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.

Filed Under: community, journalism, newspapers, participatory journalism

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  1. identicon
    PhillipBaker, 17 Sep 2009 @ 10:20am

    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.

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