Newrooms can co-exist with online comments with moderation and a strategy. (Depositphotos)

Can reporters help repair online comment sections?

Several years ago during a seminar at Poynter, we were talking about engaging our audiences.

“We ask our readers and viewers to comment on our stories,” one participant said, “but unless we respond to them, how will they know we’re listening?

“Their assumption,” he said, “is that we’re not.”

In the years since, I’ve heard from a lot of journalists who confirm that, indeed, they’re not listening. They don’t read users’ comments for a variety of reasons: no time, no interest, no stomach for the cesspools they often find there.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard other journalists and newsroom leaders say that journalism’s future requires a different, more interactive relationship with the audience, one in which people outside the newsroom share their expertise and engage in productive debate. That’s how democracies thrive cheap nike air max.

Which brings us back to those cursed Web comments sections. What can be done to make more of them places for productive debate?

Three ideas I hear most often are these:

  • Comments need to be moderated.
  • Comments sections need to be more than fenced-off areas for the public to talk among themselves. They need to be part of a newsroom’s coverage strategy.
  • Reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation.

For starters, moderation. Conversations on websites that moderate comments tend to be more substantial and less venomous. So why aren’t more comments sections moderated?

Money, of course. Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections. A few are “deputizing” members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.

Does your newsroom moderate comments?

Often, the same newsrooms that don’t moderate also lack a strategy for comments — beyond the idea that news organizations have an obligation to make space available for a public forum. Like abandoned properties, comments sections without strategies quickly become neglected and fall into disrepair. The best comments sections reflect a plan for hearing the public, benefiting from its expertise and promoting meaningful discussions of issues.

Does your newsroom have a serious strategy for comments?

A third contributor to better comments sections — especially when accompanied by moderation — is the involvement of reporters and editors in the conversations. But talk about a hard sell.

Yes, newsroom staffs are handling more responsibilities than ever. And this does amount to new work. But the truth is, most journalists have never been anxious to mix it up with the public. Newspaper editors and reporters for years responded to unhappy readers with one, or both, of these scripted responses: “We stand behind our story,” and “Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?”

And remember the reaction to publishing reporters’ email addresses at the end of stories? As that debate unfolded, I remember becoming increasingly uncomfortable that we who demanded unlimited access to those we were covering, wanted desperately to limit anyone’s access to us.

Today, we publish reporters’ email addresses, are (generally) more willing to look into complaints and publish far more contributions from our readers and viewers, at least their comments. And slowly, a growing number of newsrooms are requiring or strongly encouraging reporters and editors to wade into those comments and talk with the users who post them.

One such newsroom is the Financial Times. Sarah Laitner, the London-based newsroom’s communities editor, told me during a recent visit to Poynter about the FT’s efforts to involve reporters in the comments sections, and the results they’ve seen. The FT moderates comments. They are part of a strategy, as is the desire for the journalists to participate in them. Sarah is quick to point out that the effort is evolving, but she says the FT already has seen benefits.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Sarah and her colleague, social media journalist Maija Palmer:

Ward: The FT has embarked on a serious effort to have its reporters engage readers in the comments section on articles on your website. Why? What role does that play in the FT’s strategy?

Laitner: Readers’ comments on our site inform us, reward us and often surprise us. The comment box is a space in which readers can agree, disagree, foster connections with each other and challenge us. When our journalists join in, they show that we listen and have our readers in mind. This is particularly important for a subscription site such as ft.com.

When I comment online, I’m usually thrilled if a journalist or fellow poster answers me, and I hope my colleagues are able to provoke the same reaction in their readers.

Palmer: I think the way that journalism is conducted is changing. In many cases, there is a lot we can learn from our readers who can be real experts in particular subjects. We should be moving more to taking suggestions from readers on what we are covering. Some journalists have found that one astute comment under their story can provide the starting point for another article.

Ward: Specifically, what have you asked FT’s reporters to do with online comments? Is it a mandate or a suggestion?

