Online communities

Why we’ll never stop struggling over comment sections

Digiday | CNN | Digital Test Kitchen | Winnipeg Free Press
If ever there were a slam-dunk case against allowing Internet comments, it would be in the launch plan for The Daily Beast’s new Zion Square blog, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which went up without them. Can you imagine the Backpage-like effort it would take to keep those readable? Josh Sternberg surveys some of the current thinking on comments:

There have been two main ways to deal with this problem. The absolutists view Internet commenting as messy but essential. The registrars believe real identities will do away with the willingness to spill bile. Neither solution is perfect, of course, because both are blunt approaches.

Sternberg leaves out people who do not value comments at all and those who believe anonymous commenting can be valuable (though perhaps he would include them in the “messy but essential” camp).

One of those people is Gawker boss Nick Denton, who recently told an audience at SXSW that while he thought anonymity is “at the heart of the Internet,” he’s lost faith in, or maybe just patience with, comments sections: “The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke,” he said. Denton’s next move is comments sections with a guest list: “What I want is, I want the sources — I want the experts to be able to comment in these discussions.”

Comments sections might not attract experts, but they’re visited by a select group nonetheless. Digital News Test Kitchen is analyzing about three months’ worth of comments from the Greeley Tribune, which doinked its comments section last May. So far it’s found that 45 percent of the comments at the Tribune were written by 20 people, and it’s promising “a textual analysis of the most-commented stories” from the final week Greeley allowed comments.

In Winnipeg, Free Press reporter Greg Di Cresce interviewed some of the paper’s anonymous commenters. One, who goes by the handle Intangible, is so emboldened by the freedom of her new name that she’s become a reliable advocate for mental health issues. Di Cresce also quotes Red River College journalism professor Duncan McMonagle, who told him, “That kind of freedom means a lack of personal responsibility.” Read more

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Rockville Central drops website for Facebook, offers eight lessons on Facebook news publishing

A little over 100 days ago, a community news blog in Rockville, Md., took a big leap. Founder and Publisher Brad Rourke and Editor Cindy Cotte Griffiths moved the entire operation of Rockville Central to a Facebook page.

“Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities,” Rourke wrote in the announcement post. “Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?”

Rockville Central uses Facebook’s notes application to post news stories, which resemble blog posts with headlines, body text and comments. The site also uses simple wall posts and status updates to post short items and to share links to other news and photos. The goal is engagement and conversation, not just publication.

Most news organizations would never consider following the Facebook-only path of Rockville Central (though a few small ones have). They can’t sell ads on Facebook, and the lack of control and independence would be a deal-breaker. But even so, they can learn from what Rockville Central is doing.

After more than three months immersed in Facebook-native publishing, Rockville Central’s authors have learned some things about the strengths, weaknesses and best practices of publishing on the world’s largest social network.

Here are eight lessons Rourke shared with me. (Disclosure: Rockville Central was one of the early blogs to join the TBD Community Network in 2010 when I worked for TBD.)

Your work may reach more people. Each post on the Rockville Central Facebook page gets about 2,000 impressions on average, and most get “likes” and comments. The website used to get about 1,000 page views a day from about 700 unique visitors. “Traffic is way up,” Rourke said, “because… instead of a page for people to go to, the content is going out into people’s streams.”

You can reach new people. The Rockville Central Facebook page attracts “new names and different people than were the normal commenters on our standalone site,” he said. That’s important, he said, because the site’s mission is to bring new people into public life. “We don’t need new and easier ways for the people who already go to City Council meetings to argue.”

You can build relationships more quickly. On Facebook, it takes just a second to “like” a reader’s comment or wall post. That sends the user a notification from your page and helps build rapport. “Because it’s so easy to interact back on Facebook, we’re actually finding that we have a pretty good feeling of relationship with the folks in the community,” Rourke said. Many websites, on the other hand, struggle with user registration systems and finding tools to build communities.

You should use personal voices. “We’ve learned that it’s important to work [in] both the institutional voice of Rockville Central but also our personal voices,” Rourke said. He or Griffiths write notes or share news links as “Rockville Central,” but they often comment using their personal profiles. Facebook enables page administrators to toggle their active identity between their page name and their personal profile.

Timing matters. Facebook activity peaks a few times a day: before work (about 7 a.m.), midday (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and around dinner, Rourke said. “What you really want is to share when they’re on, not before they’re on,” he said.

There are a couple Facebook flaws that have hindered Rockville Central’s publishing.

The notes app “is a really poor tool for publication,” Rourke said. “There’s no categorizing function or tagging function, so you can’t really organize notes very well.” Because of this, something as simple as collecting all of this year’s local election coverage has to be done manually by creating a separate page tab and linking to notes as they’re written.

