Sunday, July 27, 2008

Making readers' opinions work

Readers and commenters at the McClatchy Next wiki are abuzz about anonymous comments at newspaper web sites and blogs.
Don't click away -- I know this subject has been done to death. I promise a different approach.
Many of the comments have been fueled by the vitriolic name-calling recently in comments at Etaoin Shrdlu, the blog of McClatchy's vice president for news, Howard Weaver.

Let's face it: Weaver's public blog and position make him an easy target these days, much like Tony and Peter and Par were in previous days. I'm sure he doesn't feel quite as rich, but I'm sure he feels just as targeted with anger.

So let's take a different path, as job cuts hit editorial departments and as McClatchy sites look at new technical toys for enabling and highlighting comments.

Let's take a look at what works: The Observer's letters to the editor, and a couple of Observer blogs. I'm sure there are other examples of print features and sites that work, but I offer these up as ones I know best. I'd love to hear about others.

One of the major reasons I was attracted to The Charlotte Observer 20-some odd years ago was the vibrancy of the editorial pages. Much of that vibrancy came from the letters to the editor.
These days, Lew Powell is still editing those letters (as far as I know. I've been away from work email for a few days), and The Observer still kicks butt with the feature.

I'll be more specific: The Charlotte Observer still kicks The News and Observer's butt and many other papers with its letters to the editor. The Observer's printed letters cover a wide variety of subjects, are concise, quick and to-the-point. The News and Observer has plenty of letters online, but they're less concise. A recent printed News and Observer also had fewer, longer letters than The Charlotte Observer's daily printed product.

In addition, some Charlotte Observer blogs have fostered vibrant, often thoughtful commenting communities, with questions and thoughts that resemble the salons, not saloons, of days of yore.

So let's find out why, while we still have Lew Powell with us and while those bloggers still have time to engage those communities.

Then, perhaps, we can figure out how to make money from those communities without destroying them, or share their content on a wider basis, or emulate their success to give other readers a place for thoughtful comments that they seem to crave.

Here's the letters policy, in part:
"Please sign and include your address and daytime telephone number. We edit for brevity, grammar, clarity and accuracy, and we reject letters published elsewhere. Letters typically address a single idea and do not exceed 150 words."

Yes, 150 words.

That policy is backed up by Lew, (and others on the editorial board. Added 7/30). Here's what was published for the Sunday, July 27, edition:
12 letters
11 subjects
At least 7 with reference to specific previous stories, editorials or letters.
8 from male writers
4 from female writers
1 from a writer under age 13.
The longest letter included 147 words: the letter from the young person.
3 letters included less than 50 words.
All letters are signed with a name and home town. Phone numbers and addresses are not published.
(This example actually was produced by esteemed Editorial Page Editor Ed Williams, who retires this year. Lew was on vacation. But they back up each other's standards, and Lew says he won't let Ed get letters published more than once a month after his retirement. Added 7/30.)

Stuff I don't know:
How many letters are received each week? How many are rejected? How many have to be edited to that 150 word limit or shortened further? How many are from repeat writers? How could new tech tools ease the workload, integrate the letters more with online comments, or enrich information, links and visuals to the letter writers, so readers can know more about specific letter writers while protecting privacy for those writers who want it? Is it worth the time it would take? Does Lew call every letter writer each time they write?

Compared to comments on blogs, Lew's published version of the letters gives me a chance to hear what people are thinking on a wide variety of topics, quickly and concisely. It's what's left out that's important here.

No wasted words.

Blogs, on the other hand, give commenters unlimited space and quicker interactivity with other posters as well as the original blogger. I can't afford the time to visit them frequently, but here are some details about two of my favorites.

