I really like the comment moderation system used by Business Insider, for a number of reasons.
The skinny, as explained here: For about a year Business Insider has had a section of comments called the Bleachers, a dumping ground for comments that the editors find, to use Henry Blodget’s rather amusing formulation, “offensive, dumb, hateful, annoying, or otherwise value-less.” That’s been joined by the Bleachers’ opposite, the Board Room, a home for particularly good comments promoted by the editors. Comments worthy of neither the Board Room nor the Bleachers go in the Water Cooler.
Now, Business Insider has introduced something called the Penalty Box, which works like this: If you make a comment that gets booted to the Bleachers, you get a strike by your name. Each strike lasts a month. Accumulate three strikes and you get 24 hours in the Penalty Box, with every comment you make automatically landing in the Bleachers — unless you write something worthy of the Board Room, in which case your strikes are erased.
Is it a perfect system? No — not that it claims to be, or should be treated like it’s finished. I think 24 hours seems like too short of a time out to curb obnoxious behavior, and such a system would scale a lot better if other commenters could help police things, such as by being able to vote comments into the Bleachers and/or the Board Room. Blodget addresses the latter point in a comment of his own, noting that “the problem with leaving everything to the voting is that too often it is used as a ‘like’ system. If a reader agrees with a comment, it gets a thumbs up, and if the reader disagrees, it gets a thumbs down. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t separate valuable from value-less.”
But my objections are minor; there’s a lot to like here. I particularly like that Business Insider’s system feels loose and fun and has an identity. The whimsical names add some levity to the proceedings without eroding the purpose of the exercise, the Viking illustrations are entertaining, and the system feels like you’d want to spend time with it, which is the first step to creating habit. And perhaps most of all it’s theirs — you’re not going to mistake the Bleachers with its tomato-wielding Viking for a grayed-out comment on some other site, or get confused between the Board Room and the New York Times’s top comments.
Taming the fire-and-forget problems of web comments is an important task, and a tough job. But there’s no reason to be deadly serious about it from pillar to post. Business Insider has made it fun, and made it work for their brand and their identity. It’s an approach worth emulating.
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I know posts have been scarce around here, for which I apologize — my lame excuse is that other writing projects that have sucked up a lot of my time, plus general exhaustion. That said, I’ve written a couple of columns for my Indiana University digital-sportswriting gig about Grantland, the new ESPN-backed sports-and-pop-culture site run by Bill Simmons, that touch on matters near and dear to RTN’s heart.
In the first, I decried that we insist on reviewing new magazines, columns and websites as if they sprang fully formed from their creators’ heads, with no need to find their footing. Every column, blog or site I’ve ever been a part of has needed a while to find ideal subjects, the right voice and the best way to connect with readers, and Grantland deserves that time just like everything else does. That said, I reviewed the site’s first three days of posts and concluded that by any reasonable measure Grantland was already a success.
In the second, I returned to a theme that I always find interesting: how to create digital brands in an era of brand fragmentation. Grantland isn’t a publication you pick up on a newsstand, choosing it over others, but something you’ll likely read in bits and pieces alongside bits and pieces of other publications, with daily habit, searches and peer recommendations determining which bits and pieces wind up in your particular filter. This is how we read now, and it makes building brands much harder than it used to be. Given that Grantland is already a loose collection of different subjects and well-known writers, it will be very interesting to see how the site does as a brand.
Last week I read in the Los Angeles Times that Demand Media is now supplying text and video to USA Today, creating a new section called Travel Tips.
I’ve gone on record as not exactly being a fan of Demand Media, though I think my perspective is a little different than that of some of the company’s other critics. It doesn’t bother me that Demand Media’s bosses and writers aren’t exclusively journalists, as I reflexively bristle at the idea that journalism can only be practiced by members of some anointed class. (Besides, a fair number of Demand’s writers are journalists.) Heck, I think Demand has come up with smart algorithms for understanding what people are searching for, and too many newsrooms seem depressingly indifferent to questions like that.
Nor does my opposition have to do with Demand paying very little for content — as a professional writer I of course find that worrisome, but those low wages are just a consequence of the pitiless laws of supply and demand. The phenomenon makes me unhappy, but it’s not a miscarriage of justice.