Archiving and search functions are weak.
Facebook is optimized to spread things as they’re posted, but if you are seeking something weeks or days old, you must scroll through page after page. “The thing that it lacks is history,” Rourke said.

Even as a publisher, finding a note written weeks ago can be near-impossible, Rourke said. There’s no good way to search your notes on Facebook. And notes aren’t indexed by search engines, so your content is invisible to Google.

The biggest lesson from existing entirely within Facebook is to see it as more than a traffic referral source.

Facebook is “its own place,” Rourke said. “I think it’s worthwhile to have a Facebook strategy that goes beyond, ‘How can we get these people from Facebook over to where we live?’”

One you look at Facebook as its own community, he said, “you start to ask, ‘What can we provide Facebook people that we don’t provide other people?’”

So while a major news website shouldn’t go Facebook-only, it also shouldn’t see Facebook solely as a means of promoting its site.

That means you should post some notes, external links, status messages or photos that are exclusive to Facebook and not repurposed from your website. Think first about developing a community within Facebook, which is what the platform is best at, rather than trying to pull users away to your site with every post.

How would Rourke handle Facebook strategy if he worked for a mainstream news organization? “I would look at it as a place rather than a source of eyeballs,” he said, with journalists covering the issues, discussions and news in relevant Facebook communities just as they would cover a local town.

“I would have a Facebook bureau.” Read more


Holovaty: EveryBlock’s new community focus will ‘help you make your block a better place’

Monday afternoon, EveryBlock announced a major shift in focus, from a geographically-based, hyperlocal news site to a “platform for discussion around neighborhood news.”

In describing the changes, founder Adrian Holovaty wrote on the EveryBlock Blog that the site is moving away from a one-way, data-oriented news feed to a platform for human interaction based on that news:

While we’re not removing our existing aggregation of public records and other neighborhood information (more on this in a bit), we’ve come to realize that human participation is essential, not only as a layer on top but as the bedrock of the site.

“With this in mind, we’ve changed our site to be oriented around community discussion. The EveryBlock experience is still centered around places — blocks, neighborhoods, custom locations — but we’ve rebuilt it from the ground up to be about participation more than passive consumption. … (Instead of the “social graph,” it’s the ‘geo graph.’)”

The site now highlights “neighbor messages” on the home page and on place pages, and it invites people to add their own messages. To foster community, EveryBlock now enables users to thank each other for posts and has established a reputation system.

By clicking a star next to a post, users can subscribe to receive notifications of any comments. EveryBlock will use the most-subscribed items to create a feed of “top news” for any city.

The other major change – in addition to the new look — is the ability to “follow” places. Holovaty explains:

“Previously, if you were interested in the news around multiple places — say, your home and your office — it was very manual. You had to search for your home address, read the news, then search for your work address, read the news, etc. Now, you can log into your EveryBlock account, “follow” those places by clicking the big “follow” button or using our quick follow page, and your EveryBlock homepage will give you all the news from your followed places, in one place, along with an easy way to post messages to those places.”

Holovaty will join us Tuesday for a live chat at 1 p.m. ET to talk about EveryBlocks’ new focus and look. One question I’ll ask, and I’m sure he’ll be ready for, is what role geographically-based data has in this new vision of EveryBlock. Come with your questions.

Twitter users can ask questions ahead of time or during the chat using the #poynterchats hashtag. You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat after it has ended.

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >Adrian Holovaty discusses new community discussion focus of geo-data site EveryBlock</a> Read more


What 12 journalists learned about community engagement and human interaction at SXSW

I spent time on both sides of the digital divide during my five days in Austin for South by Southwest Interactive, the annual apotheosis of all things technological.

Most of the time I was hyper-connected, checking the schedule with the SXSW iPhone app, texting people to try to meet up, e-mailing progress updates to my editor, and broadcasting panels via live blogs and Twitter.

But at night I lay my head in an Airstream trailer parked in someone’s back yard in East Austin, a world away from the throngs of geeks and pedicabs downtown. (Just doing my part to “keep Austin weird,” as they say.)

One morning as I tried to catch a bus downtown, I found myself walking with an Austin resident along 7th Street in a fruitless search for the bus stop. Construction crews had torn up the road, and with it any sign of where the bus would pick us up. Google Maps was no help. When we tried to hail two buses, the drivers waved us down the road, shouting through the windows that we weren’t in the right place.

A mile away, several thousand people were at the tech equivalent of a tent revival. And here we were, desperate for any sign from above that would tell us how we could get on the westbound #4.

During our frustrating hour together, the man asked if he could borrow my cell phone. “Does that have long-distance service on it?” he asked, reminding me that there was a time when calling someone far away was noteworthy. He called his sister and asked why she hadn’t mailed him his ATM card.