The Naked City, from Mary Newsom: The latest post, "Any hope for '60s suburbia?" poses a detailed question in 121 words and asks for comments. It was posted Thursday, July 24. As of Sunday, July 27, at noonish, it had 31 comments. 10 comments used pseudonyms or names. 20 used anonymous. One was pure spam, but the others were generally thoughtful and positive.
32 visitors came to the blog as of about 1 p.m. Sunday, July 27 (the slowest day of the week). 1,146 came on Thursday, the day of the last posting. 1,746 hits came on Tuesday, with a posting done at 6:05 p.m. The timing of comments and hits appears to indicate that many readers are using RSS feeds to watch for new postings. (Hit stats are from a Sitemeter bug at the blog. I wonder whether that immediate feedback tool will disappear with our site redesign. Will be a shame if that happens).

And another:
Sacred Space, from Jane Pope: The latest post, "Are we born cruel or kind?" poses a detailed question in 126 words and asks for comments. It was posted Friday, July 25. As of Sunday, July 27, at noonish, it had 42 comments, one of which had been removed by the author. Comments frequently referred to specific other commenters by their pseudonyms or names. Only two people posted completely as anonymous.
Gamecock made 15 comments.
Iztok made 8 comments.
Pete made 7 comments.
Others made one or two comments.

Things I don't know about Sacred Space: Hit counts. But I'd suggest that Gamecock and Iztok get a little credit for those hits -- not from just themselves, but from all the other readers coming back to watch their dialog.

Something else I don't know: How much total time these bloggers estimate they spend on writing and moderating comments, and how they are moderating comments. Are they autopublishing any comment, and then catching up later to edit? Or are they approving each comment separately? (Surely not).

I do know both Mary and Jane have had to remind -- and perhaps scold -- commenters to remain civil. Mary has had to delete the worst of the inflammatory, nasty comments. I assume Jane has had to do so as well. If one wants a well-kept saloon, or salon, setting some standards is necessary. Real people seem to work better than automated technology, in this case.

So what's next?
It's clear that creating online (or print) communities with a high level of discourse and value requires some human intervention. It's clear that creating enclaves of reasoned thought is possible even in a broader online (or print) free-for-all of anonymous comments.

Not so clear, and worth discussion:
Could some advertisers aiming at specific audiences be missing out by not advertising on some of our blogs? Will our online redesign give an opportunity for such ads in a not-in-your-face way? Is there a sales rep. in the house who can gather some more numbers and target tasteful advertisers who aren't already spending money with us? How will we preserve the time for folks like Lew, Jane and Mary to moderate, edit and encourage those communities? How much time are those communities worth? How can we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater as we streamline our staffing? And how can we connect some of these subject-specific communities for cross-pollination? (Some of the most frequent commenters do jump around or migrate from blog to blog already.) How can we reward the most thoughtful commenters? How can print benefit from the online comments?

Interesting questions, as we go forward.

Let's hope we make the right decisions.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Turning the pages, online

The Sporting News is launching an e-edition, emailed to subscribers and delivered in an electronic page-turning format. The publication, now based in Charlotte just about a block away from The Observer, has hired some talent from The Observer and elsewhere, with big names in visuals, including Charles Apple.

Mygazines is offering myriad magazines, with the same kind of page-turning feel. Its version of In Style is in the picture.

Scribd offers a similar service, community-based, where readers can upload and download publications in a page-turning format, comment on each other's documents and see most-viewed, most likes and top users.

Smaller publications like The Raleigh Downtowner are offering similar technology to view their work, or they're offering PDFs.

It makes sense in a publishing world of diminishing resources to leverage and reuse the design work already done for a publication. But do the designs of print and web really work together? Is there a way to please both the lovers of print and the lovers of online interactivity at the same time, without having to redesign or re-template for different mediums?

And now, with the IPhone and similar toys, online publishers are forced to reinvent design to fit the small screen, with varying levels of success.

I tested Mygazines on the big consumer of magazines at my house: an 18-year-old who loves visuals, fashion and the computer. Results: too slow to load, and not clickable enough. If it's on a screen, there better be plenty of links.

We didn't even get into the other benefits of printed, glossy magazines -- the passalong ability and portability of visual, beautiful information.

Update Aug. 16: The Magazine Publishers Association has sued the owner of Mygazines, which is incorporated on Anguilla, a British territory in the Caribbean. Details here.