What bugs me about Demand Media is what I fear it does to the quality of information on the Web. Here’s Wired’s Daniel Roth with a metaphor: “Imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.” Demand uses SEO to game Google, shooting its content to the top of search results where it’s more likely to be clicked. Whether or not that content is valuable to the reader is beside the point.
This isn’t the way the Web is supposed to work, and that’s what made me mad. But was that fair? Hearing that Demand was now working with USA Today seemed like a good chance to challenge my assumptions. It might be a very good fit, after all: Demand’s algorithm could be put to good use, and its content used as raw material by a reputable news organization whose mission is to help its readers.
So I dropped by Travel Tips, and decided to assess Demand’s work based on the stories selected as Editor’s Picks. As a reader, I’d expect this to be valuable content hand-selected by someone. There were three such stories — How to Protect Your Home When Traveling, Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World, and How to Prevent Altitude Sickness.
So how’d Demand do?
By my lights, not well: The stories are slapdash constructions, poorly organized and at best indifferently written, and by turns not particularly helpful or overly credulous about suspect advice. (Your mileage may vary, of course — go check for yourself.)
“How to Protect Your Home” begins with an anecdote about a photographer whose home studio flooded while he was traveling, and how the damage was minimized because he’d made preparations. I was heartened to find an anecdotal lead that might draw in a reader, but the writer walked us through the entire situation before translating that to a checklist of how to protect your own home. That construction makes two mistakes at once: It kills the drama of the story and makes the reader wait around impatiently for the advice. Better by far to introduce the situation, run through the checklist of how to keep your home safe, and then return to the anecdote to reward the reader with the end of the story and amplify the lessons learned.
As for the rest of the piece, it has some good tips (I didn’t know many police departments will do “vacation checks” of your property if you ask), but misses obvious opportunities to further help readers. For example, there’s a mention that insurers offer online forms for making home inventories, but there’s only a link (buried at the bottom of the story) to Allstate’s. The writer suggests you consider an iPhone app for home inventories, but doesn’t give any examples.
“Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World” opens like this: “Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., is rarely quiet, but the crowds do vary by a surprising amount.” Reading that, I immediately felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation with an SEO algorithm — in a lot of writing by content mills the SEO-centric construction is a maddening hum drowning out information for an actual human reader. Like the first article, this one does have some useful nuggets — I didn’t know that Disney calls slower times “Value Season,” that the weekend of Jan. 7 is crowded because of Disney Marathon, or that you can enjoy Mickey’s Christmas Party during the quiet time between Thanksgiving and Dec. 16. On the other hand, the writer doesn’t tell me what Mickey’s Christmas Party is, and the useful nuggets sink in stuff like this: “Holiday time in Walt Disney World is truly a spectacular show. Every park and resort is decorated, special events occur and the holiday spirit can be felt all around.” This one felt like about three sentences and a lot of padding; what would have worked better would be to tell me exactly when Value Season is (for those scanning, “Between Holidays” isn’t helpful) and then give me specifics about what to do if I visit then.
The final piece, “How to Prevent Altitude Sickness,” isn’t clear about what it wants to be. In the first sentence it mentions Mexico City tourists, skiers in the Rockies and Everest climbers, and then veers around trying to offer advice for people in all three groups. So in less than 320 words you go from being told not to party hard the night before skiing to learning about hyperbaric oxygen units. But what really jumped out at me was advice from a Sacramento orthopedic surgeon to consider a drug called acetazolamide, followed by the same surgeon’s warning that “it’s unclear if it actually works.” If so, this is potentially dangerous advice. No responsible editor should have let that into the article, and if I worked for USA Today, I would not be happy to see that published under my banner.
I don’t mean to be hard on the writers of these pieces — they may have done far better work elsewhere. Which leads me to one of Demand’s fatal flaws.
As a freelancer, I’ve had to learn to budget my time, saying no to assignments that pay too little for the hours they’ll require. The three Demand pieces I read — and again, these were the Editor’s Picks — read like they were dashed off in a half-hour or so and given a quick line edit by someone who didn’t have time to consider story organization, further resources for helping readers, or whether some of the advice met an editorial sniff test. And given what Demand pays, this is a perfectly rational approach to creating this content: No one involved has the time to make things better and stay profitable.
