The Medill grad students at the Crunchberry Project have a good post examining the various ways of getting comments from readers. Interestingly (and smartly), they define “comments” broadly to include any sort of feedback from the audience — including polls, star ratings, Slashdot-style up/down voting, Salon’s letters to the editor, and even Mad Libs-style fill-in-the-blanks.
I like the way they’re thinking, and I think providing structure to the commenting process is worth exploring, for two reasons.
First, not to get all McLuhanish, but I suspect the tone and quality of comments would be affected — maybe even for the better. A lot of commenter behavior is based on social modeling; think of it as the Broken Windows thesis applied to web sites. If a site has lots of high-quality comments and a community of users who really care about the place, it’s a lot less likely that some bozo will come along and dump nonsense all over the place. Conversely, if a site is known far and wide for the junk in its comments, it’s very hard to raise the standard of conversation.
The form of the commenting system is important in setting those guidelines. For instance, Salon’s system requires user accounts and explicitly rewards good comments with prominent display. It also uses a metaphor (“letters to the editor”) that evokes a time when time lapsed between when a thought crossed your mind and when it appeared before a reading audience. It also, on every comment, provides a link to all of that user’s other comments — making it clear that he will be connected to his dumb tossed-off slander for ever and ever. All of these structural systems conspire to create relatively high-quality comments.
Another example: When you leave a comment on the blogging platform Vox, you’re given the opportunity to check a box marked “[this is good].” (Note the Mad Men reference in that last link.) It’s a very small detail (and an obscure reference to a old-school web site), but I’d wager the availability of a small and easy way to express a positive emotion makes the comment quality a little bit better. There’s no blanket answer on how to make comments better, but I’d sure like to see more experimentation around structured response in comment systems.
And the second reason? Data. Anytime you provide structure to comments, you generate data that can be used in interesting ways. Think of it as a corollary to Holovaty’s Law — it then becomes trivial to detect trends in your commenters that might be of interest to your audience or your writers, if packaged correctly.
23 October 2008 |
Those of you who, like me, are borderline obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men will enjoy this lengthy interview with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. But of note to folks in the content business is this exchange:
Q. Now that we’re in season two, is it difficult to deliver more of those interesting factoids during each commercial break?
A. I have nothing to do with those. As the sponsors (come in), whatever sponsors they get, it’s their problem. I love them. They are Tivo stoppers. It was a really brilliant idea; I had nothing to do with them. If it was up to me I would do things the way they did in 1960. I would have a single sponsor doing the whole show and tie them to the show. But because this is the way it’s done and they’re selling minutes, I think it’s the most palatable and innovative thing I’ve seen, especially considering what’s happened with TV advertising. I’ve been very impressed by it. I think it looks like something Don Draper would have thought of.
They’re talking about what AMC calls, gratingly enough, Mad-vertising. At the start of each commercial break, instead of going straight to an ad, there’s a five-second title card displaying some fact about the advertiser — typically, a fact about its past or present advertising campaigns. Sample title cards: “Prescription drugs could not be advertised on television in the United States until 1997,” just before a drug ad. Or “Heineken was the first imported beer in America after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933,” just before (you guessed it) a Heineken ad.
It grabs you for an instant, just at the moment when you’re doing to get a drink or head to the bathroom. And it makes you pay at least a little attention to the ad. As an AMC exec told Variety, “That’s AMC’s ‘dirty little secret’…You’re not blowing through the commercial. You’re thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ “
Commenter Daniel put it well over at this blog post:
They do this neat, ‘tivo-proof” type of commercial billboard before most commercials…I bite. Originally, I paused because I think that maybe the show is coming back — a la traditional billboard/bumper. Now I am conditioned to stop, because I am getting some value in exchange — I get ad history/trivia, facts, music/artists in spots, etc…All good. I watch more, stay through commercial breaks, AND I have a high recall of the ads.