I got on my phone to ask the Twitterati how to reach the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and a short time later I got an answer. But still, no bus. Our only choice was to keep walking; we finally found a little spot of roadway that had been marked off from the construction. There we finally hopped on.

As I was sitting there, I e-mailed customer service to get the contact information for the executive director, and I sent her a message the next day. She got back to me quickly and promised to look into the problem there. And she said someone would talk to those drivers so they would be more helpful next time.

Progress, however slight. And not through some divine piece of circuitry, but rather a combination of the human and the technological.

I asked many of the journalists I saw in Austin to tell me what struck them about the conference. Many of them spoke of the interplay between online and offline interaction. Here are their thoughts, edited for clarity and space.

David Carr, New York Times media columnist

I noticed this year that it is often the case that many media organizations are beginning to look more like a federation of individual brands — reporters who blog, Twitter, and video — than the historical employer/employee relationship. Even some traditional media organizations seem more like a collection of individual voices under one banner than a single branded megaphone.

The other thing I noticed is that the term “curation” as it relates to media has officially jumped the shark, and I am striving, sometimes unsuccessfully, to banish it from my conversation.

Andrew Haeg, Co-Founder and Editor, Public Insight Network at American Public Media

It became increasingly clear to me at SXSW that journalistic “engagement” is quickly evolving beyond comments at the end of stories or promoting pieces via Twitter and Facebook. I was struck by the amount of discussion around collaboration, conversational journalism and how to engage your audience in a meaningful way.

As part of a team that’s been working for eight years on changing newsrooms’ relationship to the audience, I sensed a new and unusual level of openness to sharing resources and genuinely listening to their audiences, from even the most traditional and fortress-like news organizations.

Liz Heron, New York Times Social Media Editor

One of the biggest takeaways was that it pays to cultivate social media communities long before they become newsworthy. Clay Shirky nailed it when he said that one reason NPR’s Andy Carvin has stood out in tweeting news from the Middle East is that he was already following the right people in the region. (Incidentally, I got to meet many of those exact people in real life at another session on social media fueling change in the Middle East. Another takeaway from SXSW is the importance of getting off of Twitter and meeting face-to-face).

In her keynote, entertainer Felicia Day made a similar, slightly cheeky point that was geared more toward business but applicable to the news: “Your [social media] campaign is not a booty call, it’s a long-term relationship.”

At the same time, another theme that emerged at SXSW was that we are a crowd of early adopters, and we can’t assume our audience is as immersed in social media as we are. I’ll be pondering more ways to effectively incorporate news that comes to us via social media in ways that feel accessible for all Times readers.

Dorrine Mendoza, Online Content Producer, North County Times

The increasingly empowered consumer demands a “humanized” business. How will news organizations respond?

Gary Vaynerchuk, author of “The Thank You Economy,” said Monday that the small-town baker who throws in the 13th bagel for free is prepared for 2012 because small town rules are back in demand. Customers who feel genuinely appreciated are more likely to be loyal.

What if newsrooms applied this standard? How are readers/website visitors (customers) thanked for their attention? Am I prejudiced against the person who consumes content for free, believing he is worth less than a subscriber? Do I engage my readers, or do I treat them as an afterthought, or worse, do I consider them another duty?

Anthony De Rosa, Reuters Product Manager and contributor

My main takeaway was being able to have real face time — which we rarely do anymore because of the multitude of digital ways to connect — with people we want to work with to create interesting and useful things. I am less interested in SXSW as a place for people to bloviate and “thought lead” on topics; I view it more as an action-oriented event.

Social media may be taking over large parts of our lives, but it cannot replace what SXSW provides: the human element of real-life interaction, which cannot be replicated over Foursquare, Twitter, GroupMe or Basecamp. (The app that will allow me to continue these relationships is Hashable, which makes it quick and easy for me to have a record of us meeting and follow up with them later.)

Just as the conference has grown to an unprecedented size, the amount of information and data, particularly around news, has grown tremendously. While many hate the term “curate,” the idea behind it is more necessary than ever. An algorithm can help, but can’t completely replace the human editor.

Perhaps we just stop saying “curate” and call it what it really is: editing flows of information. Not just information from individual writers at an organization, but all the information being produced at any given moment. A number of tools are emerging to help these editors, like Storyful. I found theses tools to be the most compelling journalism topics discussed.

Melissa Bell, BlogPost writer, Washington Post

I was intrigued by the move away from Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of one “authentic” identity online. We don’t want to share everything to everyone all at once. Group text messaging was the biggest example of this. There is a rising demand for tools to communicate with select groups of people — to divide our social streams.

