Managing Comments on News Sites

Managing website comments can be a difficult minefield to maneuver. Patrick Thornton gives some suggestions on how to promote good user comments on news sites. The point is made that most people aren’t racist, vulgar or actively looking to start a fight but when left to flourish, those users can take over.

Most of the guidelines given are well thought out, common sense solutions to managing comments. Becoming an active participant is necessary to show interest in the comments and commentators themselves. By reading and responding to the comments, this doesn’t leave much room for trolling or offensive content. Eric Berger, science reporter and beatblogger for the Houston Chronicle said that, “If people know that someone is going to read what they’re writing and perhaps judge them, they’ll be more careful with what they write.” It’s hard to agree with the statement, since most offensive commentators do it for a reaction. Some even revel in the destructive nature of their comments. Just being a participant in the conversation is not enough to encourage other readers to participate in constructive dialogue.

One has to moderate the site closely and ban repeat offenders. While moderating takes time, it is still manageable for a newsroom. If reporters include moderating and active participation in their stories, they can cut back dramatically on offensive content.

Two other suggestions Thornton gives refers to ‘hoisting’ comments and using blog backs. Both undoubtedly encourage participation but neither really prevent trolling. Hoisting a comment acknowledges when a user posts a great comment and gives it more prominence. This would be a great tool for a newsroom by implementing “Comment(s) of the Week”. Creating a blog back takes more time, but it elevates strong comments, clarifies points and acknowledges mistakes. Both of these practices would benefit a newsroom and creating a larger, stronger user comment community but doesn’t necessarily prevent trolling.

Many news organizations have started requiring users to sign up before they can comment which has cut back on the amount of trolling, spam and negative comments. The idea is that if one isn’t anonymous anymore, one is less likely to spout off racist or offensive language. This is an easier way to control the comments and requires less moderation or even participation by the reporter.

For successful comment management, one has to stay actively involved. Moderating, hoisting comments, using advice to compile other stories and eliminating negative content are all necessary. One has to find a balance between all of these factors. If one does a “Comment of the Week” then perhaps a blog back isn’t necessary. One could do a user comment generated story one week and actively comment on posts throughout the next week. The idea is not every tip is crucial to upholding a positive comment environment, but each should be explored to see what works either in the newsroom or for a personal blog.

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The Pay Wall Debate

Pay walls have become an interesting phenomena to examine over the past couple years. A paywall is a metered pay system that urges viewers to subscribe after a certain number of views . Alan Mutter explains in his blog, that visitors who don’t pay are blocked from some or all of the content on the site for the rest of the month. They have the chance to start again the next month.

Mutter uses the Augusta Chronicle as an example of a successful paywall that actually seemed to increase web traffic. In the first three months, page views rose 5 percent from previous months. The Chronicle’s pay wall still provides a porous system where a considerable amount of articles are accessed for free before a reader learns of the paywall. In contrast, a rival newspaper in Georgia constructed a hard paywall that demands either $2 a day or $9.95 a month on any article accessed. This affected their online visits severely, dropping 47% from the same month of the previous year.

One strategy used by the Augusta Chronicle is allowing access to 25 premium articles, but limited restricted to non-premium articles. Mutter points out that there is little distinction between premium and non-premium articles. The confusion between the articles isn’t considered a drawback to executive editor Alan English, rather a positive.

Some other positive aspects are highlighted by English. “The act of placing a value on our journalism may be more important that any penny we ever collect.” Since the Chronicle’s subscription system is so permeable, the amount of subscriptions it will acquire are difficult to calculate. English stated, “It’s very early in our game and we are still building our strategy. But we are glad to be part of the wave of people who are putting forth the value proposition for content created by professional journalists. Giving it away for all those years was a mistake.”

The emergence of new mediums such as the iPad and the Kindle have also contributed to the larges changes in online news. CEO of LeadBolt, Dave Carr considers paywalls one of the largest experiments in online journalism. He points out the ‘explosion of apps’ available on iPads and Kindles that have made the concept of paying for premium content more acceptable. He told the Christian Science Monitor, “Apps woke the public up to the fact that there are other revenue streams they can create.”

One concern is raised by Thomas Ksiasek, assistant professor of communication at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “It remains to be seen whether this slighting confusing quota system will lead to more subscriptions or merely more creative access routes.” He refers to the model as a ‘leaky fence’ rather than a blunt paywall. A valid point, it points out that people have a way of figuring out how to maneuverer the internet, especially when it comes to finding free content.

