Comments are messy, but so is life — editors should get over it
I’m engaged in (what I thought was an old) discussion at work about the value of reader comments on news stories. Others’ concerns are the nastiness of some commenters, and the (flawed) logic that we wouldn’t print it in the newspaper, so why let people say it on our website?
In my research to explain this, I’ve looked at a lot of essays and blog posts. I think Jeff Jarvis says it best in this post from 2008:
So are comments destroying civilization? The reason this argument is so damned tired is that we all know who the assholes are and where they hang out and we know how to step around them and their smelly shopping carts. I don’t need … newspaper editors to protect me from them. The nannies’ obsession comes, I think, from the media and news worldview that led them to believe that they were able to package the world neatly every day in a beautiful box with a bow on top. Now that we can suddenly hear more voices, it upsets them as schmutz does Felix Ungar. The world isn’t just out of their control now but it’s messy.
But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.
The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published. It’s even more wrong because the internet is not media — no matter how much media people insist on seeing the web in their image. Instead it is, as Doc Searls points out, a place where we talk. Walk by any streetcorner on the way to the theater and there’s a good chance you will hear stupid, illiterate, nasty things before you hear smart, well-written things. Time for a neutron bomb? No, you keep walking.
Google CEO Schmidt hints at “very powerful display advertising solutions” to help news websites
From an article in the Telegraph:
(Google CEO Eric) Schmidt … to him the revenue model the newspaper industry will have to use comes after a pretty simple, and essentially binary, decision.
“The simplest model to think about is that your readers are eventually going to consume the majority of your products in online devices. The fact of the matter is that is what the reader is choosing. “The problem is how do you monetise that reader?
There are two choices. One is that you can do a subscription and the other is to use advertising. “We are in the process of trying to develop very powerful display advertising solutions that will work in those categories. That is the way it is going to happen.”
Reporter bias contaminates paywall coverage
There is a subtle but deeply wrong bias woven into much of the newspaper reports and columns about budding efforts to charge users for access to online news.
More often than not, the writers state as historical fact that newspapers made a “fatal miscalculation” in not charging for news long ago — and thus it’s difficult now because readers are “accustomed” to free news. (Those phrases are from this LA Times story by Joe Flint but you’ll find them in many newspaper reports. This new one from the New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena and TIm Arango says “consumers became accustomed to the sweet, steady flow of free news” and the “free ride” might end.)
Flint states: “There is a general consensus that putting content on the Internet for free — d’oh! — may not have been the brightest idea.”
Such views are certainly questionable. Many DID try to charge early and failed, as Steve Yelvington among many has noted, and many including me and Wired’s Chris Anderson will tell you there’s no economic sense to charging for general online news in its present form.
In addition to being inaccurate, these unsupported assumptions reveal the writers’ contemptuous view of their audience as a bunch of lazy, unappreciative freeloaders who don’t know how lucky they are to have us. If news publishers want to survive, they need the opposite approach — respect and listen to your users’ sense of content value, and get past your sense of entitlement.
Improving news with user-directed assignment desks
Journalism is about asking and answering questions. So for journalism the “metaquestion” — the question underlying all other questions — is, what questions shall we ask?
Until now, that metaquestion was answered by an analog process. It leveraged no network or algorithm. It basically consisted of editors speculating what they think the public should know, and reporters talking to informed people. That was fine, for the time.
But we can do better now.
That metaquestion can now be answered in powerful new ways that take advantage of the collaborative web. In short, the public can actually suggest and rank questions it wants the professional journalists to answer. In some cases the public can also help answer the question.
Here are some encouraging examples that align reporting efforts with public interest or even financial support:
The Washington Post bureaus closure is addition by subtraction
Your reaction to the Washington Post’s announced closure of three bureaus (in New York, Chicago and L.A.) probably depends on whether you see news as a print person or online person.
Print-oriented people see a withdrawal, a loss. In his story today on , Howard Kurtz notes:
What is lost, however, is the knowledge and experience of reporters who come to understand the local issues, personalities and culture of other regions by living there.
Online people know they can get the “local issues, personalities and culture of other regions” from the many news outlets and the 46 million people who actually ARE in Chicago, New York or L.A.
That’s my take as well. I see the Post making a smart reorganization of resources to improve the Post’s core mission.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchliis exactly right when he said: “We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience.” He is right to say the Post’s strength is to report on Washington, and on national issues through a “Washington prism.”
Cover what you do best, and link to the rest.