What’s Wrong With Newspaper Discussion Boards

By: Steve Outing

by Steve Outing, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000

I’ve run three Internet ‘lists’ (a.k.a. discussion boards) for several

years, and I know first-hand that the concept is a wonderful way to

create a strong community among online users who share a common


But when I look around at discussion boards operated by newspaper Web

sites, it’s only rarely that I see online community bonds as strong as

those I experience with my own discussion lists. While my discussion

lists focus on professional topics (online news and online writing),

there’s no reason that lists focused on newspaper-appropriate topics

– be they a local zoning controversy, the hometown pro football

team, or parents concerned about their kids – can’t be just as good

an experience for list subscribers, and attract loyal followings.

In this article, I’ll offer some advice on how to make your news Web

site discussion boards a compelling component of your online


The person behind the curtain

The most important element of a discussion list is the person who sits

at the center of it. Every list needs a person (or two) who guides the

discussion, keeps things on track, helps attract active participants,

and serves as a focal point for list subscribers. Sometimes this person

will serve as a ‘moderator,’ screening messages as they come in and

forwarding approved ones on to the list’s members. Most lists, however,

will be unmoderated, so that the role is one of ‘administrator.’

Administrator doesn’t sound particularly glamorous, and to be sure the

list administrator’s job often involves drudge work – like

responding to subscriber questions about how to unsubscribe, change

their e-mail address or method of message delivery, etc. But there’s

more to it, and the job does get more interesting.

A good list administrator takes part in the ongoing discussion,

contributes his or her own thoughts to threads, and starts new threads

when things get quiet on the list. By virtue of being the person

‘standing on a podium’ in the middle of a crowd of people with a common

topic interest, the administrator attains a sort of ‘celebrity’ status


I noticed this when I launched my first discussion list, Online-News, back in

1995. I quickly became perceived as an ‘expert’ on the newly emerging

field of online news publishing, and reporters began calling me when

they wrote about Internet news topics. At the time, I hardly felt like

an expert, but my position at the center of this online community meant

that some people perceived me as one.

Newspaper discussion boards likewise should have an ‘expert’ overseeing

things. One of the most common mistakes is to open a discussion board on

a topic and expect users to make it work. The person ‘behind the

curtain’ is all important.

Every reporter gets a list

A great strategy for a newspaper company is to require each of its

reporters to be the host or administrator for a list (or more than one)

on his or her topic area. The sports reporter covering the local pro

football team hosts a list about the team. The city hall correspondent

hosts a city politics discussion forum. The legal affairs writer hosts a

list community for local lawyers. And so on.

The benefits to reporters for taking on this role are significant. While

it does eat up some of their time – and I urge publishers to allot

some of each reporter’s time to list hosting duties, so they’re not

expected to do it all in their spare time – it’s a good trade. When

a metro reporter hosts a discussion forum on local zoning issues, for

instance, his position as a local expert on zoning is confirmed and


Other benefits for reporters include getting better informed about the

topic(s) they cover. Many participants in a topical discussion list will

be experts in the topic. The reporter will be able to use some of them

as sources for stories, and list subscribers will suggest ideas that the

reporter will want to pursue. The reporter who hosts a discussion list

on the topic of his or her beat will be a better reporter than a

colleague who does not.

Lists, lists, lists

A major fault at many news Web sites that host discussion lists is that

they don’t have enough of them. Typical are sites that have lists on

several sports topics (local teams, or generic sport lists like

‘baseball’ and ‘hockey’); several generic news forums (‘city,’ ‘state,’

‘national,’ ‘world’); and a smattering of discussion lists on hot topics

of the day (for instance, a list to discuss the TV show

Survivor). That’s not nearly enough.

Here’s a better line-up (made possible by having many reporters serve as

hosts for lists covering topic areas where they are experts, or finding

outside expert volunteers host lists under the news organization brand


Sports: A discussion list for every local team at the

pro and college level, plus high school. Sports reporters can handle

administering the pro and college team forums, but high school teams may

be a challenge. Consider establishing discussion lists for every high

school sports program, but recruit a coach or interested parent to be

list administrators.

Also set up lists for various sports: football, golf, tennis, rock

climbing, etc. A golf or climbing list, comprised of local athletes,

will become a central community for local sports participants. They’ll

use it for everything from socializing, to selling used equipment, to

setting up tee times or climbing dates.

Entertainment: Take the same approach as with sports. Host

lists on topic areas like bluegrass music, jazz, hip-hop, classic

movies, local musical theater, etc. And have lists devoted to popular

local bands or local celebrities.

Politics: Again, go granular. Set up forums not just for

‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but for local city councils, boards and

commissions, local politicians, etc. Have lists devoted to each of your

national representatives and senators, the governor, and other notable

public officials – so voters can discuss the politicians’ actions

and voting records. (A newspaper’s political reporter is a wise choice

for hosting these lists.)

Food, gardening, hobbies: Many topics that are covered in the

typical newspaper make for great discussion forums. A chess columnist

might host a news site’s chess discussion list. A food editor can host a

recipes list. The gardening columnist hosts the regional gardening

techniques list. And so on.

Current events: ‘Permanent’ lists like those described above

tend to attract loyal subscriber bases, and that’s great. But lists that

can become really popular are those created based on significant current

events. If a local event of the magnitude of the Columbine High School

shootings occurs in your news organization’s back yard, set up

discussion forums immediately. They’ll likely be used for a long time to


Obviously, be prudent in starting temporary discussion lists based on

news events. The idea is to create them when you know that the news will

be generating discussion among your readers for many months. The

Survivor TV show (and no doubt some of its off-shoots) is a good

example. Tiger Woods is the hottest athlete in any sport right now;

ergo, a Tiger Woods discussion forum might make sense, as he chases golf


A criticism you often hear about this strategy of having many focused

lists is that they won’t attract enough audience. The last thing you

want is to host a bunch of dead discussion forums. The answer to this

problem is to read back a few paragraphs to the section about the

importance of having a credible, highly visible person at the

center of the forum. Part of this person’s job will be to attract

interested people to participate. A forum won’t be dead if there’s a key

individual who’s driving it.

The technicalities

Hosting many discussion lists is now quite simple, since list server

software has advanced considerably in recent years. There are many

e-mail list service bureaus operating now, but typically they charge per

list – which can get prohibitively expensive if you follow my

advice and create dozens of topical discussion lists.

A better approach is to purchase a robust, industrial-strength list

server application and run it on your own server – and thus have

the ability to create as many lists as you desire.

A revenue model?

Publishers often think of e-mail discussion forums as nice services to

offer online users but not significant money makers. Actually, when

discussion lists are narrow enough, they can serve as great sponsorship

vehicles. A sporting goods store, for instance, might agree to be the

sponsor for a number of sports-related lists – for high school team

lists, a softball list, etc. A concert promoter might sponsor various

local entertainment-related lists.

A serious consideration if you decide to seek sponsors, however, is that

the discussion must be kept under control at least somewhat. If a list

is frequented by people who post abusive messages (‘flames’) or the

discussion is seldom on-topic, sponsors won’t want to be associated with

the list. So, to return to an earlier point, your lists must have

administrators who police subscriber behavior (and kick out

trouble-makers) and nurture the ongoing life of the list.

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to

the last few columns: The Interactive Newspaper Columnist, Wednesday, August 30

Writers vs. Newspaper in San Diego, Wednesday, Augst 23

Do News Photographers Have a Wireless Future?, Wednesday, August

16 Archive of columns

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Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item

about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a


This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Online.

Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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