I don’t think Demand or its writers deliberately try to make subpar content. But the intent doesn’t matter, because subpar content is a logical consequence of Demand’s business model as it’s presently constructed. The question for me is why anyone would want to read this content, or why USA Today would put its name on it.
The most interesting read on a pretty interesting day in Newspaperland? It’s this analysis from Cody Brown of the “trustee method” of media, exemplified by the New York Times, and how many supposed reinventions of journalism are really just working at the edges of that model, leaving its basic workings untouched. Brown imagines a more fundamental shift to what he calls the “direct method,” and his central insight is this: “Instead of telling a public what is news, the role of a direct news organization is to create a space where the people in that public can tell each other.”
Brown is always intriguing to read, with a curiosity about journalism and its history that keeps him from getting hung up on supposedly eternal journalistic truths that turn out to be a lot more ephemeral than we might think. (I definitely include myself on the list of those sometimes ensnared.) I need to think a bit more about his latest effort to give it the reaction it deserves, but I think I can bring one old-school journalistic convention to bear: He sure did bury the lead!
Some other interesting things to read today:
- It’s not news that the newspaper industry is in trouble, but look at these circulation figures gathered by E&P. If you could have shown these to newspaper execs 10 years ago, they would have started hoarding canned goods, convinced that the numbers meant 2009 was the year the United States collapsed into civil war or was ravaged by some kind of superflu. Not really surprising — and with all the interesting things bubbling under the surface of traditional journalism, it shouldn’t be the stuff of terror — but still stark and sobering to review.
- This Stephanie Clifford article in the New York Times looks at how Mercedes Benz used Web advertising on newspaper sites to tout an update of its E-class cars last summer, but is expected to sidestep newspapers when it rolls out Web ads for its more basic models early in 2010, turning instead to Web ad networks and exchanges. Clifford writes that “newspaper sites are the patent-leather stilettos of the online world: they get used for special occasions, but other shoes get much more daily wear.” Interesting evidence of the eclipse of newspapers as general-purpose vehicles for consumer communications, and the slow process of finding new niches.
- Sticking with talk of niches, Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan covers a talk by Slate editor David Plotz in which he discusses his site’s future as depending not on its seven million unique visitors, but on a subset of that — some 500,000 loyal users who want the kind of journalism in which Slate specializes. That took me back to my recent discussion with Greg Harmon about traffic numbers and how newspaper audiences may be a lot smaller than publishers think, but much more valuable.
- This is fairly amazing. Yes, Virginia, the Chicago Sun-Times still has six workers with lifetime guaranteed jobs who make around $45,000 a year to set some last-minute pages in hot type. And those six workers’ union had the ability to scuttle a deal to keep the paper from extinction. Beats me why this industry is in trouble.
Because I can’t end on that sour note, I came across a headline in the New York Times over the weekend that made me click because it just seemed so improbable: “Ignacio Ponseti, Hero to Many With Clubfoot, Dies at 95.” That sounded like an outtake from The Onion, but it turned out to be a beautifully written record of the remarkable life of an extraordinary man. I don’t know what the emerging ecosystem for news will look like, but I do know it needs a place for quietly amazing stories like this one.
The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, isn’t one to pull punches, as his thorough hiding of TV critic Alessandra Stanley made more than plain earlier this summer. Over the weekend, he took up the case of tech columnist David Pogue, whom he introduces as “a high-energy, one-man multimedia conglomerate.” (For the record, I’m a fan of Pogue’s.)
Pogue writes a weekly column, blog entries, an email newsletter and produces videos for the Times. He also makes regular TV and radio appearances, gives lectures and is a featured attraction on geek-focused Caribbean cruises. And he writes help books about tech products — often the same products he reviews in the Times. For instance, Pogue recently reviewed Snow Leopard, the new Mac operating system, and has written two “Missing Manuals” for the OS. (Pogue was already writing tech-help books when the Times hired him in 2000.)
Hoyt asked three journalism ethicists if that was a conflict of interest, and they all said it was. But they didn’t agree about how to solve it. Meanwhile, Hoyt polled people inside the building about activities such as Pogue’s (numerous other Times writers make a great deal of money from other interests) and reports — in a typically dry turn of phrase — that “with what seems a mixture of resignation and sensed opportunity, editors say The Times can be enhanced by all the outside activity.”
