Monitor Site Turns Up Volume of Public Discussion

By: Steve Outing

The Christian Science Monitor's Web site is about to become more conversational. The international newspaper's E-Monitor service in September will be adding dozens of discussion forums, many of which will last only a couple days before being retired.

The Monitor site has for some time operated online discussion forums, using a Web-based discussion thread software package called NetThread. But because that software no longer is supported by its developer, the Monitor went looking for a new solution and settled on Well Engaged, a discussion forum hosting service by Sausalito, California-based The Well. According to electronic publishing director Dave Creagh, using Well Engaged will allow a significant expansion of the Monitor's online discussion areas.

Creagh says that the plan is to each day create new discussion forums based on the topics of the day. That might include a forum about the latest tax bill, or one devoted to a particular story. Yesterday's crash of a 747 jumbo jet in Asia might be the impetus to start a discussion forum on international air safety, for instance. Other forums might be seasonal -- a "summer soups" discussion area might last through the summer.

Because creating a new forum is a simple process -- "it takes 45 seconds to a minute to create a new one," Creagh says -- it becomes viable to create discussion forums for any topic or story that warrants an online area where Web site users can air their views. He envisions 40 or so forums ongoing at any time.

The need to express oneself

"People want to carve their initials on the tree," he says, and getting people to participate in the discussions makes them more likely to visit the site regularly.

Ultimately, Creagh would like to add a discussion forum at the end of every story that runs on the site, permitting readers to start an instant dialog with the author and other readers. Such forums might be up for only a day.

What Creagh likes most about the Well Engaged software is that it combines "push" and "pull" components. A Web-based discussion thread area is a "pull" experience, where a user has to pro-actively visit to read and take part in the dialog. Well Engaged allows users to create personal search settings that "push" content as well. Within the "cold summer soups" forum, a user might tell the system to watch for the words "dill" and "mustard"; when a post to the forum contains those words, the user is notified by e-mail that the discussion contains a match on the user's preferences.

This emphasis on building communities online is one of the Monitor site's most important strategies for building traffic. The E-Monitor is different from many other newspapers' Web sites, because "ours is creating a community of values, not of geography," Creagh says. Despite the constant introduction of new forums and the death of old ones, he nevertheless expects many of the same people to bounce from Monitor forum to Monitor forum -- getting to know each other online.

The Monitor avoids hosted forums, where celebrities participating in the dialog are the draw. "I haven't seen evidence that people come in large numbers to (celebrity) forum events," Creagh says. Nor will the Monitor have anything to do with live chat discussion areas. "Our discussions usually require more thought than the instant typing of chat." Also, with a worldwide audience, visitors come to the site and participate in discussion at all hours of the day.

Monitor staff will watch over activity of the many forums, but these will be unmoderated discussions (although Well Engaged supports moderated forums, as well). Creagh expects about three staffers to each spend one-half hour per day overseeing the forums, just to make sure nothing inappropriate, illegal or obscene is being posted. Like many other Web sites operating forums, they will deal after the fact with naughty postings, which can include using the Well Engaged software to block out an individual from posting to the forum again in the future. (This also can be used to keep unsolicited commercial e-mail -- a.k.a., "spam" -- off the forums.)

Well Engaged does have a filter system that contains about 1,200 "naughty words" that it will not allow in posts to forums, but the Monitor at this point does not plan to turn on that option. The filter is customizable, so client publishers can add or subtract words. (This is to prevent situations such as the ban on the word "breast" by America Online's word filters. AOL reaped much well deserved criticism on that snafu from breast cancer organizations, among others.)

The nature of the Monitor's Web site seems to foster mostly serious discussion; it's mostly "pretty buttoned-down" conversation, Creagh says, with most posts being brief and to the point.

The Monitor online discussions, because they are worldwide and include voices from many different cultures, tend to be a bit different from what's found on other sites. In an election discussion forum, Creagh says, someone from the U.S. made a comment about how he was not going to vote because he couldn't stand any of the candidates. A forum participant from Africa chimed in, pointing out that free elections are something he can only dream about as a citizen of his African country. It's inconceivable that an American could be so callous about such an important and cherished right, the African participant said.

Revenue model

The Monitor's forums will be supported by advertising, with targeted banners on those forums that will be online for longer periods of time. The forums won't get huge amounts of traffic, so Creagh envisions a click-based model where advertisers pay for results. Because the forums will present a pre-selected group of people interested in a particular topic, the forums offer a highly targeted audience. Creagh doesn't expect to sell much advertising on the short-term, breaking-news-oriented forums, since ad agencies tend not to make split-second decisions. But he might try to sell, for example, an auto manufacturer an ad on all auto-related discussion forums that might be created over the next few months.

The forums are unlikely to be a major revenue source for the Monitor site, but Creagh says he does hope that ad revenue will help the forums pay for themselves -- and the substantial cost of using the Well Engaged system to host the forums.

(Well Engaged run on a customer's server starts at around $15,000. Run on The Well's servers -- as the Monitor is doing -- it costs about $3,500 for a set-up fee, plus monthly charges based on number of individual users participating in the forums. For 1,000 users, that fee would be about $500 per month, according to a Well Engaged spokesperson.)

Contact: Dave Creagh,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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