Laitner: We have asked our colleagues to read the comments on their ft.com stories and we strongly encourage them to reply. We know everyone is busy, but we do ask them to take a few minutes to review comments on their stories from the past 24 hours. We don’t expect them to respond to everyone and it doesn’t have to be at length, but we do want to show that we are listening.

A great example of reader interaction is on FT Alphaville, our finance and markets blog, where our journalists chat to their loyal band of readers pretty much all the time, and know them well. Our UK personal finance team talks to readers through its live Q&A series. Here’s a recent example, featuring the British pensions minister: http://on.ft.com/18HdhDi

Palmer: Our columnists regularly answer the comments under their articles and often can end up in debate with readers. It can be enjoyable and it has raised the level of the comments a great deal.

Laitner: Our news editors also have become more involved in comment threads, which helps to spread the load.

Ward: How are you communicating the effort about engaging with readers’ comments on ft.com and the strategy behind it?

Laitner: The message has come from the top, from the editor. Training sessions with me and Maija, emails, blog posts and water cooler moments also help to get the message across. We explain the value of reader interaction and point out the benefits of getting to know readers who may be experts in their fields. We also try to share examples of when conversations with readers can be really helpful for the journalist. Here’s one such case: http://blogs.ft.com/ft-long-short/2013/08/13/the-cape-of-less-hope/

Web traffic is another incentive. Our homepage has a box featuring “best comments” from our readers. We invite our journalists to make suggestions for the homepage box. If a comment posted on their story appears in the box, their article usually has a surge in traffic.

Also, Maija and I try to show our journalists how effective timely and judicious use of Twitter can get the ball rolling in traffic and commenting.

Ward: What was the reporters’ reaction to the new work? How did management respond to the response?

Laitner: As with any new initiative, some people take to it readily and others need more persuasion. We point out that reading comments can improve colleagues’ knowledge of their beats and potentially lead them to make new sources.

At the same time, I think it helps if you recognize your colleagues’ concerns. We want to protect our journalists from the abuse and unpleasantness that comes with some online comments, especially on topics that stir strong emotions or opinions. Even the thickest-skinned of colleagues can be unsettled by hostile comments. We try to help by intervening in comment threads and acting against fiery users who verbally abuse our journalists. We also remind colleagues that commenters tend to write criticism more than they do praise, but if you foster a community then readers will stand up for you and intervene against hostile types.

We have found that if our journalists and moderators intervene early in uncivil threads then the decorum tends to improve. In some cases, we simply need to accept that a civil debate isn’t possible and close the thread instead.

Ward: Can you point to any results this effort has produced? Have your readers noticed?

Laitner: Yes. We have received story ideas, picked up readers’ dislikes and raised the tone of some debates on our site. And readers have noticed our efforts. One (Ex NHS Surgeon) wrote recently: “The beauty of FT is not so much the articles themselves, but the treasure trove in the comments. Not that I can pretend to understand more than a fraction of the total.” And another (@khakieconomist) wrote: “I really like that the @FT puts top reader comments on the front page. Creates a real incentive to make worthwhile comments. Why not copied?”

We are curious about our commenters on ft.com, many of whom post using pseudonyms. My colleague, Lisa Pollack, head of new projects, had the great idea of a survey to ask them what they thought about our commenting functions. She dipped into comment threads and posted a link to our questions. Several readers told us to “keep up the good work,” which was heartening! Respondents expressed appreciation for our journalists who regularly wade into comments to reply to readers and further the discussion. FT Alphaville was mentioned as an example of the right amount of interaction.

Ward: What have you learned from this effort? Would you do anything differently next time? Any advice for other newsrooms?

Laitner: Explain the advantages of going into comment threads; someone who is an expert in their field could be posting on there anonymously and sharing valuable insights.

Remind journalists that it’s a compliment that readers are taking the time to post their views.

Remember that you are dealing with the emotions of your colleagues and your readers. Always try to put yourself in their shoes. Read more

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Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest Interactive Festival, shares ideas for engaging audience at The Poynter Institute's Leadership Academy on Sunday.