This idea also came up in two keynote speeches. 4chan founder Christopher Poole and actress Felicia Day said online anonymity enables people to experiment with words, thoughts and projects without a fear of failing. Poole called this a “fluid” identity, allowing for different parts of yourself to have their own space online. This made me reconsider the value of attaching real names to comments on our site

Kate Gardiner, social media consultant

Group texting seems to be the hot new technology. (SMS, how retro!) I was amazed to discover how practical it was for organizing a large group of people from all over the country. The obvious use case for me is editorial teams in the field covering a particular story, but I’m sure that’s only the first one.

Joanna Geary, Community Editor, The Times

I was very interested in the Hacks/Hackers panel that discussed taking story reporting beyond the traditional article format. Fundamental changes to the traditional newsroom processes have been a long time coming, but I’m delighted to see that things are starting to happen. I was fascinated by the work that SBNation has done creating story streams and their experience with implementing a completely new editorial system into a newsroom.

One of my favourite panels was led by Aza Raskin and focused on health. It opened my eyes to how little we create feedback loops for our readers to help them navigate and consume the news that they want. His panel gave me a lot of principles to take back into the newsroom and use to help improve our community.

Seth Gitner, Assistant Professor of Newspaper and Online Journalism, Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

I attended SXSW with several student entrepreneurs; I’ll admit I had wondered until this point what entrepreneurship had to do with communications and journalism, but after experiencing SXSW I see things in a new light.

My entire career in Web journalism, I had been trying to think innovatively on how to tell stories; I see now that my thinking was entrepreneurial. There were a lot of sessions on how to be a successful entrepreneur, how to take your ideas and make them come to life.

Journalists at SXSW should have been at these sessions. If you’re a journalist and you attended only journalism events, I don’t think you were getting the most out of SXSW. Journalists need to look at other avenues for ideas, take what they learn and apply those ideas to journalism and storytelling. By doing this, we will move our storytelling forward.

Chrys Wu, User Engagement Strategist, Matchstrike LLC

This is a good place to practice entrepreneurship skills. A lot of people had their hustle on — and it went beyond the usual “my name is, I work at, I work on” banter. The Accelerator pitches were fascinating, but it was also interesting to be a part of hallway and party conversations and to listen in on phone calls. Convincing people that you and what you do are attention-worthy is an art more journalists are going to need in the future.

Talking to people yields the best inside information. It was true before the Internet. It’s still true now. Read more


In move toward online civility, Bakersfield, Yuma, Lewiston shift commenting strategies

In the days since President Obama called for “a more civil and honest public discourse,” leaders across the country have vowed to make America kinder and more tolerant. Members of Congress — many of whom chose bipartisan seatmates for the State of the Union — spoke of limiting acrimony in Washington. The nation’s mayors signed a “civility accord” to reduce rancor at city halls.  New Jersey lawmakers proposed a resolution encouraging respect and goodwill throughout the state’s “stores, streets, and neighborhoods.”

But as challenging as it is to promote empathy among politicians — or courteous driving on the Garden State Parkway – some online content providers have taken on a task that may be almost as hard. They’re trying to bring civility to one of the places where it’s most rare — the “comments” section of news websites.

“It’s so vile sometimes,” said Jamie Butow, who helps manage the comments posted to, the website of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “It got to the point where we can’t possibly be attracting new users, because who would want to jump into this kind of conversation?”

Butow, the site’s community engagement coordinator, is revamping its commenting policy to discourage “personal attacks, racism and other forms of hate speech.” The new rules are scheduled to take effect in a few weeks, but she began drafting them several weeks ago, even before the Tucson shootings sparked renewed national dialogue about civility.

“We’ve got these dozen or so core people who jump in and interject their point of view and are just very nasty about it,” Butow said in a phone interview.

Indeed, is peppered with the type of bitter comments that have become endemic to many news websites.

A story about local air pollution led one reader to write, “The Bakersfield I grew up in was a great place before we were overrun by the liberal fruits, nuts, derelicts, and rejects from the other 49 states.”

An article about a playground altercation led a comment-writer to allege, “Half of the teachers coming out of these liberal colleges are having sex with the children.”

And a profile of a sheriff candidate sparked this anonymous response: “(Bakersfield police) are corrupt clowns, if you don’t want to answer taxpers (sic) calls for help, get out and pick cotton.”

The Californian’s revised policy — unveiled in a series of community meetings this month — attempts to tone down the rhetoric by moving comments into discussion forums neatly arranged by topic. It eliminates reader-authored blogs on, which Butow said often generated the most heated responses. And it imposes tight restrictions on racist rhetoric and name-calling.

“It’s one strike and you’re out,” Butow said. “We’re not giving you a second chance.”

