(Cross-posted from my Tumblr.)
I can see a lot of folks are coming here because they’re searching for Bruce Nolan. I mention Bruce down below — he taught me a ton when I was a kid, and I’m grateful to him — but I suspect you’re looking for the audio of Bruce’s passionate, angry, broken-hearted speech about the changes at the Times-Picayune. You can find that here, via David Carr in the New York Times. You should hear it — everyone in journalism should. After you do, I hope you’ll come back and read this.
This fall, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will cease publishing print papers daily and move to three print days a week, stepping up 24-7 operations on its web site. According to the New York Times’ David Carr, editor Jim Amoss will leave once the transition is complete, along with two managing editors. There will be staff cuts, size to be determined, at a paper that’s already seen its newsroom shrink in the aftermath of Katrina.
Which makes this a sad day for newspapers, and for me personally.
I’ll get the me stuff out of the way first: My first professional journalism job was at the Times-Picayune as a summer intern in 1989, and I may possibly have been the greenest intern in the history of green interns — not to mention one of the most mouthy, arrogant and generally obnoxious.
I was redeemed, to the extent that was possible, by attention and instruction and firm correction from a lot of folks at the Times-Picayune: Besides Jim, who took a chance on me, there were Peter Kovacs, Bruce Nolan, Jed Horne, Keith Woods, Paul Bartels, Jeannette Hardy, Chris Cooper, John Pope, Jonathan Eig and others I’ve shamefully neglected to mention because of age and time elapsed. Most of all, there was Kris Gilger, my first bureau chief and the kind of mentor every kid should pray to get. Kris was formidable and not to be crossed — I was terrified of her — but she also had your back, no matter what.
My two summers at the Times-Picayune put me on the right road as a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to the folks who pointed the way and taught me to steer. It’s heartbreaking to think of that newsroom being much reduced, particularly in a city whose peculiar institutions need aggressive, tough, full-time watchdogs.
Yet at the same time, I object to the reflexive view among news observers that fewer days in print is the same as the death of the Times-Picayune. That’s unfair to those who must keep the paper going as more of its operations shift to digital, and it’s unwise given the tidal wave of change remaking the news industry.
The signs of trouble for the newspaper industry have been abundantly clear for years. The print business is disappearing, to be replaced by a flock of digital experiments whose most optimistic outcome still guarantees smaller newsrooms. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, and that’s been obvious for a long time. Yes, I mourn the news about the Picayune. But that isn’t the same as thinking Newhouse is wrong — in broad outline — about what needs to be done.
The question, then, is exactly what Newhouse will do. And that makes me worried all over again. The Times-Picayune was profitable — which doesn’t exempt it from the overall industry’s future, but ought to have argued for less-radical surgery. Instead, that surgery reportedly will follow the procedure Newhouse used in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a plan I thought was unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city. And the disrespect shown for T-P staff, most of whom learned about their paper’s future through the New York Times, is deplorable.
Given all that, I can’t think of any particular reason for optimism that Newhouse will get it right this time. And that’s a double dose of unhappiness.
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.
Like a lot of people concerned with digital news, I followed the debate between Howard Owens and Mathew Ingram about comments and anonymity with great interest. I spent it listening, thinking and letting the two arguments test my assumptions — a process that culminated with posts from Owens and Ingram that nicely sum up two poles of the debate.
Owens offers an excellent justification for his position that anonymous comments not only degrade community but run counter to newspaper ethics; Ingram’s summation of his position is also excellent, acknowledging the unhappy side effects of anonymity but urging us to remember how it can drive more engagement, and arguing that healthy communities rely more on enforcing standards of behavior than with policies on anonymity.
After reading those two posts and thinking about them some more, I think I’m finally ready to jump in with my own thoughts, including a few things I’ve changed my mind about.
After mulling Owens’ points, I decided my position on anonymous comments had gotten tangled up with my thoughts on the bigger issue of anonymity itself, and that I’d fallen prey to some lazy thinking. My default position has always been that you hold your nose about anonymous comments because while anonymity may lead to bad behavior in discussing a proposed shopping mall, toddlers in bars or the merits of middle relievers, the lack of it will almost certainly preclude discussion of Chinese dissent, corporate malfeasance or the struggles of gay teens.
That’s probably true, but it’s also simplistic. Owens notes that the Batavian still gets anonymous tips — they just don’t come through anonymous comments. (Which really isn’t a surprise — why did I assume they would?) And do comment rules have to be the same for every topic? You should put up with hourly headaches policing the Kids in Bars forum because one day you might do something on Chinese dissent? I’ve urged news organizations to get much more sophisticated about understanding how readers came to an article and trying to drive loyalty by showing them relevant stories based on that information, which isn’t a trivial undertaking. So I think they can do that, but haven’t thought beyond a one-size-fits-all comment policy? Really?