South by Southwest’s Hugh Forrest on building community

Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest Interactive, shares strategies on community engagement from years of developing the SXSWi festival. Forrest, who spoke at Poynter’s Leadership Academy on Sunday as the 2013 Naughton Lecturer, offered insights about learning from an audience, fostering transparency and winning over the haters.

Today at 2 p.m. Eastern, NewsU hosts a live webinar, Community Engagement and Future Trends: Lessons from SXSW, with Hugh Forrest. Use the registration discount code 13POYNTER50FORREST to receive 50 percent off. Read more

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How journalists can measure engagement

Most journalists now understand they need to engage with audiences, whether online or in person. But it’s still not clear how news organizations can measure whether their attempts at engagement are paying off.

“Engagement isn’t just Twitter, Facebook or social media. It’s really getting to know your audience,” said Kim Bui, associate editor of social media and outreach for KPCC in Los Angeles and cofounder of #wjchat.

Some organizations use live events as a tool to get to know their audience. “Things like tweetups and other opportunities where you get to meet audience members keep this full circle going and give them this feeling of having a much more personal connection with the station,” Bui said.

But for audience relationships that primarily play out online those personal connections can be tough to gauge.

“Social journalists are accustomed to thinking about engagement as likes, retweets, shares,” said Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times.  “Those are all important, but we need to go beyond Facebook and Twitter to look at ways people can participate in a story.”

Another problem, Pilhofer said by phone, is that there isn’t much of a standard by which one can judge metrics like shares. “It’s like having a numerator in search of a denominator. You don’t know what it actually means,” he said.

Among the questions journalists need to ask but may not have the data to ask are whether stories are being tweeted or retweeted at higher than expected rates, he said. “That’s a more interesting number,” he said.

At Guardian US, social news editor Katie Rogers said she sees successful engagement as “when a reader takes the time to share something that furthers the story or kickstarts something completely new.”

She said via email that she measures online engagement by looking at metrics including social shares, on-site comments and page views.

“The metric that seems most valuable to me on Facebook is a share, simply because shares open a post up to new reader networks,” she said. She uses Facebook analytics to inform decisions on how to structure posts and Social Flow to better understand what content readers are most responsive to on social networks, particularly Twitter.

Rogers said she uses Facebook analytics to inform decisions on what post structures successfully generate shares and comments. She also keeps an eye on real-time traffic numbers and shares information with reporters and columnists. “People behind the journalism need to be aware of how their work plays in the outside world,” Rogers said.

Bui said she’s particularly interested in how people share content that isn’t first shared by the station. “People share our stuff without us knowing a lot more than we think,” she said on the phone. “We make assumptions on what our audience wants to see and sometimes our assumptions are wrong.”

To help track organic shares, Bui likes to create shortened links for projects but said it’s an approach that does come with limitations. “It’s really difficult to find a way to follow a link across the Internet,” she said.

Still, engagement isn’t just about quantity, it’s also about quality, something that can be even more difficult to gauge, particularly for metrics focused newsrooms.

“Engagement to us is very much about how people are participating in what we’re doing,” Pilholfer said. “Engagement is one big step toward to what we ultimately want to know, which is what kind of impact our journalism is having.”

Amanda Zamora, ProPublica’s senior engagement editor, suggests news organizations pay close attention to the tone of the interactions they have with people online.

“Engagement to us is very much about how people are participating in what we’re doing,” she said. “Those are all important, but it’s also important to go beyond Facebook and Twitter to look at ways people can participate in a story.”

One thing ProPublica pays close attention to is responses to callouts for readers to share their own experiences.  “When we get responses, we’re tallying these forms,” Zamora said. Often, she said the data is captured in spreadsheet form.  “At the end of the day a successful result for us is when people somehow added to the journalism we’re doing.” Read more


5 ways to engage more with your audience — in person and online

Talk about engagement with a journalist these days, and the conversation turns quickly to social media. Who can deny the influence of social media, which now serves as a news source for one-third of adults under 30?

If you really want to connect with people, though, social media is only part of the equation. Digital can be a proxy for interaction, but it works better when paired with the real thing.