Limiting anonymity, encouraging respect is among several news sites nationwide that are trying to bring more civility to their reader comments. In the past few months alone, new policies were announced at the Yuma (Arizona) Sun, the Las Vegas Sun, and the Reuters website.

“Our newspaper has standards, and we want our website to have standards, too,” said Yuma Sun editor Terry Ross, who removed as many as 50 inappropriate posts per day before the policy changed earlier this month.

Ross said the online conversation had degenerated so much that two readers threatened to seek protective orders against each other after they exchanged a series of insults.

The new rules require readers to have Facebook accounts and use them to post comments on That makes it more difficult to post anonymously, and Ross hopes commentators will think twice about being abusive if they know they could lose not only their posting privileges, but also their Facebook accounts.

“Our goal is to make our site usable by most people who want to use it,” Ross said in a phone interview. “If they come to our site and they’re offended by what’s on it, they may not come back.”

Ross conceded that the new system “isn’t a perfect answer,” and he noted that readers’ responses have been mixed.  (“This system sucks and whoever is moderating it is a moron,” wrote one reader in the comment section of Ross’ column explaining the change.)

But mainstream news sites are likely to continue to explore ways to bring more order to their online forums, which they often initially established with a hands-off approach.

“As more media organizations have opened up these kinds of social venues, they begin to realize what’s involved,” said Jenna Woodul of Liveworld, Inc., which builds and moderates social networks for media organizations, corporations, and other website operators. “It’s naïve of anyone to think they can just put up a message board and it will organically turn into a productive gathering.”

Woodul said site owners can promote civility several ways, such as discouraging or prohibiting anonymous posts, providing a way for users to report offensive messages, and actively moderating conversations — not just deleting distasteful messages, but also interjecting respectful comments that model the behavior they expect from guests.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times when people open these social venues, they’re not thinking about them the same way they would think about having a social gathering in the real world,”  Woodul said.

“If people come over to your house and you have china and silver and candles, they know how to act. And if somebody jumps on the table and starts cursing or throwing beer, you get rid of them.”

“It’s ugly but it’s real”

While nobody I spoke with argued against civility, some expressed concern about repressing online discussions, which they say can provide valuable uncensored insight into public opinion.

“I think there’s value in letting unpleasant people express themselves, because it gives the writer, the publication, and the readership a clearer picture of the totality of the audience,” said Matt Zoller Seitz, a blogger and critic who last year wrote a column for titled, “Why I like vicious, anonymous online comments.”

“We know that hateful jerks exist, and what they might say in a comments thread is no more traumatic than what you might overhear on the bus or at a coffee shop or on a radio talk show,” Seitz said by e-mail.

“It’s ugly but it’s real. Do we want to live in a world that constantly reassures us that people really are decent at heart, or do we want the truth?”

Seitz concedes there’s a place for online moderators, if for no other reason than to prune out what he calls “topic spammers”– people who contribute to multiple threads each day with off-topic rants about their pet subjects.

But his warning about the downside of suppressing offensive speech resonates with some editors and website managers, even those who’ve decided to more tightly regulate online discourse.

“I completely understand it,” said editor Rex Rhodes of the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal, which will start banning anonymous comments next month.

“Maybe the comments won’t be as colorful, maybe people won’t be as honest as they were before … You won’t have a true picture of the community.

“On the other hand, the discussions at our paper seemed to be dominated by the ugliest people in our community,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know that’s an accurate picture of how the community operates either.” Read more


5 Ways to Get People to Contribute Good Content for Your Site

As news organizations experiment with user-generated content, they’re learning that users are capable of creating quality content that can be turned into powerful projects. What’s not as clear: How can news organizations motivate people to submit the kind of content they’re looking for?

This was the topic of conversation during a recent panel discussion featuring Alexis Madrigal and Sarah Rich, two of the three co-founders of Longshot Magazine, and Laura Brunow Miner, the creator of Pictory. During the panel, which was held at last month’s Online News Association conference, the speakers shared tips on how to tap into the power of the community for stories.

Moderator Robin Sloan, who works for Twitter, pointed out that the panel wasn’t going to be about citizen journalism or examples of news organizations asking users to submit photos during breaking news events, for instance. Instead, it focused on the specific techniques that go into getting quality content from users.

Avoid using the term “user-generated content.

The speakers on the panel, which was titled “Don’t Call It UGC,” said the phrase “user-generated content” can sound off-putting. Instead, they suggested calling these efforts “community editorial” or crowdsourcing.

UGC suggests a “factory farming of content,” said Miner. “If you say crowdsourcing or community editorial, it shows the relationship and the respect and the hard work that goes into it a little bit more.”

The term UGC also can lead some journalists to make false assumptions about the type of content they’ll get.

