Web Integration on a Grander Scale

By: Steve Outing

This month I’d like to use this column to pitch an idea for newspaper Web sites. I’m pretty sure it’s not original, yet I haven’t seen it done yet. The reason is likely due to newsroom cultural barriers and attitudes — ones that I would argue are long overdue for overhaul.

We have to go beyond user comments as the sole means of interaction on news articles.

The premise is that most newspaper Web sites remain largely stuck in the we-tell-you mode of news. The typical staff-reported news story includes user comments, but that — and the occasional reader poll — is the extent of user interaction. Never mind that some readers of a staff story may be eyewitnesses or have some expertise in the topic. User comments (sometimes moderated, sometimes not) are pretty much the be-all, end-all of reader interaction when it comes to staff-produced content.

Of course, some news sites do promote more user interaction by recruiting reader reports. The hurricane or tornado strikes and eyewitnesses are encouraged to share their personal stories, photos and/or videos. But such “amateur” content typically is shuffled off to the side in its own area, set apart from the professional journalism. The extent of the connection between the eyewitness accounts and the professional reporter’s work is a (usually underplayed) link to the amateur stuff rather than actual integration.

Let’s get past that outdated strategy. It’s time (past it, actually) to integrate staff content and information from your community.

Every-story enhancement

What I’m proposing is to integrate the work of professional reporters with eyewitness and community-expert content. Here’s an example:

A reporter writes a fairly traditional story about a bad traffic accident where there were fatalities. An info-box sidebar asks people who were eyewitnesses to the accident to share any photos (or video) they may have taken, and to describe what they saw. Any content shared by eyewitnesses would be posted on the same page as the reporter’s story, enhancing and expanding the coverage overall.

That approach can — and should — be employed on most staff coverage on a newspaper Web site, from big stories to small. I argue that it’s actually more interesting when applied to the smaller headlines, because it serves the people for whom a “small” story is actually big to them. Small stories often are reported by a small number of news organizations at a shallow level, so expanding them provides a powerful public service for those who want or need to know more.

Small story: Here’s a recent story from my local newspaper: Bear Chased in Niwot. Written by a staff reporter, it’s seven paragraphs long and includes no photos. Three days after publication, the article had attracted six user comments (most under the “smartass” category); only one of those added anything to the story, when a commenter noted that the neighborhood where the bear was sighted actually is not in Niwot.

By going beyond user comments, we can cover this story more completely. By asking for eyewitness accounts, photos and videos, for instance, perhaps we’d actually get a look at that bear. After all, if you live in that neighborhood, you will be interested in that story. You might even have taken a photo or video of the animal. Prompted to act when you read the story either in print or online, you then might add your photo to the paper’s online coverage. A wildlife expert reading the story might be prompted to post advice on what to do if you spot a bear foraging in your garbage cans.

Because this additional coverage will come mostly after initial publication of the story, there will need to be an e-mail or other alert system when extra content is added. You’ll sign up for that, most likely, if you: 1. live in that neighborhood, 2. are interested in bears, or 3. have had previous bear encounters.

Big story: They don’t get much bigger than major hurricane disasters, so let’s ponder what can done with that one. Storm coverage can go on for days, so we’re talking about a lot of stories. But what if every story had this kind of citizen call to action? What if every story got the benefit of eyewitness and expert enhancements?

For example, for the essential hurricane preparation story, local residents can be asked what they are doing to prepare. (Yes, of course, reporters ask that of a few people, typically. This opens it up to everyone to participate.) Experts can be asked to offer advice. Retailers can be asked to report if they have essential preparedness materials like plywood available, to spare residents the hassle when trying to find something that everyone in town wants.

For a personal-interest story about a specific family’s losses, a call can go out — accompanying the story — to neighbors or friends of the family who may have additional information to share. Psychologists can be asked to offer advice for coping with catastrophic loss, and so on.