At the Chicago Tribune, our newsroom employs a chain of engagement in a program we call Trib Nation. It includes actions that are familiar to the most fiercely orthodox readers and journalists: running corrections. It includes live programs created by journalists in auditoriums around Chicago and one-on-one conversations that follow them. It includes social Tweetups with digital natives and invitations to join us for conversations at our headquarters in Tribune Tower.

When I took part last fall in Poynter’s Social Media Webinar Series to talk about “Finding Your Social Media Voice,” a number of participants seized on the idea that “social media” could involve more than digital technology. Done well, it also involves a handshake and sincere conversation.

There’s a common thread: Know who you’re talking to, so you can know what they need. At the Tribune we recognize that journalism is no longer purely mass media; it’s about this series of personal connections that happen to add up into the tens of thousands.

“In the end, our success will depend on establishing a relationship with the people who come to the Tribune each day in all of its forms,” said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern in a Trib Nation article.

In June 2011, the Tribune reacted to readers’ requests for deeper coverage by adding 44 news pages a week to the paper, as well as Web innovations, news applications, and mobile and tablet editions. In 2012, Trib Nation staged more than 100 news events, including public policy discussions, author talks and seminars. We’ll do the same in 2013.

The tools are many. The goal is simple, Kern said in editor’s messages to Tribune readers: “Strengthening the bond between our readers and the Chicago Tribune.” How does the Tribune do that? Here’s part of our playbook:

Take corrections and clarifications seriously

The most basic and meaningful social interaction newsrooms have with their readers has to do with being accurate, verifiable and fair. When we fail to live up to that compact, our readers — and our colleagues — expect us to point out the error quickly and clear it up. That’s about trust. And trust is crucial to strong relationships.

We use Page 2 of the Chicago Tribune to correct errors made in print, and make sure to reference errors on digital stories after they’ve been corrected online and in our archives.

Explain the newsgathering process

Readers want to know how journalism works and why we make certain decisions. On our Trib Nation blog and in a prominent space on Page 2 (right alongside the corrections, actually), Tribune journalists talk about how they got surprising stories and controversial photographs, and why they went after them in the way they did.

Editors discuss tough calls. That transparency goes a long way toward dismantling the wall between a newsroom and a skeptical community, as we often hear from readers at our own events and in other circumstances when we interact with the community.

Hold community-based events

When many of us began our careers, institutions gave people credibility. Take a look around lately, and it’s easy to see that institutions, including news organizations, are precisely what people don’t trust.

In 2010, the Tribune launched a full range of events designed to put readers in regular contact with Tribune journalists, newsmakers and the interview process. During most of our programs, which we charge admission for, we offer attendees a chance to mingle and continue the conversation afterward, often with snacks or a glass a wine.

When people talk with a reporter or editor from the Tribune, or with a newsmaker, they walk away with a more realistic impression of journalism than they arrived with. We also schedule regular meetups in the community, just to talk with readers when we aren’t rushing to a deadline. In fact, that’s one way we learned people would be interested in programmed events.

Engage in a conversation with your audience

Pick a topic, any topic, and invite a dozen people with surprising vantage points to lunch with a dozen journalists. That describes our regular Community Conversation lunches with local connectors and thought leaders.

In 2012, the monthly gatherings have covered the status of women, volunteering, personal debt, pets and voting. We announce upcoming luncheons on Page 2 and via social media. We don’t charge anything, and we never guarantee coverage. But try listening to a bunch of smart people sharing fresh ideas and critical observations without pulling out your notepad. It’s not that easy.

Embrace social media

It’s critical to engage with your audience on social networking sites. Research and common sense says this audience includes younger news consumers who have come of age in an era in when thoughtful, engaged individuals are sometimes more trusted than institutions.

Social media offers opportunities to correct assumptions, tune into trending topics and talk with readers who are deeply interested in the subjects specialist reporters cover. Plus, it’s highly quantifiable — which means it’s easy to see what’s hitting the mark and what isn’t in time to adjust your aim.