“When you say user-generated content,” Rich said, “I have found a lot of the time it is either something people are really excited about, or more often there’s terror of opening the floodgates to the audience, who presumably will send a lot of crap in.” People think “you’ll have no ability to control it, and it’ll suck up everybody’s time trying to deal with it.”

Being specific, then, about what you’re looking for can help both your potential contributors and your colleagues understand what’s expected.

Master the “fine art of the prompt.”

Community editorial in large part comes down to the “fine art of the prompt” — the question or phrase you use to tell your audience what type of content you’re looking for. 

“The prompts, ‘Hey, what do you think?,’ or ‘Tell us something cool,’ emphatically don’t work,” Sloan said. “Instead, it’s these slightly more specific and slightly more constraining prompts that do.”

The key, he said, is to make the prompt “something that anyone, in theory, might have something to say about.”

One of the more popular prompts on Pictory, Miner said, was, “The one who got away: stories of lost love.” After Miner asked users to submit photos and captions that embodied this theme, they submitted powerful photos of people they were once in relationships with but had drifted away from.

Sometimes, when she’s in need of a prompt, Miner looks to other sites for inspiration. (She noted that The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” blog inspired her to create Pictory.) In the past, she’s turned to Flickr to find creative captions that could be turned into prompts. She’s also gone on a “meme safari” and looked for popular phrases that she could play off of.

“If it’s something people are talking about anyway and that they already have on their hard drives,” Miner said, “they’re likely to share it and find an outlet for it.”

Rich and Madrigal, who’s also a senior editor for, used the prompts “hustle” and “comeback” for the first and second editions of Longshot Magazine. With the help of others, they put together a creative video about comebacks to encourage people to submit content. Users interpreted the comeback theme in a variety of ways and submitted written stories, photo essays and even a detailed quiz.

Understand what motivates people to submit content.

Community editorial, Miner said, requires finesse, hard work and a lot of respect for your users. Knowing what motivates users can help you provide them with the incentive to contribute. Here are six motivating factors:

  • Getting exposure: “Knowing that your work is going to look its best,” Miner said, and that it’s “going to be refined by a professional editor and designed by a designer in the context of other great work, can mean a lot to people.”
  • Being edited: A lot of user-generated content on news sites doesn’t get edited. All of the speakers, however, said they prefer to edit users’ content because it adds to the quality and gives users an additional incentive to contribute.
  • Having their work featured on a nicely designed site: “I think with any product,” Miner said, “the level of design tells you the level of quality.”
  • Having an opportunity for self-expression: People find it cathartic to express themselves and vent by telling stories for an audience, Miner said.
  • Being part of a community: Being connected to a like-minded community that they wouldn’t otherwise reach can be a big selling point, Madrigal said.
  • Making money: You don’t have to compensate contributors to make community editorial projects work, but sometimes people will put more effort into their content if they’re paid. “You’re probably going to get better work if they did it for a grad school project or as a personal project,” Miner said. “That’s sort of a trade-off when you’re not paying people or not paying them much.”

Realize that your content providers aren’t necessarily your content consumers.

Miner talked about the “Joe Francis theory of community editorial,” which her former coworker Laura Simkins coined. (Francis is the brain behind the Girls Gone Wild videos.) The theory suggests that the girls who appear in the videos aren’t likely the consumers of the DVDs. 

“I think that’s something really important to think about with any crowdsourcing project,” Miner said. “Don’t assume your readers are the ones who are going to produce the content that you’re looking for.”

Longshot Magazine has found Twitter to be a valuable tool to reach new contributors and audience members. “Almost all of our traffic,” Madrigal said, “has been people who sign up on our e-mail list or via Twitter.”

Reward contributors, even if you don’t select their work for publication.

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Rich and Madrigal said Longshot Magazine contacts every person who submits a story. If the magazine’s editors turn down a submission, they encourage the contributor to find another place to publish it. Once it’s published elsewhere, Longshot Magazine links to it on its Tumblr blog.

“This allowed us to give a lot more of our contributor base exposure even if they didn’t get into the print magazine” — which only featured about 3 percent of the overall submissions in the first issue, Rich said. 

Figuring out how to reward and motivate contributors is an ongoing learning process that comes with challenges. “Crowdsourcing is a craft,” Sloan reminded the audience. “It’s something you can learn and get better at.”

Now it’s time to put some of these techniques into practice. We want you to send us a photo that captures the phrase “My fall.” You can interpret the phrase however you’d like. (See examples here and here.) Upload your photos to Twitter using the hashtag #myfall, or post them to Flickr with the keyword “myfall.” We’ll look at your submissions and then feature some of our favorites.  Read more

0 Comments creates “reader engagement index” to track site performance

Nieman Journalism Lab

For the past two months, has been using a seven-part formula to create what its staff calls a reader “engagement index.” Lois Beckett writes that the formula is designed to gauge reader interest and participation in the site’s content, not simply page views or visits.

