Bloggers, Reporters Handle User Comments Differently on News Sites

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More news organizations are encouraging their reporters and bloggers to interact with users on social networking services, but when it comes to responding to readers’ comments, they’re drawing a line between how they treat stories and blog posts.

Engagement between bloggers and users has always been an important part of blogging. On the best blogs, communities of people looking to interact have sprung up. Such interaction hasn’t been a key part of traditional reporting (which of course has been around much longer than blogs and the Internet).
This helps explain why many news organizations that I spoke with and have researched encourage writers to respond to comments on blog posts while telling reporters to stay away from comments on their news stories.
The result can be confusing for users, especially with the rise of beatblogging, in which reporters incorporate Web tools like blogs and social media to interact with their audience and enhance their reporting. On the same site someone may encounter a lively blog with a cohesive conversation and a news story with a string of disconnected comments that appear to be ignored by the news site.

Then there are the news sites that haven’t set policies on interacting with users. There, often old expectations persist, with reporters and bloggers acting differently when it comes to engagement.

Mara Betsch, assistant editor at Health.com, said in an e-mail that while bloggers respond and interact with commenters, reporters usually do not. There is no official policy that creates this distinction, but it’s how things have ended up due to different expectations and backgrounds.
“Many bloggers, as opposed to reporters, try to develop a following/fan base,” she said. “It’s hard to do that when you’re not responding to comments.”

The Wenatchee World
, on the other hand, has different policies for blog and non-blog content. The policy regarding non-blog commenting states:

“Initially, let’s limit our comments to only the stories we’ve written ourselves, and only when the questions or direction of the conversation merit it. Such occasions might be: when a reader posts a specific question regarding the facts of the story, or points out an error of fact in the story; when the newspaper’s role in a story has been misconstrued; or when readers fill out details of a story that could benefit from our own verification. When newspaper policy is involved or a topic is particularly volatile, editors might weigh in.”

Bloggers, on the other hand, are allowed to comment as much as they like, as long they follow “general standards of appropriate and constructive commenting.” A big part of constructive commenting for The Wenatchee World is no troll baiting.

The Wenatachee World‘s bloggers, like many bloggers at other news organizations that I’ve researched, moderate their own comments. When I was researching and reporting for BeatBlogging.org, many reporters told me that when they started beatblogging, they had a bigger hand — and stake — in the content on their blogs, as well as the comments that ensued.

“I think bloggers take more of an interest in engaging commenters because they have more of a feeling of ownership over their blogs, whereas reporters often see stories as one-time things, and then they’re off to the next story,” said Brianne Pruitt, Web editor at The Wenatachee World.
Pruitt said one reason bloggers at her paper may be more likely to comment than reporters is that bloggers have been allowed to interact with users for more than a year now, while reporters have only been given the go-ahead to interact with commenters for a few months.
Pruitt handles the removal of comments and responds to a lot of commenters on stories. She said she encourages reporters to respond in the cases outlined in the paper’s policy. “We have found that when a thread has veered off-topic, a comment from someone at the paper usually helps get it back to a civil discussion,” she said.

Glenna DeRoy, a Web producer at USA Today, said on Twitter that the paper doesn’t have set policies on who can comment after stories, but bloggers are encouraged to cultivate communities and reporters aren’t. She said some reporters still view interacting as “not part of the job,” though she added in a follow-up e-mail they are starting to interact more via comments and Twitter.

Expectations for interaction by non-bloggers, however, are beginning to change at some news organizations. “Given the realities of today’s newsroom, every reporter is pretty much blogging in some capacity,” Theodore Kim, a reporter and blogger for The Dallas Morning News, said in an e-mail. “It’s almost become a prerequisite to following a beat, at least at this newspaper,” he said. “As much as I hate to say this, blogging is becoming a far more efficient way of publishing news than a newspaper. As we’ve come to find out, a beat blog is, in essence, a tiny newspaper.”

The lines at USA Today are beginning to blur as well, as beatbloggers such as Cathy Grossman, who covers religion and spirituality, also write for print. This kind of cross-pollination between the Web and print is becoming more common at other large newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times.

Kim said Morning News reporters and bloggers are generally allowed to comment on their content and others’ as long as they identify themselves. Kim said he is more hands-on with his blog, the Plano Blog:

“As the blog’s steward, I feel it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the discussion boards and to step in when necessary, including when the discussion is about my own print stories. We occasionally respond to comments or questions about our reporting or try to offer context for the chatter at hand. The end goal for all newspapers, I think, is to create a forum where people feel comfortable stating their opinions on a regular basis. For better or worse, that takes monitoring and, sometimes, guidance.”

It is that feeling of stewardship that leads beatbloggers such as Kim to take a much more proactive role in not only moderating but engaging users. Eric Berger, a science beatblogger and reporter for the Houston Chronicle, has said that engaging users not only allows him to build a strong community around his SciGuy blog, but makes him a better reporter.

Some news sites may draw distinctions on where to allow comments simply for technical reasons. Most mainstream news sites didn’t decide to allow comments until the last few years, and many of them have old content management systems (CMS) that don’t support commenting. They work around those restrictions by using Moveable Type or WordPress systems to run their blogs.

There are several reasons people cite for not allowing comments, from a lack of civilized discourse (do news organizations really want to be associated with many of the comments left by users?) to the fact that moderating comments takes a lot of time. Last year, Gawker argued that news organizations should stop allowing comments because so many are offensive and add little to journalism. Gawker also pointed out that news organizations could shift time from moderating comments to producing more content. Sheila M. wrote, “You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I’d argue that this is a silly misuse of their time.”

Matt Neznanski, business reporter and beatblogger for the Corvallis (Ore.) Gazette Times, said on Twitter that most reporters aren’t bloggers and thus they don’t understand the value in comments and how to cultivate a community. “I’ve been encouraging participation, but most don’t read comments on their stories,” he said.
Neznanski added via e-mail that part of the reason for the distinction is a workflow issue. Because bloggers use WordPress at his paper, all bloggers are greeted by the latest comments when they log in. The newspaper content management system is not set up this way.
Several journalists told me on Twitter that time was the No. 1 reason that they don’t interact more with users. With shrinking staffs, reporters are being asked to write more already. How are they supposed to find time to fit in meaningful interaction?
That raises some interesting questions for news organizations: Should part of a content producer’s job be to interact? Should more time be allotted to engaging with users, at the expense of producing content?

“I think reporting/interacting time should be split at least 50/50,” Paul Balcerak, Web editor at pnwlocalnews.com, a Web site representing a collection of community newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, said on Twitter. “Without community input, how do you know what’s worth reporting?”

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