Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How Big Corporate Newspapers Fail Community (and a little about why)

I've been sitting on this post a couple of days because I wasn't quite sure how to start it--but tonight, I read Mike Masnick's TechDirt post commenting on Howard Owens' defense of GateHouse's suit against NYTimes Co. (the post has been removed.) Mike contends that if the only thing of value a newspaper is providing its community is headlines and ledes that are easily stolen by a competitor, then the newspaper has somehow failed the community. Now, I can't speak to Gatehouse's properties or Howard's work with them because I have not witnessed them firsthand or spoken directly with Howard about them, but I can speak to the ways that other newspapers fail their communities....and why.

One of the main ways in which newspapers fail communities is by not maintaining civil environments in their forums and comments sections. This has been a bugaboo of mine for some time now, and when I read about the recent flare-up at a Scripps property, where the defendant in a carjacking case complained to the court about anonymous commenters on several newspaper forums and comments sections and I keep hearing the same excuses (some call them "reasons") Here they are, in no particular order:

1. moderating comments is censoring "free speech"--even if the comments are uncivil.
2. moderating stifles participation--people need "instant gratification"
3. moderation is only done *after* someone complains about the comments
4. moderation isn't done in-house but by a bot that manages the site
5. too many comments come in too fast to moderate each one
6. the proper number of staff needed to moderate the volume of comments would be too costly.

Of these six commonly cited reasons, only numbers 5 and 6 make sense. When thousands of comments come in on a daily basis, and there are only one or two (if lucky) staff members to moderate them, then proper moderation can't be done. This is unfortunate, given that it takes a long time for a community to begin to police itself.

In effect, moderation just doesn't scale for most newspapers. There's little income generated from communities (from what I understand) to justify paying for extra staff, yet extra staff is needed if comments are going to be properly moderated to create civil environments and constructive conversation.

As for the other reasons--they are definitely excuses for community neglect and result in poor-quality conversation and sentiments among staff members that range from simply negative to outwardly hostile. Staff begins to get the perception that "the people" only want to verbally assault them (can you blame staff for feeling this way? I can't.) Some staff folks begin to feel that those commenting aren't "our readers" (esp. if a board is not administered locally) while other staff at other papers begin to single out particular readers whose views they do not agree with and ban or do other things to their accounts (as well as not respond to their complaints.)

Not moderating properly has nothing to do with "free speech" and it has nothing to do with "stifling" conversation or that people need immediate gratification.

When I've asked about verification software--to make sure that posters have real identities and valid email addys--I hear that these moderation options are often used. But since many of them are automated, there's little direct viewing of the registration materials by staff.

Still, the problem of insufficient staff would make it impossible to properly review every registration.

Once again, it's a problem of scale.....newspaper "communities" don't scale. And if they don't scale, they are failing any attempt to create a cohesive community for a newspaper.

Community isn't just the physical space--the boundaries of a town or its businesses. Communities, esp. for newspapers, are occurring online. And if there is no moderation within those burgeoning communities to set the tone and then find the right people to police them, those who do not care about them will run them. This dynamic occurs in improperly moderated face to face communities, and bleeds over into online (see Clay Shirky on this one.)

Because no matter how great the technology, it's people that make a community. If a newspaper doesn't properly moderate, and the trolls and other disruptors take over, it is not the people's fault--it's that nobody bothered to lay the foundation for a good community. That may not be the people who constitute the staff, but the fact that there just isn't enough staff to properly police the community....

And maybe this is where, once again, hyperlocal can be better than corporate...

Just a thought.

Just to clarify: moderation doesn't mean that people cannot be anonymous nor use pseudonyms and a recent court in Maryland ruled that, in lawsuits, media companies need not reveal the names of anonymous posters: "It seems to be pretty much following a recent trend that we've been seeing -- that there is at least a qualified right to speak anonymously on the Internet," Bayard said. "Courts are going to require the plaintiff or others seeking identities to make a heightened showing that they have a valid cause of action." This is great as far as anonymity is concerned, but does not address the issues of community policing and if withholding a comment from posting constitutes a form of "censorship." No anonymous, hyperbolic or ad hominem poster has ever argued this one, and it's doubtful that they ever will.

Note Over at The Noisy Channel, there's some discussion about putting comments behind a pay wall. This just might lead to more civil and productive conversation. Would people pay for conversation? It would also show who *wants* conversaton. IMO, though, conversation is better handled in small communities, on hyperlocal sites, where they scale and someone can be paid to properly moderate.


Anonymous said...

A pay wall for comments would solve one problem. If you had to be behind the wall to comment, you'd have to have a valid credit with a read name.

When we ran our sports site, GoVolsXtra, as a pay site, we had a lot of comments, but relatively few problems.

That would be irony or ironies for journalists: The only unique thing that you could charge for is the site's unique community of comments.

On our Knoxnews site yesterday, one of the top 10 story links of the day was to a comment on a blog post.

They may be messy, but the comments may be your most valuable content, the sticky content that keeps visitors on the site.

Tish Grier said...

Hi Jack...I'm so glad you chimed in on this! when conversations like the one on The Noisy Channel stay only in the tech community, we can lose really great ideas. And not even know that those ideas have already been tried somewhere! If what you provide is a unique civil community with good conversation, the people who want to be part of it will pay! and yes, if that's what's unique about a paper *right* *now* then that's what unique. From that, who knows where things will go? Thanks again for your valuable perspective

John Robison said...

It has been my experience that people are much more civil when they are forced to show their faces, or in the case of blogs, identify themselves.

On my own blog I found the elimination of anonomyous comments to have a more positive beneficial effect that moderation, which inevitably leaves people wondering what was deleted and why

Tish Grier said...

Hi John,

I don't believe in forcing people to show their faces. There are reasons people want to, or need to, be anonymous or use pseudonymns. Personally, I prefer pseudonymns, as they often say something about the person leaving the comment.

The *value* in comments is not whether the person is revealing who they are, but in what they are saying. I've seen more transparent people behave in ridiculously sycophantic ways. And when people are doing that, they do not add value to a conversation any more than an ad hominem attack does. There's nothing uglier than a comments section full of dorks sucking up to a big-name blogger.