The equation looks a bit intimidating —  “Σ(Ci + Di + Ri + Li + Bi + Ii + Pi )” — but Beckett writes that it breaks down like this:

  • “Ci — Click Index: visits must have at least 6 pageviews, not counting photo galleries
  • Di — Duration Index: visits must … spend a minimum of 5 minutes on the site
  • Ri — Recency Index: visits that return daily
  • Li — Loyalty Index: visits that either are registered at the site or visit it at least three times a week
  • Bi — Brand Index: visits that come directly to the site by either bookmark or directly typing or come through search engines with keywords like ‘’ or ‘inquirer’
  • Ii — Interaction Index: visits that interact with the site via commenting, forums, etc.
  • Pi — Participation Index: visits that participate on the site via sharing, uploading pics, stories, videos, etc.”

Beckett spoke with Chris Meares, a senior data analyst at who spends about a third of his week working with the equation. The time spent does return valuable information:

” ‘We’re definitely seeing the impact of social media and how it provides engaged visitors,’ [Meares said.] While Google and Yahoo provide a lot of traffic, the visits that they send to don’t tend to be engaged. Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.”

According to Meares, the staff is able to put its overall traffic into perspective by tracking engagement. “If overall traffic for the site is down,” Beckett writes, “but the number of engaged users are up, that still means the site is doing well.” Read more


Do community managers serve the community or the business?

Social Media Explorer

As media companies create new titles like “community manager,” “social media editor” and “director of engagement,” Jordan Cooper asks whether the people in those positions report to the community or the business.

He says they are ultimately responsible to the business and its objectives but suggests there is an inherent tension that should be part of the internal discussions:

“Many companies have their community managers dive straight into this social abyss with guns blazing – Twitter conversations, Facebook fan pages, user-generated content portals, official forum communities, e-mail contests and any other god-forsaken way the brand can ‘play the part’ of a customer-centric organization. But [do] they (and perhaps we) sometimes fail to first understand the exact status of a community manager position in relation to both parties in the relationship exchange?”

Cooper does not provide any answers, but this is something each company needs to work out for itself. He says:

“Are we here to serve the customers? Are we here to serve the brand?

“Are we here to serve both – and in what proportion?”

Read more

Kommons Founder Sees Q&A Site as Way to Hold the Powerful Accountable

Social networking services have no doubt opened the lines of communication between citizens and public figures, but Cody Brown thinks they fall short in fostering two-way conversations. Politicians can easily ignore a voter’s question on Twitter. And there’s no easy way to chime in or track who asked what.

So Brown and former New York University classmate Kate Ray created Kommons. The site, which has been in beta mode since September, enables people to pose questions to anyone who has a Twitter account and to provide answers that aren’t limited to 140 characters.

“We’re trying to build public leverage from the ground up on every question,” Brown said in a phone interview. “Our goal is to be a fair place to ask and answer questions from anyone in the world.”

So far, Kommons has about 100 users. They’re basically an extension of Brown and Ray’s networks — mostly journalists who are interested in technology. But the site shows promise as a reporting tool, as a place where knowledge is shared, and as a way to lessen the public’s reliance on the media to pick up and answer its questions.

Familiarity of Twitter, with room for deeper exchanges

Kommons has some of the same features as Twitter. When users ask a question, they can opt to send out an automatically generated tweet of the question, which includes the Twitter name of the person to whom the question is directed. Others can “back,” or support, a question and tweet that, too.

“All we’re doing is making the question harder to ignore and expanding the number of people who are seeing it,” said Brown, who graduated from NYU in May.

This integration with Twitter allows users to tap into their existing networks and draw more attention to questions.

“If I already have a few thousand followers on my Twitter account, I can use that as leverage when I get excited by someone else’s question,” said Brown, who’s also the founder of NYU Local. “We’ve met with journalists who are very interested in integrating this into some of their reporting styles, specifically people who are prolific bloggers. They’ve spent the past few years gaining recognition on Twitter and they can use this to ignite their base.”

Currently, the only way to be invited to use the site is to have a Kommons user ask you a question. Brown said this will change once the more public version of the site launches.

Asking good questions, sharing knowledge with others

A small group of journalists has been using Kommons to ask one another questions; some have been answered, but many haven’t.

One user, for instance, asked FiveThirtyEight a question that went unanswered for a month. (It’s not likely to be answered, considering that it was about plans for data visualizations leading up to the election.) And nine people had backed a question to Clay Shirky that was left unanswered for about a month. He responded to it on Tuesday morning after this story was published.

