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.


Andria said...

More, related, from Jack Lail at:

Andria said...

And another link. Don't miss the specific, concrete advice in the comments from Liz Ditz:

Mary Newsom said...

Andria, Thanks for the plug for The Naked City. A few observations:

The reason the Observer's letters are so addictive to readers is because there is a very sharp mind editing them. Lew selects well, prunes well and writes great headlines. He also has a rare sense of "opinion as entertainment" -- predating the blogosphere -- and a sense of pacing. In other words, it takes time and human brainpower to make those letters shine. Remove the time and brainpower, and you lose the shine.

As to the commenters on The Naked City, since returning from Harvard I've pushed myself to post a lot more often. It seems to be luring more readers. Plus, I've cracked down on nasty comments, and they're diminishing. I let anyone comment and I monitor (and delete) half a dozen times daily. I think letting people comment immediately is like impulse-buying -- you don't want to discourage it. It helps build the fan base. Posting/monitoring can take up to two hours or more a day.
I'm curious whether there's a way to use the new Pluck software to form something akin to a Facebook group, Friends of The Naked City, or some such. I think some commenters and readers feel as if they're part of a community, and it might be fun to try to create a stronger sense of that.
Sorry to ramble on. Time to go home.

lew powell said...

thanks for the kind words, andria and mary.... ed wms and i agreed early on -- 1992! -- that published ltrs should be more concise (and thus more numerous)... everything else is pretty much an outgrowth of that approach.... eg, pleasing readers trumps pleasing writers.... i feel the same way about blog posters: if they dont add anything to the conversation, we have zero obligation to share their bile.... lew
(btw, i was on vacation the sunday andria cited and ed edited forum)