With newspapers having lost their traditional near-monopoly over certain kinds of advertising, media that can effectively draw and retain audience attention will be rewarded over the easy-to-ignore. The Mad Men method — give something of value in coordination with the ad — seems like a promising idea for TV. What can print or web sites do to innovate along similar lines?
23 October 2008 |
That web of circles and lines is BBC blogger Steve Bowbrick’s conception of what’s standing in the way of a more “open” BBC. There’s a discussion going on in the comments of Steve’s post, but a better one on the image’s Flickr page. Any of these recognizable from a news organization dear to your heart?
20 October 2008 |
Journalism Enterprise briefly tells the story of alfa.lt, the third-ranked Lithuanian news site. I don’t know how much the Lithuanian and American Internet experiences overlap, but it is interesting that alfa.lt attributes its growth to targeted online marketing — first via search engines, then (after search got too expensive) via social networks. They knew the demographics they were seeking, and cheap-but-targeted ads online were the way to do it.
20 October 2008 |
Siobhain Butterworth, The Guardian’s ombudsman, writes about changing the content of past newspaper stories to please readers. When a news story’s life-after-publication was limited to dusty library stacks, an embarrassing anecdote could go safely unnoticed. But when it falls within the searching power of Google, it takes on a life of its own.
Butterworth writes about three people who had revealed their long-ago criminal acts for the newspaper, either in a blog post written for the paper or in the course of an interview with a reporter. All three had second thoughts after publication. The Guardian agreed, in each case, to change the person’s name to a pseudonym:
The established view is that a newspaper’s online archive is a historical record and that there is therefore a strong public interest in maintaining its wholeness, unless deletions or amendments are strictly necessary…It’s impossible to come up with rigid criteria, and decisions made on a case-by-case basis produce inconsistencies. Saying yes to all requests for the removal of material that causes the people concerned distress or hinders their employment prospects would be easier, but it’s a solution that, over time, will leave a patchy and unreliable record of what was published…A less extreme solution, which was adopted in the three cases mentioned earlier, is to replace a real name with a pseudonym and add a footnote explaining that the change has been made. It’s not ideal, but it’s preferable to re-writing history completely by deleting an article, blog post or letter and pretending that it didn’t exist.
I’ve had people email me, years after being mentioned on my personal blog, and asked to be anonymized or removed from the archives. In a couple of cases, I’ve done it. But a personal blog is not the same, of course, as The Guardian’s archives. Do you think The Guardian made the right call?
20 October 2008 |
Global News Enterprises, the new Boston international news startup, has announced its new branding (as Global Post) and its launch date, January 12. They’ve also put together a six-minute intro video with lots of thunderous foreign-correspondent-on-the-march music. I like the typeface!
(N.B.: The Nieman Foundation has conflict-of-interest out the wazoo when it comes to Global. Charlie Sennott, the top editor, is an ex-Nieman Fellow and a friend of the foundation’s; our curator and my boss, Bob Giles, is on Global’s advisory board. And Andy Meldrum — seen in that video being manhandled by the Zimbabwean authorities — is another former fellow and a good friend. They’re an interesting enough company, so we can’t just ignore them, and we’ll be as evenhanded as we can. But nota bene nonetheless.)
20 October 2008 |
I’m glad that, whatever else one thinks of Tina Brown or her Daily Beast, she’s created a boomlet of sales for Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the greatest of all journalism novels.
20 October 2008 |
If the numbers presented here and here are true — and the rates web sites get for online advertising have really dropped 46 percent since the final quarter of 2007 — my optimism for future business models of journalism just took a dive.
The fundamental monkey wrench the Internet threw at newspapers was the loss of their functional monopolies over local advertising. The Internet is the opposite of a monopoly; the number of potential placements for advertising approach infinity. Basic economics tell you that increasing that supply of potential placements should drive down the price any of them can get. That’s why I’m skeptical, in the long term, of any future news business model based primarily on advertising revenue — there’ll always be more content being created to advertise against, and a single news organization will never be able to keep up.