(I should note that it took me about a month to answer a question from Publish2′s Greg Linch. It’s not that I didn’t want to answer it; it’s just that I didn’t have much of an incentive to answer it sooner.)

Some of those questions, though, have led to thoughtful responses on topics such as covering a live television event and entrepreneurial journalism. Rachel Sklar, Mediate’s editor at large, responded in detail to Brown’s question about what the New York City media community was like before Twitter.

In a blog post about her Kommons experience, Sklar said she spent an hour crafting her response. She referred to Kommons as a “sort of brilliant” site that will “sneakily make you blog for free.”

Seeing what interests voters & how politicians respond

As Kommons expands, Brown said, it will be more focused on politics. He’s talking with various conservative and liberal bloggers about possible partnerships and said he’d also like to partner with news organizations.

He wouldn’t say when these partnerships would be announced or when the next version of Kommons will launch. But he said he hopes Kommons will ultimately enable news consumers and members of the Fifth Estate to seek answers themselves rather than relying on the media. Journalists could then turn to the site to get a better sense of what voters want to know from politicians.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a user’s questions will be answered. And if a political figure doesn’t have a Twitter account or has a ghost writer, he or she may not even know the question exists.

“We know not every question is going to get answered, but we always think there’s more we can do to get that question answered,” Brown said. He recently added backers’ avatars to each question to draw attention to them and make them more personal.

Striving to stand out among other question & answer sites

Kommons is not the only site that features questions from the public, and Twitter has also been used to pose questions to politicians.

Quora is a similar site that lists questions and answers on topics such as food, cars, and even journalism. Unlike Kommons, Quora lets users edit responses and questions.

One of Brown’s challenges is figuring out how to show users the value of the site. Gannett Digital’s Ryan Sholin, who has posed and answered questions on Kommons, said he thinks the site has potential, but he isn’t quite sure how to best use it.

“Right now, Kommons looks a bit like Quora to me: It’s full of insiders poking at each other, but it doesn’t have the friendly trappings of a place I’d expect the general public to hang out,” Sholin told me via e-mail.

“I can see the use case for reporters trying to get the public to ‘back’ a question to an elected official … but there are other places to do this right now — like Facebook — that are already populated by all three groups in that relationship.”

Other sites such as Yoosk and enable citizens to ask politicians questions, acting as a kind of online town hall meeting. Yoosk Founder and Chairman Tim Hood said 15 government ministers and 100 elected representatives worldwide have answered questions, as well as several other public figures. David Miliband, the UK’s former foreign secretary, has answered 41 questions.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections, citizens used Personal Democracy Forum’s to pose questions to candidates, with the goal of having the candidates respond to the top questions with substantial answers rather than sound bites. partnered with news organizations on the project.

The biggest difference between Kommons, Yoosk and, Brown said, is that Kommons users have a much bigger pool of people to ask questions to — anyone on Twitter. “This means that we are set up for classic activist use cases — someone without power challenging someone who has power — but we are also set up to go sideways.”

As Kommons grows, Brown said he hopes the site will enrich journalists’ reporting and understanding of certain subjects while giving everyday people the power to pose questions that they’ve traditionally relied on journalists to ask.

“I think getting a big public figure to answer a question is one of the hardest things a journalist does and what the real masters do really well,” Brown said. “This is just a new platform and opportunity to really test the limits of that.” Read more


Comments return to the Portland Press Herald

Less than 48 hours after comments were removed from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald’s website, they are back, using newly installed moderation tools.

Comments were pulled Tuesday after what Publisher Richard Connor described as “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings” on the site. The decision affected Portland’s, as well as the websites of the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal.

In a brief letter posted on the Press Herald’s site on Tuesday, Connor wrote that comments could return when it became possible to hold contributors accountable for what they post.

Comments did return early Thursday morning, using the Intense Debate moderation tools. A note on the paper’s Facebook page states, “The Portland Press Herald has ended a temporary suspension of online commenting. Comments are now being accepted under a new system. Just trying to keep you on your toes!”

Much like its close competitors Disqus and Echo, Intense Debate appears to meet many of the criteria for increased accountability Connor laid out in his original memo. For readers, the system allows a variety of different log-in options, including Facebook and Twitter. For news staffers, the system includes advanced moderation tools, such as filtering, blocking or deleting of comments by keyword, e-mail address or IP address.

It is not clear if the paper plans to enforce a ‘real name’ policy, as nicknames are still currently being allowed. However, Intense Debate can be configured to allow users with Facebook accounts, but not Twitter, for example, to log-in and comment. That would significantly increase the percentage of users commenting on the site using verified identities.

Intense Debate is also used by the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the flagship newspaper in a chain of publications Connor owns in Pennsylvania. Read more

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