What makes a good newspaper forum?

Are forums the best way of interacting with online users? A quick glance at most newspaper websites would indicate the answer is… no.
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?

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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10 Responses to What makes a good newspaper forum?

  1. Captain Mac says:

    Great stuff Alison. I would also add that forums should have a degree of interactivity with the newspaper itself. Some people will automatically go to a website and post a comment, but having feedback in the paper will encourage more to follow that route.If a story runs over several days, a panel incorporating forum views in the follow up stories would add value.A general ‘what you think’ panel rounding up some of the reaction to recent big stories would also be worth doing.

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  2. Jon says:

    It’s an interesting one this. I’ve been doing my blog for about two months and average about three comments per post – none of which has started any sort of debate.But I started a Facebook group based on the blog and got 21 posts on one issue. It seems people will read the blog, then go to Facebook to comment on it, which is a mite frustrating.There are three main reasons why this happens I think. 1) Ease – no filling in forms and no entering blurred letters then losing your post when you think a 7 is a t. 2) Facebook is seen as an automatic home for debate; and 3) On Facebook you are automatically notified when someone has responded to your discussion.It seems to me when could incorporate something of 3 into newspaper forums – this speeds up debate and makes people feel they are part of a chat.I’ll leave the other two problems for other people : )

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  3. Recently I met some one who had a forum where if you wanted to post or respond you had to send his receptionist a note and then she’s load it off to the forum. There was no actual direct posting of any kind. It all came down to being sold some bad software. We wound up having a chat about barriers and use.Anyway – we give our forums users a wide berth. But we do have to step in from time to time and set things straight. Last weekend we were up against some sort of angst storm. We made it clear that this is their space but they have to use it responsibly. We’ve also found that you have to be blunt and terse when laying down the law. I tried being polite but too many people took what I had to say too subjectively. Rather than be offended, as we suspected, they got the message. The only reason you get away with being blunt is to – use a term I’ve never liked – given the users a sense of ownership. BTW – despite last weekend’s various nuclear exchanges everything’s OK now and some of our regulars are getting together for an afternoon pub crawl tomorrow.

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  4. Alison Gow says:

    @Captain Mac – really good point; why should forum activity be limited to online? Perhaps if there was the chance of getting their viewpoint cross-posted, and sparking further debate across different platforms, people would be more interested in posting a valid point than making into cheap jibes. @Jon Yes, it’s much much easier to get people posting on Facebook; maybe as well as the lack of form filling it’s just seen as a more relaxed, inviting space than a forum? Automatic notification is one to think about for busy forums for sure – football maybe? Hmm…

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  5. Hi Alison,Great article. I like your point about effort and attention. Online news is not always the easy option and it is certainly not automatic just because it’s interactive.It’s the kind of issue I tackle in my new book about Networked journalism called SuperMedia – details at the Polis website:http://www.polismedia.orgcheersCharlie Beckett

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  6. news paper says:

    wow, nice post…u have a beautifull blog

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  7. pradeshtoday says:

    It is a double edged sword and most people don't get the big picture until they become part of the story.The only thing you can do is maintain your integrity. Your clients will know the truth from you. You have the write to write it all out too. Your are looking at who said it first right now, so your side has to just be steady and strong and fight hard and smart with your own words. Don't let it get under your skin. That is where your heart lives and the truth lies.

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  8. maluthor says:

    There are many type of media to know about the current status of the world like television,radio,internet that's electronic media so it is fast then new paper I think that New paper are also important to know about the current situation of the world.it also given about some times of other article. In the early morning i get up i always read to a news paper.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    I am currently in the process of writing and collecting data for my dissertation. I’ve decided to write a dissertation on newspapers, more specifically on whether printed newspapers can co-exist with online news and what can be done to help the newspaper industry, if at all.

    I’ve created a questionnaire to help analyse the questions above and would like your help completing it – see link below:

    http://www.surveyexpression.com/s/226/newspapersurvey

    The questionnaire is mostly multiple-choice and will take approximately 15 minutes to complete.

    Any help would be appreciated.

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  10. I like the opinion of captain Mac

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