Commenters and the New Journalist

by Lewis DVorkin and Forbes, Inc.

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Forbes Model For Journalism In The Digital Age.

I’m a big believer in audience participation. Many news consumers possess knowledge, insights and feedback (comment quality is always more important than volume) that others, journalists included, can benefit from. That type of user information can be just as important as “professional” content – in effect, the equivalent of a post. Fred Wilson, one of New York’s most successful venture capitalists and a dedicated blogger, made this observation a few years back and it has remained etched in my brain ever since:

“Here’s the thing. I get comments every day on my blog that are as good as any blog posts I see on the Web. And they are stuck behind the comments link. They need to be on the front page, not on the back page.”

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I’m a big believer in audience participation. Many news consumers possess knowledge, insights and feedback (comment quality is always more important than volume) that others, journalists included, can benefit from. That type of user information can be just as important as “professional” content – in effect, the equivalent of a post. Fred Wilson, one of New York’s most successful venture capitalists and a dedicated blogger, made this observation a few years back and it has remained etched in my brain ever since:

“Here’s the thing. I get comments every day on my blog that are as good as any blog posts I see on the Web. And they are stuck behind the comments link. They need to be on the front page, not on the back page.”

via A VC: Comments Can Be Blog Posts.

Of course, there are purely inane remarks, as well as commenters who hijack the conversation. But that’s okay. It’s the job of Web sites to develop ways to separate the good from the bad.

Many solutions for good versus bad revolve around technology. Some sites enable users to vote up comments. Others deploy language filtering. Still others create tiers of commenters based on desired behaviors or some sort of algorithm. All deploy technology solutions to foster dialogue that can be networked, shared and syndicated.

And then there’s comment moderation by living, breathing humans. I have a couple of feelings about this kind of staff moderation. First off, it is expensive and complicated (while at AOL, I dealt with a few community moderation services). Next, it isn’t at all clear, at least not to me, what standards are applied to approving or rejecting a comment – or how moderators such as these can make sound editorial judgments across multiple topic areas.

More importantly, it puts the wrong people in charge. The original content creator, that is the journalist, author or whomever, should moderate comments associated with their work. Journalists need to become part of the fabric of their communities. Engaging with audience comments is one great way to do that – your audience will be energized by your participation, no matter how modest it is. There are also ways to “deputize” respected members of your community to help you with the task. The resulting conversation often serves as a new form of story-building, as users provide additional information, relevant links, and even tips for content creators to pursue.

At Forbes, we use a customized WordPress commenting system. Forbes’ full-time staff of editors and writers, as well as our paid and unpaid contributors, have the ability to easily curate and moderate comments on all their post pages. Staff writers and contributors have free reign to respond to their readers, as well as comment on each other’s posts. Staff and contributor comments appear automatically, like this one by contributor Rich Unger:
Rich says:
Engaging with commenters is, however, not for the feint of heart. I've spent two days locked in mortal combat because I dared to be a bit critical of Ron Paul! But, as Lewis suggests, that discussion is the point of modern day political and policy writing. If a writer isn't willing to defend the post attracting comment, it is fair to wonder why credibility should attach to that post in the first place.
To which I responded:
Rick, thx for joining this conversation. You do more than defend yourself. You're onstantly explaining, adding information and giving your depth of knowledge on the subject.
The result of these comments is often a multi-faceted, author-reader-contributor conversation that can be more rewarding than the original post. This system enables both content creators and consumers – as participants or observers – to circumvent the noise of commenting.

As we built our content team, we assembled the technology expertise to develop and implement the reporting and editing tools of a new era, not just for our digital journalists, but also for our audience and marketing partners. That way, all those with topic-specific expertise could be part of a dynamic new world of content creation.

This new kind of journalism is continuous and never-ending, because the individual content creator has truly become part of a community. News consumers benefit as full participants in a transparent process that offers more information and context. With all due respect to the talented journalists who came before, it isn’t solely about reporting and writing any more. You need to do it all, and be ready to hear from your readers what more there is to do.
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