“Trib Nation underscores our role as convener of the important conversations. And it changes the way people view the Tribune and talk about the Tribune,’’ Joycelyn Winnecke, the Tribune’s vice president and associate editor who oversees reader engagement programs, said via email. “We see this as an extension of our journalism and, in the case of events, a new platform for publishing our journalism. Readers make a connection that goes far beyond the written page, the website or the mobile app.”

Bonus: Learning curve

We found that we got better at doing engagement with practice. As I was writing this, Poynter’s Mallary Tenore asked me when we failed. The answer is: It was always about experimenting, not failure or success.

When some things worked better than others, we followed those paths. We could always learn quickly from it — finding a better venue for certain types of events, for example, or a better way to communicate with readers online, or getting a feel for managing a discussion with several participants. We improve all the time, but it doesn’t feel like failure. It’s hard to really blow it when you’re coming into the conversation honestly and curiously.

I would say a key thing we learned was that the best engagement didn’t need to happen on our turf. A few years ago, I learned a great deal from some of the diverse thinkers that Joy Mayer and Reuben Stern assembled for a conference on “The Engagement Metric” at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute.

It’s worth reading Stern and Mayer’s report, and interesting to see the people of varied backgrounds they assembled to think differently about journalism. One of the panelists was cultural anthropologist Matt Bernius, who mentioned studies in which more trust flowed from interactions in a place that was comfortable to the distrustful party.

In other words: Get out of your comfort zone and into more church basements, community centers, homes and main streets to have casual conversations. I have to say, it’s a pretty rewarding path to follow.

James Janega is the Trib Nation manager at the Chicago Tribune. Read more


Early comments on stories affect what later readers believe, and what they say

A recent scientific experiment demonstrated the importance of intervening in comment sections to cultivate constructive discussion, particularly just after publication.

Scientific American Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic writes about the results, which showed that the tone of pre-existing comments on a story affected subsequent readers.

An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The Guardian saw a similar lesson when it tried two commenting systems simultaneously — Facebook comments within its Facebook app, and traditional comments on Web pages. Former user experience chief Martin Belam writes:

I had rather hoped that by opening two commenting threads underneath each article — one on Facebook, and one on the Guardian site — we’d be able to prove once and for all whether one or [the] other led to better interaction. In the end, it appeared that actually the tone set early on in a comment thread looked like it influenced comments much more than anything intrinsic about the format or identity system used.

Journalists who have written off comment sections as forsaken wastelands should still be concerned with this problem — because rancid comments also spoil the perception and potential impact of your content.

So how do you get the kinds of comments necessary to seed good discussions and avoid meltdowns cheap jordans from china?

That seems more difficult than ever, unfortunately.

Technology is not enough

The act of publishing is now so democratized and social media so pervasive that most everyone whose musings are worth hearing probably has found their own personal avenues of expression.

Smart people with something constructive to say about your article may be posting their thoughts to their Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr. Your comments section could be left as a second-class wasteland suitable only for logical fallacies and trolling.

Major publishers like Politico and TechCrunch recently announced they were dropping Facebook-powered comments and switching to other platforms (Disqus and Livefyre). That renewed debates about which platform produces better discussions.

But most people with experience in the field seem to believe, as Belam says, that “software design and features do influence community behaviours, but not as much as decent community management and personal engagement from journalists does.”

Dan Gillmor recently shared some thoughts about how that might work:

If I could design a comment system, it would put all anonymous comments at the thread’s end, and give the site owner an easy way to move good comments higher. I’d also give users a way to make anonymous comments invisible. Most sites, at this point, require a working email address and let users post under pseudonyms. This, too, can be abused by a troll, but it injects an element of accountability.

In the end, accountability is up to the site owner. Whether you are a lone blogger or a big news organization, comment threads are a platform you make available to others. The thread is your living room, where you’re hosting a conversation. You invite people into your home, and you make the rules on how they should behave.

Maybe “better comments” is the wrong goal. Maybe we need something “better than comments.”

Fresh approaches

The Huffington Post — which received well over 70 million comments last year — is launching a new comment-highlighting tool called “Conversations.”

