody’ by Clay Shirky) and online media now follows a Paretian (power law) rather than Gaussian (normal) distribution. It’s basically a long tail as you describe, a few gems and loads of crap, and it accentuates the more comments there are.

The same problem exists for content in general but we already have much better filters in place for news and blogs. The first thing I’d do if I was a news site is let people follow the comments of other users rather than wade through 100+ on every article a la Backtype. If someone I follow comments on something, I think there is a good chance that is an article I want to read. And that is just one instance of enabling a community around news.

PhillipBaker (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Sorry, that should be “let people follow the comments of other users a la Backtype, rather than wade through 100+ on every article.”

I also advocate leaving comments to the professionals, like Disqus, who already have all this functionality built out. Plus, it is also possible to edit comments so I don’t have to leave things like “Every smart people…” for posterity 😉

bshock (profile) says:

Okay, so from the viewpoint of the newspaper, what’s the difference if 95% of its commenters are morons?

If the point is to create a “community,” isn’t the fact of the community more important than its content?

I suspect that newspapers tend to downplay the importance of community for the same reason some of the commenters here are complaining about the nature of communities: lack of control.

It’s scary, I guess. If you can’t control it, you feel like it has no value for you.

But your feelings may be leading you astray. Look at YouTube comments. Everyone hates them. They’re unpleasant, extreme, and often unreadable. But people continue to use the comments. Maybe it makes people feel like they’re part of YouTube. Maybe it just gives them a chance to vent. But YouTube is much healthier for the input.

PhillipBaker (user link) says:

That’s not exactly what I said, but if only a fraction of comments on any given site are useful, it means we haven’t figured out a good way to filter comments, particularly when they appear in large numbers like on newspaper sites.

Filtering comments could be powered by editors, journalists, interns, users, technology or a combination. The NY Times has editors picks and reader recommendations in their comments pages but in my experience the former is frequently blank and the latter is often filled with 3/4 of the comments and neither is useful. I’d love to be able to follow smart commenters and see where they show up next. (You can actually already do this with TimesPeople but functionality is limited and it is way in the background of the experience of using the site.)

I think managing communities is absolutely scary because it is a different role – for the companies and potentially the journalists too. Brad’s post was terrific at explaining why the services organizations provide might more closely resemble those provided by governments (think municipal rather than federal) than companies today.

I’m not sure if you meant YouTube is or is not much healthier for the comments, but either way it is a great example. Firstly, on YouTube the content itself clearly filled with power laws and there really isn’t much of a filter on the site. Instead, and again this is my experience, I see most YouTube videos embedded elsewhere by people that I follow via social media. That is my filter and it means I don’t wade through a lot of irrelevant videos. Secondly, I think the content can influence who shows up in the first place and certainly who stays. And that speaks to relevance or usefulness as much as it does to intellect or political persuasion.

dhaines says:

First, they’re complaining that there’s “little news contained in comments.”

Actually I can kind of see their point here… With the way warmed-over press releases, pundit hype, and celebrigossip are passed off as so-called reporting, it would sure help if SOMEONE injected some news into the process. If the news media won’t do it, maybe the commenters should.

Heck, then maybe us readers could get micropayments from big media in exchange for putting news in their comments.

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