The offset of this concern is website with highly demanded specialized content. ESPN and The Wall Street Journal contain the most successful online pay models. The Journal is a must for high finance while ESPN has severe appeal for sports fanatics.

This is where the New York Times may encounter some problems with their paywall. A widely respected newspaper of record, it is still considered a general interest newspaper. Wouldn’t a viewer just go somewhere else to get free news? “Without offering a specialized product with a clear benefit to the consumer, it’s likely that many users will seek out their news elsewhere,” Ksiasek said.

The Times also created a penetrable subscription wall, letting readers access it from social media sites. Their model has acquired almost 250,000 paid subscribers in first 3 months, along with 750,000 print subscriptions and around 57,000 tablet users signed up for the Times. Considering the domestic and international importance of the Times, many consider a failure of the Times’ paywall not an option. Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, said, “The Times is important to a free society. It is important to a marketplace of ideas that the New York Times share in that pantheon of great leadership.”

While the Times are doing a good job managing their paywall, critics ask why newspapers even need paywalls. Plenty of sites make a decent living though their advertising supported model, and according to a report from Econsultancy, more than half of online publishers have seen increased revenue. This accentuates the growing shift to digital media and that digital readership seems to be increasing. Even though it is increasing, a University of Missouri study found that 50% of newspapers derive only 9% of their revenue from online editions.

One analysis of this problem is that newspaper advertising may just cost too much. Newspapers have a CPM (Cost per mille/thousand views) of $6.99 while online advertising’s CPM is $2.52, and social media’s rate is $.56. Newspapers are 177 percent greater than the national average. IT seems newspapers have priced themselves out of the market. Is a newspaper ad 20 or 100 times more effective than an online or social media ad? A social media ad has the ability to give valuable information about its views and who ‘likes’ it, so is it really justifiable to spend 100 times more on a print ad that can’t tell you if it’s even been read?

Critics claim that unless papers can figure out how to lessen costs, competitively price themselves and offer content worth paying for, paywalls will only quicken the inevitable decline.

In erecting a paywall, all of the previous arguments need to be considered. The most viable and seemingly successful model would have to have a level of penetrability. When a third of an online news site’s web viewership comes from search engines, restricting viewers from that will dramatically affect traffic. As a smaller newspaper, a hard paywall makes no sense unless one is offering specialized content that very few others have. Readers of general interest care less about loyalty and more about price, especially in this economy. The New York Times has created a very stable system of charging for their content, while maintain web traffic. While critics argue that web content should be priced the same as print, the reality of the situation needs to be considered. By allowing social media links to access the site as well as 20 articles before paying helps ‘hook’ the reader. Even with this though, it is not a good idea to try and charge the same as print since the same problems as a hard paywall would be raised.

Is ‘Slacktivism’ the reason for KONY 2012?

The documentary KONY 2012 has enveloped the internet since Wednesday, with over 70 million YouTube and Vimeo views. The topics #stopkony, Uganda, Invisible Children, and LRA were also prevalent on Twitter throughout the week.

The film seeks to bring attention to Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony is known for his crimes against humanity, specifically abducting children and turning them into child soldiers and sex slaves.

As Zoe Fox’s article shows, critics of the movie have questioned the finances and Invisible Children as an organization and the film’s promotion of slacktivism.

Slaktivism refers to the inability of people using social media to create change. With the KONY 2012, it has broken barriers by showing just how ‘slacktivists’ have successfully made Kony well known. Regardless of ones opinion of Invisible Children or Joseph Kony, the campaign has shown the impact of social media.

A commonly accepted online video rule is that people normally stop watching a video after two minutes. KONY 2012 is almost 30 minutes long, and in a study an equal amount of people who saw the video watched the entire thing.

The video itself has accomplished its goal by creating buzz and making the issue well known. It is a giant step in showing how social media can have a considerable impact. After the film’s viral success, Uganda said on Friday it would capture Kony either ‘dead or alive’.

A criticism about the intent or motive of Invisible Children aside, this video has shown firsthand how social media and the digital movement are turning the traditional methods of information on its head. It has shown how an issue can permeate the internet and become considered newsworthy through ‘slacktivists’.