It plucks discrete discussion threads out of the sea of comments and elevates them to their own Web pages. PaidContent’s Jeff John Roberts has the details:

The new set-up should make it easier to jump in on a given debate about the story that’s of interest. In the Benghazi story, for example, groups of people can find each other to discuss specific facets of the story — whether the US should be in Libya; whether the incident was Hillary’s fault; whether Hillary is actually a Muslim agent sent from Mars to destroy America and so on.

The fact that the “Conversations” will now have their own URL also makes it easier for people to share them and invite others into the discussion.

Gawker has been pushing its comments in a new direction too, with a focus on creating distinct, focused conversations and giving the person who started each conversation control over the responses.

Others are arguing that new systems of “social annotation” will replace commenting forms. One startup to watch is Hypothes.is — an open-source platform for annotating content across the Web. It will act as an overlay that participating users see on top of content as they browse, so individual website owners will have no control over it. But the notion is intriguing.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon looks at another annotations system used by the Rap Genius website to crowdsource understanding of rap music lyrics. The site’s users annotate each line of song lyrics with explanations.

Salmon is enthusiastic about the idea’s potential to spread:

If this takes off, it could be a significant evolution in the way that we talk about Web content. Right now, for instance, if I want to link to something somebody said on a Web page, I’ll normally just end up linking from Twitter to an undifferentiated page, rather than to the specific thing being said. And more generally, the conversation around things like blog posts tends to happen mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where it’s easy to miss and almost impossible to archive.

It would be amazing if annotation could change all that, helping to make comments more on-point and also providing a centralized archive of the conversation around any given story. … Internet comments are more of a bug than a feature these days, and I do think that annotation is a very promising way of potentially addressing the problems they have.

Related: Ben Smith: “It’s crazy that people still read, much less write about, blog comments” | Monday was Community Manager Appreciation Day Read more


NPR, other news orgs tighten comment moderation to improve conversation

NPR.org | MinnPost | Charleston Gazette | Vancouver Sun | MarketWatch
NPR switched its user commenting to the Disqus platform this week, and is increasing its moderation efforts in response to user demand.

It took the unusual step of sending readers an email survey in advance, asking for ideas and feedback about how to improve the commenting system. More than 6,000 responded. The big surprise, social media product manager Kate Myers writes, is that readers called for more comment moderation.

We asked this question in our recent NPR audience survey:

Read more
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New York Times editors care about listening to readers

The New York Times | Talking Points Memo

Margaret Sullivan’s introductory column lays out her priorities as The New York Times’ public editor: “1. Put readers first … 2. Encourage conversation … 3. Promote transparency and understanding.”

To foster conversation, Sullivan says she is working with The Times to “make the public editor’s Web page a village square for discussion. I intend to blog frequently and to use social media outlets like Twitter to expand the sphere and invite other voices in.”

Meanwhile, Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts tells Talking Points Memo that although he is an active tweeter, one of his favorite ways to use Twitter is to just listen:

I often keep an open feed of @NYTimes mentions, just so that I can see what our readers are talking about. I think that’s a really, really valuable piece of real-time feedback. There are quite often things I see in there where people are either praising, or, you know, in some cases, criticizing our work that I think is very valuable for me to know as an editor.

Read more

4 important ways to increase engagement on your Facebook page

Social media data cruncher Dan Zarrella has released a new analysis showing what types of Facebook posts tend to get more likes, comments and shares.

Four lessons really stand out as important and useful:

  1. Photos get far more likes and shares than other types of posts. ProPublica, for example, has had success with this. Links, such as those to your news articles, unfortunately get the lowest average engagement.
  2. Personal references (“I” or “me”) tend to get a post more likes. This is a social network after all — talking about yourself generates empathy.
  3. Be happy, or sad, but pick one. Positive-sentiment posts get more likes. Negative posts get more comments. Those in the neutral middle ground get lost.
  4. Target leisure hours to get more engagement. Likes increase in the evening, peaking around 8 p.m., while shares peak at the end of the workday, around 5 or 6 p.m. Also, noontime posts do well. And weekend posts get many more likes than those during the busy workweek.