But if these numbers are right, maybe I’m wrong in seeing that as a long-term problem.
Then again, there’s every possibility these numbers are screwy. They separate out rates for news sites (page 17 of this PDF) and claim CPMs shot up from 36 cents in Q1 to 56 cents in Q2 and back down to 36 cents in Q3. (This, while overall online advertising went from 37 to 34 to 27 over the same span.)
That sort of crazy Q2 bump makes me think they’re dealing with too small a universe of data. (And it’s worth noting that these CPMs are for ad-network-sold display advertising only. Sites make significantly more money off the ads they sell outside ad networks.)
17 October 2008 |
From Zach Seward: A new innovation for blogs sounds a lot like an old model for newspapers: Gawker unveiled a voice mailbox today for sources who don’t want to leave a digital trace of their gossip, leaked memos, and other tips. Publisher Nick Denton explained that “everybody’s more paranoid than ever that the boss’ IT agents are snooping.” Now, instead of emailing, they can call 646-214-8138. (That’s a third-tier New York City area code, which Gawker would be sure to mock if any other media company were using it.) We gave the number a ring this afternoon, and here’s the surprisingly corporate-sounding voice on the other end of the line.
Denton said callers should indicate if they don’t want the audio of their call published on the site. Otherwise, they could end up like some readers of the San Francisco Chronicle, which last year published voicemail messages left by irate or otherwise amusing callers. Does your news organization have a way for tips to be left by phone, anonymously or no?
17 October 2008 |
A typically smart piece from Mindy McAdams on the emotional relationship between reporters and their readers, and on the demise of “story.”
On the first point, I think she gets at something important about why so many reporters react in horror at the comments left on their stories. Reporters feel powerless when their work is attacked in the comments, fairly or unfairly, because they’re taught not to respond. How many times have you seen a reporter actually engaging with readers in the comments on their story?
Reporters are given one very powerful pulpit from which to speak — their byline — and are then taught they can’t engage in human conversation about their work in any other forum. In some ways, I think the hesitance to engage is an extension of the rules that limit political activity for reporters and editors. They both come from the same ethos: You get one outlet for your voice (your story), and anything other mode of expression is asking for trouble.
On the second point, I don’t share with Mindy’s worry that moving away from the story-centric model of journalism will kill storytelling:
I am loath to say the story is dead, because humans have been telling stories to one another as a way to make sense of the world since long before we planted seeds in the soil and began to build houses. Stories give us a way to understand different people and places and to calm our fears about them. Stories help us learn how to do new things. Stories enable us to dream, inspire us to reach beyond what we can grasp. Without stories, we would be poorer.
I don’t think it’s “the story” that is primed for the guillotine. It’s “the newspaper story.” Or “the TV news story,” or what have you. It’s the set of boxes our ancestors (James Fenton’s “horrible old men”) created for us as the sole vessels of our journalism. When those give way to better models — or, more accurately, to a variety of models, old and new — they’ll still have narrative arcs and fulfill the primal storytelling urge.
17 October 2008 |
Noticed in the comments on this post about the BBC’s (very tentative) open-source initiative: Auntie Beeb is actually releasing its album reviews via a Creative Commons license. In other words, they’re willingly giving other web sites (or publications) the right to reprint their reviews, free of charge.
The BBC had years ago announced its intentions to use CC on some archival material, but this is for brand new content the BBC presumably just paid for, either via a staffer’s salary or a freelancer. Has there been another big media titan who has embraced Creative Commons that much?
17 October 2008 |
From Zach Seward: The New York Times has quietly unveiled a new widescreen video player that appears to run more smoothly than its previous iteration. The most obvious change is that NYT videos can now be viewed in full screen. But there’s still no way to embed videos on web pages elsewhere, which limits the content’s potential reach.
In a few tests of the new player, I found the videos are sharper, load faster, and skip less frequently than before, so now you can see every fleck of ground cardamom in Mark Bittman’s sweet couscous. Scrolling through videos is also easier. Watching these in fullscreen, it’s clear the viewing experience at the NYT is approaching the quality at auteur video sites like Vimeo and Blip.TV. Check out, for example, this stunning video by T, the Times’ fashion magazine.