This isn’t just a dilemma for the New York Times: As David Pogue goes, so will many a journalist who wants to be able to keep paying the bills.
Nobody likes to say it, but lots of papers’ best writers have been “one-man multimedia conglomerates” for years — and like stars everywhere, they got to blur rules and trample guidelines. Back then, though, less-established writers had few outlets for outside work — the rules applied mainly because they were enforced by technological limitations.
Now, things are different: Writers can blog, record podcasts, shoot video on their own — and promote all this through their own efforts. This has spurred the rise of more and more independent contractors like Pogue, for whom a newspaper gig is just one of many writing outlets and ways of making a living. It’s led junior writers to regard the old rules with a mixture of bafflement and disdain: Why spend years covering City Council meetings or high-school sports when you can have your own blog about politics or pro football up and running in minutes?
And to this volatile mix, one more incendiary has been added: the precarious health of newspapers.
Early in my career, I got to tag along at a working lunch with my managing editor and an old friend of his who was starting up a new journalistic venture. They were going over the qualifications one would want from job candidates when my editor’s friend shook his head, smiling. What was more important, he said, was finding “people who are on fire for the Lord.”
I loved that line, and it served me well when my tasks came to include assessing job candidates. But I fear it now describes a bygone era — in ours, even the most-devout worshipper may find the church empty and its doors shut. I hate to say it, but it’s no longer realistic to expect new journalists to give everything they have to their newspaper, or to subordinate themselves to the paper and its brand. The compact that once applied has been broken by buyouts and layoffs and papers eliminating all positions and inviting former employees to reapply for new positions that pay much less, and by the technological and business uncertainty of where newspapers are heading and if they can get there. A wise journalist now hedges his or her bets, takes care of his or her own brand, and isn’t inclined to wait patiently for opportunities that may never arrive.
I’ve written before about the possibility of a new compact: one in which journalists are “micro-brands” within the paper, tackling the expanded duties of chatting and shooting video and beatblogging (and thus creating new contexts for attracting and keeping readers) in return for a higher public profile and some portable brand equity. But that’s just half of it: Papers also have to face the reality that not only established but also new writers will want to pursue outside opportunities, whether their goal is to make more money, build their brands or just scratch a creative itch.
Would that have been anathema not so long ago? Sure. But given newspapers’ current situation, not allowing writers such chances will just accelerate their exodus from the industry — or stop them from working for newspapers in the first place.
I think the Times responded to Hoyt’s questions the right way, by improving the disclosures Pogue makes to readers about his outside activities, code of ethics and books he’s writing. This is welcome, but not hugely surprising: The Times’s policy on outside activities is already both progressive and wise, in my opinion.
But what all papers need to realize is how many Pogues they will soon have within their ranks. Forbidding young writers from outside activities will no longer work. Instead, papers have to give them guidance that allows them the freedom they’ll demand, while making sure that freedom neither detracts from the paper’s needs nor hurts its name.
This morning I read two different columns that led me to the same conclusion.
First off, Economist.com poses eight questions for Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor-in-chief. The money quote flying around the blogosphere is this: “The problem is that the leading news organisations have a stake in web-only newspapers not working because they will accelerate the decline of the large, if faltering businesses that revolve around print.”
I think that’s true, with a couple of caveats. Weisberg’s quote makes it sound like that’s a conscious strategy, or at least that’s the way the quote is being treated online. I don’t think it is conscious. I think most newspapers know their future is online and are honestly trying to figure out how to get there. But a lot of them have such large print investments — talking both infrastructure and culture — that it’s somewhere between difficult and inconceivable for them to truly remake themselves for the Web-first world. The sheer gravity of the print model pulls their ambitions down to a lower orbit, or leaves them short of escape velocity. In some ways that’s more insidious and harder to combat than a consciously misguided strategy.
The first half of Weisberg’s quote has gotten less attention. It’s this: “The test I’d most like to see is of a well-financed, for-profit, web-only ‘newspaper’ with no printed version.”