The full graphic is after the jump. || Related: Why the social sharing data for your website is wrong — two parts (GigaOM). || Earlier: Bitly data shows the best times to post links to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr (Poynter) | 7 ways journalists can make better ethical decisions when using Facebook (Poynter). Read more


10 tips for preventing staff burnout in spite of more work, fewer resources

Motivation. It’s a popular topic in leadership teaching. Keeping staff members engaged, positive and productive has always been a management responsibility.

But today, the questions about motivation are often more blunt, even raw. How do we handle the human impact of an shrinking workforce tasked with increasing workload? How much is too much to ask of people before they break faith with management, or just plain break down?

Look at the word cloud of Digital First editors’ recent responses to the question “What obstacles do you face in getting things done?”

Nearly half of the people who responded to our Twitter poll said “staff” is the biggest obstacle to getting things done.

The big fat images are a shout out for support: staff, equipment, time — positioned near that most telling word, “lack.” It’s a billboard display of what most newsroom managers think, talk about, and struggle with today.

Look at the headline for a recent Poynter.org chat: “How to Tell When It’s Time to Get Out of Journalism.” In the conversation, chat host Joe Grimm, who’s coached countless careers, brought up the B-word:

The out-and-out “let’s get out” decision often follows a series of disappointments or a period of burnout. That indicates the craft has changed too much to be fun anymore, or we have changed and are looking for new things…

Joe’s right, but there’s another cause of disappointment and burnout I need to address: flawed management.

Leading in times of change and challenge takes skills far beyond helping people to get over it and get back to work. Bosses whose approach to employee engagement begins and ends with “you should be happy to have a job” can’t help but contribute to burnout. They inspire people — to look for better bosses.

Since you read this column, I’m betting you’re among the better ones.  As you do your best to meet your business objectives, you also want to fight against destructive disappointment and burnout.

That’s why I’ve developed a checklist for you: 10 things that bosses can examine and perhaps improve in these demanding times. In the process, you can remove obstacles to your staff’s success instead of adding to their stress.