Still, the inability to embed Times video on others sites is a drag. The Washington Post, which also uses the 16:9 widescreen format, seems to have found success — and a broader audience — with its embedding function. Dana Milbank’s drinking-game video at Wednesday’s presidential debate was widely embedded across the blogosphere. And the Post still generates revenue from pre-roll ads they sell.
The Times does have a YouTube channel where some, though not most, videos are posted and embedable. Responding to a question about video embedding two years ago, Lawrie Mifflin, who oversaw video and television at the Times, told readers that “our primary focus must be on attracting viewers to our own site.” A lot has changed in two years, and the Times’ reluctance on this issue might have to change, too.
17 October 2008 |
One other thing. Note that none of that great Hodgman material in the last post will appear in the next issue of Wired. No Bruce Campbell at all. That’s because the magazine version is an edited-down 683 words — a decent size for a magazine Q&A.
The web version is 8,476 words — the full interview. And it has all the good stuff that people will notice and link to. Another example of the wisdom of putting the raw materials of our stories online and letting people gravitate to the ingredients we normally try to hide.
17 October 2008 |
Interesting interview with John Hodgman in Wired. Hodgman — probably best known today as the PC in the “I’m a Mac” commercials — is a former literary agent, and he talks about his travails trying to get a book by B-movie actor Bruce Campbell published.
A big part of deciding what books to publish is identifying what pre-existing audiences would buy the book. That’s the appeal of the big celebrity memoir to publishers: Actor X already has a big fan base, so we can expect to sell a good number of copies of his memoir.
At the time, in the late 1990s, Hodgman says book publishers were chasing big audiences — the example he gives is the comedian Brett Butler, who had a big hit show at the time and got a big advance for her memoir. They had a lot more trouble understanding why they should publish a book by Campbell, whose fan base wasn’t nearly as big.
But what Hodgman understood was that audiences are not created equal. Brett Butler had a bigger fan base, but Bruce Campbell had a more passionate one. As Hodgman puts it:
It took us about a year to sell it…I would try to explain to editors and publishers that Bruce Campbell does not just bring what Brett Butler brings to books, which is a sitcom. Bruce Campbell brings an enormous, dedicated community of horror and sci-fi fans who know each other and meet each other in conventions and will line up for hours at a convention to meet Bruce Campbell and have him sign something that they had bought. Maybe Bruce Campbell doesn’t have a million viewers like the wonderful Brett Butler sitcom Grace Under Fire did, which justified her enormous advance and terrible sales, right? He had probably 25,000 avid fans who are going to buy this book no question…But it just goes to show how blinkered people were by the idea of old-media celebrities being somehow more meaningful than somebody who cultivated an audience (and was digital) and got their devotion in return.
Once it finally sold, Campbell’s book sold 75,000 copies in hardcover — a huge hit off a very modest advance. If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor currently has 206 reviews on Amazon, 162 of them five stars. That’s the value of a devoted niche. (Brett Butler’s book as 13 reviews.)
How does this relate to journalism? Newspapers are by definition devoted to the mass audience. In their current form, they can’t exploit the Bruce Campbell niche — they’re ABC sitcom all the way. They’re okay at building a big audience, but horrible at earning devotion.
Ever read a blog that has a terrific community around it, where the comments are always smart, the readers are obviously engaged, and it looks like the best the Internet can be? Compare that the mix of clowns and boors you see haunting the comments sections of most newspaper websites.
For Bruce Campbell, his engagement with his audience translated into book sales. Online, engagement with your audience translates into good comments and active readers.
17 October 2008 |
I thought Japan was supposed to be the future, not the past: A survey says 90 percent of Japanese say newspapers will be an important news source in the future, and 76 percent say they use newspapers regularly to get news.
16 October 2008 |