I’d like to see that too. The question is how to get there. As Weisberg has discussed, well-financed papers have trouble making the leap because they have so much invested in print. On the other side, there are papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and AnnArbor.com (discussed today by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds in a follow-up to a piece I commented on here), which have big ambitions but are pursuing them with lean resources. This isn’t to say that those papers aren’t the right size for a Web-first operation — perhaps they are. But I worry if they have sufficient resources to make the difficult transition from big newspaper to lean but innovative Web shop.
Transitions are also on the mind of Fast Company co-founder Alan M. Webber, who pens an interesting follow-up to the Financial Times’ report that McGraw Hill could wind up selling BusinessWeek for just $1 — the same price that TV Guide fetched from OpenGate Capital.
“It’s time to buy when panic-stricken publishers offer up well-known brands with real assets at a price that is one stop away from Chris Anderson’s free,” Webber writes in the Huffington Post, noting that BusinessWeek has “a circulation — paid circulation — of almost 1 million, with a healthy pass-along rate. It has a top-notch web site. It has terrific followership in a number of areas where it’s attempted to carve out a position of thought-leadership.”
This isn’t to say that Webber thinks all is rosy at BusinessWeek. He thinks its problems begin with the newsweekly model, which he sees as no longer a good fit for consumers of news. His suggestion is to remake BusinessWeek as an American version of the Economist, interpreting the news and creating a stable of opinionated columnists from the ranks of old-school business journalists and new-school bloggers.
What really grabbed me — and brought me back to Weisberg’s thoughts — was Webber’s general advice.
“Most of all, BW needs to create a franchise,” he writes. “Because it’s not print that’s dead, or even print about business that’s dead. It’s old and tired franchises that are dead, franchises that have run out of gas and purpose and energy — franchises that deserve to die. Think about another medium that’s suffering ad sales loses [sic]: TV. Nobody bats an eyelash when a TV show goes off the air because it’s lost its franchise; nobody marvels at the ability of a new hit series to create a fresh franchise.”
That’s the key lesson, I think, and one that a lot of today’s papers would do well to heed. Today too many news franchises are so tangled up in the specifics of their print model that they’re having trouble moving forward to find a Web model that works. The franchise and the legacy business model need to be separated, with print finding its proper place among a host of models and their attendant strategies. Without that, news organizations’ efforts to change will be hobbled, and their franchises tarnished or lost.
Some quick reads on a simmering summer Tuesday afternoon:
At Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld goes on an interesting journey in response to a question: If he were starting a news organization, what would he focus on first? Design? Community? Personality? The question strikes Langeveld as a good way for existing news organizations to reinvent themselves, but then he runs into a problem: The eroding business model of today and the unformed business model of the future are so different that news organizations may not be able to get from Point A to Point B. Or at least not without “a major restructuring event.” A strategic bankruptcy, in other words. (This isn’t just a cultural problem — the potential new business models for journalism seem like poor bets to support the legacy debt load incurred by a number of publishers.)
It’s a sobering thought. The first impulse is to shrink from it. The second impulse is to mourn that journalism’s current problems have reached the point where bankruptcy looks like a way forward. But neither denial nor mourning are particularly effective responses to what’s happening to the industry right now.
In Advertising Age, Michael Learmonth ponders an irony: The ill-fated merger of Time Warner and America Online was supposed to create a digital-publishing titan, with AOL’s reach leveraging Time Warner’s content. Nearly a decade later, AOL is indeed using its traffic to help create successful publishing ventures, only Time Warner content isn’t part of the equation — rather, AOL is creating lean, efficient niche sites. Those sites might have seemed like trivial ventures amid the ambitions of a decade ago, but in stripped-down media era they’re successes to consider.
Clay Shirky posts the graduation speech delivered by Nicholas Lemann last week at Columbia Journalism School. It’s an interesting analysis of journalism moving beyond the vaguely feudal model of papers owned by dynastic families as public trusts. What really jumped out at me, though, was Lemann’s insistence that to find new forms of journalism, journalistic institutions need to broaden the conversation about how journalism is practiced. What were internal arguments within the “family circle” have to now include the voices of readers. I’ve argued this myself, pointing out that the spread of social media is changing expectations about what we share about ourselves and know about each other. In that world, the cloistered model of journalism will no longer meet readers’ expectations — and the best way to find a model that will is by listening to those same readers.