I’ve noted my thoughts on why newspapers can fail to encourage a flourishing online forum community before, and had some interesting feedback both here and via Twitter and Plurk.
Personally I don’t believe newspapers forums will ever succeed unless time and real effort is set aside for looking after them; too often they degenerate into name-calling, adverts or conversations between two posters that would make more sense conducted via instant messenger.
But I also don’t believe it is beyond the wit of newspaperkind to host intelligent, interesting and relevant forums for debate and comment – we just have to care enough that they succeed, rather than chalking them down as a ‘must-have’ on our online checklist.
So, having followed a Twitter link from Paul Bradshaw to Derek Powazek’s blog post on 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments I have some new thoughts to mull over.
Some of what he says chimes with what Mark Commerford suggested to me (regarding forums and the ability for users to flag comments which they perceive to be good or bad) and I’m also intrigued by his suggestion to scrap anonymity. All in all, lots to consider…
I grew up with hot metal; visiting my mother’s workplace as a youngster was a cue for ink-stained men to start shouting at me to ‘mind yer fingers’ and to keep away from the hot wax.
Of the eight papers I’ve worked for, six had presses rumbling away deep in the heart of their buildings. There’s something comforting about hearing the press starting up; for me it signals that all is right with the world and things are proceeding as planned.
And, of course, the press at full speed instantly evokes the idea of breaking news; it’s ironic when you think about it. Because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about where we are headed, partly sparked by Paul Bradshaw’s Seesmic debate and partly by friends up and down the country telling me about impending cuts at their newspapers.
It’s an uncertain time for so-called ‘dead tree’ media; just what are many of the people going to be doing in three years time? The answer for some, I suspect, is: Something completely different.
The word revolution is being bandied about by commentators but concept of evolution is rarely mentioned. No wonder, I guess, when those within the industry liken citizen journalism to ‘tanks on lawns‘, as though we were engaged in a battle rather than a progression.
Nevertheless, a cultural shift is happening. I wouldn’t say there are easy times ahead, but I’m not ready to throw it all in for a life in PR yet: I don’t believe newspaper journalists are dinosaurs trapped in a Digital tar pit – what is more likely is that newspapers will become online publications with associated multimedia products.
So, if newspaper journalists are facing an evolution, how do we best equip ourselves to emerge from this period of transition and change? Some thoughts, for what they are worth:
Ask For Help: I’m lucky to have an amazingly knowledgable network of contacts courtesy of, among others, Twitter, Seesmic, the TM Leaders Course, and Flickr – and that’s not counting office colleagues and contacts from previous roles. If I want to know something, I have a wide network to draw on, which I find increasingly valuable. If I have some thoughts about a subject then I also ask people what they think via this blog. Asking is something I’ve been doing all my career, armed with a notebook and pen. Now I can ask via video, SMS, forums, email, podcasts… any way to crowdsource that I want. And I get answers – sometimes ones that inspire a whole new set of questions, or that send me off down a new avenue. I find it indespensible.
Listen to People: People tell us things but we don’t always hear them – it’s just white noise while we wait our turn to speak. From a newspaper perspective that translates as: ‘It’s not news until I decide it’s newsworthy’. If I’m not prepared to listen, then consider what I’ve heard before acting, I could miss valuable information. If newspapers have stopped listening to what people are talking about then we’ve forgotten the very reason for our existance. Journalists need to read people’s blogs, follow forum posters (both those run by their newspaper and external sites), consider what is being discussed on social networks, videod on YouTube or photographed on Flickr. Through this we journalists can learn what is important to our audience and what, by extension, is important to us.
Embrace Change: I try to avoid responding to a suggestion with the words “yes, but…” but for some people,it’s their automatic default position when greeted with new scenarios – and two words can do untold damage to people’s confidence and enthusiasm. With print, “yes, but…” can be an important check and balance to ensure that things were carefully considered before time-consuming redesigns or expensive newsprint supplements are commissioned. But digital gives us more freedom to just try out new ideas. Want a new section? Add it to your website. Want a new columnist? Recruit a blogger. The possibilities really are endless online – we just need to be open-minded.
Evolve: I assumed the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ referred to the supreme leaders in terms of mental and/or physical ability; now I believe ‘fittest’ means ‘most fit for purpose’. As a journalist, my purpose is to tell stories – to find out things people are interested in, and share them. To be most fit for that purpose I have to be open-minded, willing to learn new techniques, techologies and concepts, and be prepared to give something of myself in return.
Share Knowledge: I think maybe some people are more willing to share than others, whether it’s sweets, praise or ideas. But I believe those who do share, who can play nicely in this emerging new media world, are more likely to prosper. We should be sharing links on our newspaper websites in the same way we share links with each other on Twitter. If I find a link that I know some of my Twitter contacts will appreciate I share it – I don’t worry about increasing that website’s stock at the expense of my own, or sending eyeballs away from my page. When a website has a bunch of links for me so I don’t have to go looking, I appreciate it. When it backs up its sources with external links, it becomes a more trustworthy, authentic source.