Owens also offers a passionate case that anonymous comments run counter to newspaper ethics against anonymous letters to the editor and sources. I found that a welcome reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming practices of the embryonic consumer Web are somehow laws of physics. Anonymous comments aren’t some intrinsic part of the Web that automatically trump decades of newsroom values. To see them that way — which is a temptation when surveying the whole mess — is to let technology lead you around by the nose. We shouldn’t let that happen.
That said, the newspaper-ethics argument against anonymous comments feels a bit forced to me. I think it also conflates anonymous comments with the larger issue of anonymity, only from the other side of the issue. It also feels a bit too much like the old newspaper model of top-down control. I think a key to the transformation of a news organization is letting go of the idea that everything is controlled, of accepting the value of becoming a gateway to information and a key node within a loose network of news sources. At a fundamental level, you give up control when you link out, when you admit that part of curation is linking to the story your rival has that you don’t, when you aggregate community Twitter feeds into Twitter lists. Insisting on real names isn’t the same as deciding whose letter gets printed, I know, but reader comments feel like they fit better on the loose links/curation/community axis than they do on the rigid sources/letters to the editor axis.
Something Ingram said made me nod my head vigorously: “I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible.” Agreed. But I bet Owens would agree too, without seeing that as in any way undermining his case. There are many potential commenters who see that anonymous commenters have turned a forum into a cesspool and immediately decide not to engage. We’ve all had that experience, and I think it’s a huge problem for news organizations. In those cases, anonymity has bred conditions that suppress the kind of interaction we all want. What good is a principle if it consistently leads to dismal practice?
But for some people, an insistence on real names will also suppress interaction. Diving into a forum as a newcomer can be intimidating even for people who are confident in their ability to write and argue, to say nothing of how it feels for people who don’t have that confidence. Anonymity or a pseudonym can take the fear out of that first step, letting people wade in. They feel like they can retreat if things don’t go well, and can go deeper if things do.
I use the name BklynJace to comment in some forums, and this debate made me think about why. Looking over what I’ve written under that name, it’s not because it’s a cover for crass behavior (with a lamentable exception or two). Rather, I’ve used that name on forums I follow but aren’t sure I want to commit to as a regular participant, with the full weight of my real identity. An insistence on real names would have made me less likely to post, and I’m sure that goes double for lots of other people. And as Ingram notes, there are very healthy communities — such as Metafilter and Slashdot — where the lack of real names hasn’t overriden the commenting mores in the least.
So there we are, chasing each other round and round. You can get anonymous comments too entangled with the larger issue of anonymity, whether you’re for them or against them. Anonymous comments can get in the way of maximizing interaction, but so can real names.
Which makes me wonder if the answer isn’t a middle ground.
First off, there is no one-size-fits-all rule: The commenting parameters for a locally focused small-business site wouldn’t work for Deadspin, or vice versa, and those parameters should be flexible from discussion to discussion. But generally speaking, I think we should encourage the use of real names, discourage pseudonyms, and discourage anonymous comments even more vigorously — without eliminating the latter two ways of posting. (It might be more practical to make this two categories instead of one.)
One sign of a healthy community is that it defends itself instead of leaving that to moderators, and I think that starts with giving participants tools to use in that defense. If you allow unverified comments, make the default that they’re hidden or shown in lighter type, while allowing readers to change those settings. (Gawker and the Wall Street Journal both offer variants of this.) Atop this foundation, let participants rate posts up or down, possibly allowing good but unverified stuff to break through the “verified” floor and bad but verified stuff to sink below it. Let participants report posts and either ignore or follow other participants.
My hope would be that those tools would allow a community to defend itself more easily and effectively, freeing moderators to deal with abuse reports and banning vandals. As a final check, I’d implement Lisa Williams‘ suggestion of moderating the first X comments from new users — few trolls can masquerade as decent sorts that long, particularly if their handiwork will be quickly removed afterwards anyway.
Perhaps I’ve fallen into the trap of equivocation, but I really feel like I see both sides. I think anonymity taxes moderators and breeds poor community experiences, yet I also think that real names run the risk of scaring away potentially valuable contributors. Perhaps there’s a technological solution that will let us explore the pluses and minuses from a better starting point.
Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.
For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.
Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.
Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”
Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.
The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.
My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)
For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.