Your Checklist of Ten Antidotes to Burnout

  1. Strategy check: When you’re clear on your business strategy, you can establish priorities. You can tell that employee who’s head is swimming (or nearly exploding) because of multiple demands, which tasks they should tackle first, or with more resources, and which should take a back burner. If you’re not clear on your organization’s strategic vision, make it your business to get as much clarity as possible from your bosses. And yes, strategy may change on a dime these days. Businesses are being advised to innovate and “fail fast” or “fail forward” -- which means today’s hot initiative may be tomorrow’s cold corpse. It’s your job to keep informed on the status of your strategy.
  2. Systems check: Smart managers constantly review workflow and systems for inefficiencies and opportunities. Where do things get bogged down? Why do we still hand off the work from department to department or person to person in this pattern? Where are the choke points or areas of frustration? It’s easy to focus on small fixes in daily work instead of re-evaluating the why and how of old — or even new — systems. Enlist your staff to help you. You may find that what you’ve been writing off as their “whining” about roadblocks are actual pressure points that may provide insights for improvement. Let people know you are open to hearing about problems, especially from those people who also offer pragmatic, realistic solutions.
  3. Resource check: Even when capital and operating budgets are anemic, make a “wish list” of hardware, software, and yes, people you would add right now if you could. Managers often lower their expectations in tough times, censoring themselves so they don’t look greedy, grumbling or goofy to their bosses.  But every manager should be prepared to make a business case for resources, especially when the argument can be tied to strategy, innovation, or any result that rings of return-on-investment. Even with no budget, be a “window shopper,” who knows exactly what you’d buy or whom you’d hire with your next real spending money.
  4. Training check: Somebody on your staff, right now, is less effective than he could be because of lack of training. Somebody on your staff is less engaged than she could be because she doesn’t feel like she’s learned something new in a while. Training is the first casualty of tough economic times, but smart managers persevere — finding everything from peer coaching to scholarships to bake sales to offset training costs. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to release someone for training. Just pretend. Pretend that the person who is away today getting smarter is home sick. The business wouldn’t shut down because of that sick day, right?
  5. Hiring check: Become a hiring genius. On the rare occasion you have an opening, “hire up” — don’t settle. Look for someone who takes your team to the next level. Set your standards high for skills related to your strategy, values for which you won’t compromise, and people smarter than you. You’re not just filling a hole when you hire, you are staking your reputation on the person’s ability to improve your work and your workplace.  Scout for that talent, even when you have no openings. You never know when opportunity may present itself and you’ll be ready.
  6. Accountability check: Here’s how to drive already hard-working employees to Burnout City: Ask them to pick up the slack for others on the team who can’t or won’t do work to that’s up to standard. To avoid this, make certain you don’t have blind spots about underperformers, especially if they are people you hired or frankly, you simply like. You don’t have to be a jerk to hold people accountable. You can be both kind and clear about expectations. Care enough to have tough conversations about performance issues. You owe it to your staff.
  7. Bad boss habit check: This could be (and probably will become) a column all its own. What bad habits of yours are making work harder for your team? Are you late to your own meetings? Do you delay decisions? Do you micromanage? Are you disorganized? Do you fail to follow up on conversations, emails, agreements? Do you resort to silence, sarcasm or screaming when you’re under stress? Recognize that your emotions are contagious and your bad habits may be the one burden you could immediately lighten for your team. I hope you have the courage to ask people about this, because I know there are employees who pray their bosses would ask for such input  and then act on it.
  8. Communication check: Even if you’re not silent, sarcastic or a screamer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator. In times of change, people crave information. Are you keeping people informed, and feeling included? Are you listening to them? When they feel they aren’t in the loop, employees can fill in the blanks with their worst fears. That creates constant anxiety, a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout.
  9. Feedback check: The most important communication is feedback. Let people know where they stand, how they are doing, what they can be doing better and what’s expected of them. Never, ever miss an opportunity to provide feedback. One of my favorite recent management books, “The Progress Principle,” talks about the surprising power of small wins to keep people energized. The authors’ research also shows that small losses overpower small wins in employees’ minds, which is why consistent, constructive feedback can be so powerful.
  10. Agent check: I’ve written about this before and teach it constantly. Today’s managers can’t promise people jobs for life or a smooth, fast path to their dream job in the company. The economy can too easily make liars of them. But what bosses can promise is to be an employee’s good agent. If you hired an agent to represent you, that agent would make certain you are building a portfolio of noteworthy work, a record that could serve you well in your current job or wherever the changing business world takes you. The agent would candidly tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to succeed, what things you’ve produced are worth saving and showing off, what next steps are within your reach and which would be too big a stretch. The agent would even tell you when you’ve outgrown your current role, and when a better opportunity might lie elsewhere. A good agent would protect you from burnout.  Bosses, are you that kind of agent?

I’m certain there are more than ten checks to be done. In fact, I know one more that’s an antidote to burnout. Call it a “culture check, which I explore in the companion podcast to this column:

If you enjoy these columns and podcasts, just a reminder that my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know”, will be released on June 5. Read the early reviews. Read more


Want to be a source? Sign up here, says Calgary Herald

Calgary Herald
Digital engagement editor Tom Babin introduces a new system — called Be a Source — that enables potential sources to register with the newspaper. Think of it as “metacrowdsourcing,” applying crowdsourcing to sourcing itself rather than an individual reporting project.

We’re asking Calgarians to tell us about the ideas and issues for which they have special insight, knowledge or passion. Then, when the issues come up in the news, we will be better able to present those perspectives in our news stories.

You don’t need a Ph.D to make a contribution. Your area of expertise could be as simple as life in your neighbourhood. Perhaps you have a hobby that you think offers a unique perspective. Maybe your job makes you an expert in a specific field, or you know first-hand the challenges of the elderly-care system, or you struggle with a little-known heath condition, or are the victim of a crime. All of these perspectives can help Calgarians — and our journalists — better understand the news.

Related: Public Insight Network launches reporting unit (Nieman Journalism Lab) Read more


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