So as all kinds of publishers try to cut costs and leverage work, it's a bit heartening to see that design still matters, and fitting design to the medium is still relevant.

And as I was thinking about this post, something called S3 or "Simple Storage Service" from Amazon went down. Visuals in all kinds of places, from Twitter to Scribd, disappeared. The Internet still worked, mostly, but many sites lost the visual elements of their services.

Change is sometimes frighteningly fast these days, and glitches will happen. As journalists a block away in Charlotte try to make a go of new technology with an interesting format, I wish them luck. We all need it.

Again, we live in interesting times.

(Added July 26) Steve Cavendish, graphics director at the Chicago Tribune, critiques the Sporting News PDF version.
Jakob Nielsen on differences between print and web design, 1999.
Coding Horror, aka Jeff Atwood, on the New York Times' Reader and its format vs. the web format.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Roger the rock

Former Observer copy editor Fred Vultee, now a professor at Wayne State, wrote this tribute to Roger Mikeal for Roger's going-away page after 39 years at The Observer. Fred, who continues to edit us from afar here, said we could share.

John Updike already wrote my favorite Roger Mikeal story, except that he wrote it when Ted Williams retired. What Updike remembered was not necessarily how Williams played in the spotlight, but how he played "on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

Stories about Roger are like that. They're less about who's on first or what's a trend than about whether things we've decided to do are going to be done well or ill.They're about Roger reminding the religion editor that the history of religion didn't begin with the Second Temple. Or Roger reminding the city desk that the stylebook doesn't have a separate entry for First Names on Second Reference in Stories By Writers of Staggering Genius. Or Roger making sure that every story passes under the right number of eyes before it goes off to print.

Given his clock skills, you'd think Roger's favorite athletic figure would be Dean Smith. I'm not sure Roger even has a favorite athletic figure (although if the world is ever held at gunpoint and threatened with execution unless someone can spell "Krzyzewski," Roger is the guy I want in the hot seat). Roger has favorite poets (Gary Snyder), favorite Eastern philosophers and favorite guitarists. He is alleged to have roomed with a 19-toed mandolin genius while at State. He not only knows whether Travis picking should be hyphenated, he can do a fairly good job of it (the picking, I mean; nobody's ever questioned his hyphenation skills).

That might make Roger sound like a renaissance man of detail (like knowing whether "Renaissance man" is capitalized). He is. But like Ted Williams, he also manages to be in the middle of things when the home team needs some runs in a hurry. So here is a true Roger story.

It was the Saturday before July Fourth (or the Fourth of July), 1994. Roger was not only on vacation but attending the wedding of one of his sons. USAir set one down a little too hard in a microburst out at the airport, killing some three dozen people.

People converged on the newsroom, whether they were called in or not. It was suggested that Roger might not even hear of the crash until the next day. It was pointed out that calling Roger would be really tacky.

And then it was noted that either Gene Kelly was in town or somebody else had just shown up at the desk wearing a tuxedo.

That's how Roger won an Oscar for Best-Dressed Slotting of a Disaster Story. Until there's a Pulitzer category for lifetime achievement in running a copy desk, it's the best we can do.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The early online shift

As we make changes at The Observer for The Desk, take a look at how the AM copy desk works at the Los Angeles Times, and how the early-morning online shift improves the social lives of copy editors.

Andy Bechtel of UNC spent some time there recently, and he interviewed the "senior copy desk chief for the web." It's here, titled "Q&A: How the L.A. Times edits for the web."

The hours and pace remind me of the copy desk at The Jacksonville Journal, a PM newspaper and my first daily job back in 1982. It was staffed by what I saw as a bunch of old guys who wanted to golf in the afternoon. They worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

And don't everyone line up for that shift all at once. Or at least share. Here's a key graf:

"Because fewer hands are touching the copy, we have recruited slot-capable editors to our ranks for the most part. After a year, we have trained four editors and sent them back to their home desks to help spread their Web knowledge to their print peers. We’ll keep rotating people in and out on six-month stints."