Modified cookie cutter

I think that a little care is necessary to recruit the appropriate kind of community content, so a default “share” info box may not work across all stories. That bear-sighting story could benefit from eyewitness photos (since a staff photographer didn’t get a shot of the bear). For a story on a local economic downturn, you’ll want to ask specifically for individuals’ personal financial-struggle stories. For a medical news-analysis piece, you may want to solicit opinions from health care professionals. So editors need some flexibility in what sort of community and expert comment they seek via calls to action on any given article page. Calls to action need to be customized, though there may be a modest number of general categories used over and over and selected as appropriate.

As a result, each article page may look different. While one offers sidebars highlighting eyewitness images, another may be enhanced with personal stories or opinion; another may feature user-submitted tips.

I’d like to see a news Web site design these user-enhanced articles into single-page packages that mix professional reporting with community and expert contributions. At the least, links pointing to community content (say, photos of an accident taken by eyewitnesses) need to be prominently highlighted (don’t underplay the links!); avoid creating “community content ghettos.” This stuff is important and can be important to the overall coverage of a story, so don’t bury it.

This new philosophy of reader engagement means some changes for reporters and their editors. They need to think through each story: How can community input add to this story? What should we ask for? (e.g., “Did anyone get a photo of that bear?”) And reporters should be encouraged to be proactive. For instance, a health reporter doing a piece on a breakthrough medical device might want to seed things with a few e-mails to doctors in her address book asking for some examples of patients they’ve treated with the symptoms the device is designed to address.

The quality issue: How to deal with it

The big question mark in this concept is, of course, quality and accuracy. How do we know that the eyewitness account is for real? Has the user-contributed photo been doctored in Photoshop? If the submission is written really badly or is riddled with factual errors, are we supposed to run it anyway?

From my point of view, if you’re going to start mixing content from the community directly with staff-produced content, vetting is required. For eyewitness photos, have submissions get passed by a photo editor before being published online. Have someone screening (moderating) eyewitness reports and other text contributions. Moderators can even rank incoming submissions, so that the best stuff from the community gets put up top. (Who is “someone”? A logical choice is to make this the responsibility of the reporter who did the story.)

You also can ensure a higher level of accurate, non-spoof submissions by requiring that people who share content (eyewitness reports, photos, etc.) fill out a contact form, and are made aware than an editor may contact them to verify their information. Ask for e-mail and phone numbers, as well as a URL for their blog or Web site (which may help verify their identity). If your site uses registration, you may already that this data for users who are logged in.

An important thing to consider is that when you’re asking people to share what they know, when they’re kind enough to comply, it’s rude if you don’t use it. And I don’t mean so much from an etiquette standpoint; I mean that if you gain a reputation of only cherry-picking the best stuff that community members contribute (the old “letters to the editor” model), you may see contributions dry up. My answer to that is to publish everything that looks to be legitimate and doesn’t violate your terms of service, but for the lesser stuff hide it behind a “more” link for those who want to dig a bit deeper. Present the best stuff at the top layer.

And adding disclaimers on community-submitted content is always a good idea. Make clear what’s been produced by your staff and what’s come in over the transom and is therefore possibly less trustworthy.

Why do it?

As the situation becomes increasingly dire for the newspaper industry, everyone’s looking for a groundbreaking new business model to save the day. I’m sorry that the concept I’ve presented here isn’t The Answer. But it is a part of the answer.

We know that reader/audience participation is the new way, and newspapers must embrace it much more so than they have. It’s not just about serving the news needs of our community, but also in facilitating interaction and communication between members of the community and supporting their interests. Your news Web site can help create micro-communities (sometimes temporary, based around a story; sometimes longer lasting) of community members and experts who share an interest or passion about a topic by using the techniques described here.

A great way to foster that kind of deep engagement is to seek out people’s participation on topics that mean something to them. A direct call to action on a topic that interests an individual (they are reading the story, after all) can be a great motivator to become engaged. This is so much better than generic calls to action as used by some “citizen journalism” initiatives: e.g., “Share and talk about the news of your world” (CNN.com’s iReport).

And surely we can do better in the reader-engagement department than many newspaper sites that offer only user comments as an interactive element. Comment threads in many newspaper Web sites are filled with bad behavior, crude humor, and uncivil discourse, punctuated by the occasional worthwhile tidbit that adds to a story. We must do better. This is one way. Will you give it a try?

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