I was inspired to start this blog, to learn about new technologies and ways of communicating, to start opening my mind to the possibilities of the internet by a college course. I learn new things every day as a result of my networks, through asking, listening and sharing. Sometimes new ides work, sometimes they fall flat, but there are always more new ideas to try.
I won’t accept we are facing the end of newspapers but I will agree that we are facing the end of an era. We need to accept our industry is changing and acknowledge that we must change with it. Then we can start seeing the opportunities that exist, rather than working on exit strategies.
The Liverpool FC one works particularly well (lots of great goals for fan bloggers, for example) but I’ve plumped for Mathew Street videos here as you get some music while you watch. Which is always nice.
I heard about it via Caroline Middlebrook on Twitter, and I can think of lots of ways to use the TimeTube on newspaper websites – this is something to revisit with colleages tomorrow for sure!
It’s still in beta (isn’t everything nowadays?) but I’ve been using it for just over a month and I have to say, it’s taken over from Digg and Del.icio.us as my top bookmarking site.
These are some of my links – most of them were suggested by other like-minded contacts on Mento and I would never have found them on my own.
So far so social bookmarking.
But, in addition to sending me either public or private messages along with recommended links, I can reply and hold threaded conversations, rate links I’m sent, see how many clicks the links I send attract, add them to other social bookmark sites, or create a Facebook app, to name but a few.
It also notches up the sites I take most of my links from and my top link sources – interestingly, Twitter features highly in this.
Mento feels more social and more relevant, and consequently is more valuable to me; although I’m copying my Mento links over to Del.icio.us still I’m more interested in seeing what my contacts have for me, and what they’ve got to say about the links they found.
Frits van Exter, former editor-in-chief of Trouw newspaper, in the Netherlands, told the World Editor’s Forum earlier this year that such interactivity was an ‘open sewer’ on a newspaper’s website. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m constantly taken aback by how unpleasant some posters are on newspaper forums – the bullying that goes on in some of them is worthy of the Big Brother house – and it’s easy to see why some new users never log in again after being flamed for voicing an opinion that runs counter to the mob.
What would a new forum member think of this post on the Liverpool Echo Short Points forum, for example?
Would you hang around to see what the existing posters had in store for you? probably not. If you’re wondering, this has provoked 17 other comments – exchanges which became increasingly nasty until everyone seemed to lose interest and went on to find other threads to row on.
Then there are the newspaper websites that say they want to interact while giving out every signal to the contrary.
Click ‘interact’ on www.thisisbristol.co.uk and you’re met with a list of how you can do things… once you’ve filled in forms with several fields. And that’s just to write a letter to the editor. I know data capture is important, but my God, can’t we make it any more subtle than this? Or at least break it up a little? Getting into the site and becoming involved should be easy; after building some trust we can start to ask for more information. Sorry Bristol Post, I’d have to be pretty committed to interacting with my local paper to do this – especially when I could get into a debate with members of Bristol’s Facebook group without going through half the rigmarole
So what makes a good newspaper forum? Personally, I think time, effort and attention are key factors here – too many forums are set up and ignored by newspapers, other than checking for potential stories or libels.
I also reviewed my Delicious bookmarks to see what some of the experts, among them Mark Commerford, Rob Hamman, Chris Brogan and Adam Tinsworth, thought of the subject.
Conclusions? Well, here are some observations:
1. A successful forum is one that the members care about – it feels like a valuable and valued community. Yoliverpool.com is a example of how a successful online community operates and co-operates.
2. Posters need to know the boundaries; post-moderation only works if there is care and consistency.
3. Moderators should be familiar, via bios and links, to the users. They should join threads as participants, point users at interesting or relevant links and seed comments. They should not be intrusive or over-bearing. The ‘Trusted User model, where certain forumites are given moderator status, is a good way of ensuring the sites are not just the responsibility of the paper’s digital team.
4. Where offensive posts are deleted, a reason for the action should be given – transparency avoids conspiracy theory side-threads. For an extreme example – not necessarily recommended – see this.
5. Encourage forum users to own the space and feel responsible for it – plastic.com has a rating system for readers which filters out posts that consistently fail to make the grade. A flagging system can also encourage a commmunity spirit.
Put posts flagged three or more times as inappropriate in a moderation loop so it drops off the site til an official moderator can look at it and decide whether to re-instate it (with an explaination)
6. Reporters should interact on forums – crowdsourcing, replying to posters, starting their own threads; these are all quick, easy ways of building engagement with the wider online community.
7. Have a newbie thread so people can introduce themselves and get used to posting on a fourm. Make it welcoming -it should have a “Hello and welcome to our forum” post before the ‘code of conduct’ post!
These are so many opportunities to make forums more attractive for users; it would perhaps be an idea to have a ‘best practice’ guide or a wiki so people can feed in ideas and share experiences. What do you think?