Note: One of the best parts of being an RJI fellow is working with students. During spring semester, Missouri School of Journalism graduate student Kathleen Majorsky undertook an independent studies project with me. Kathleen wanted to look at commenting practices on online news sites. Here’s what she found. –Michele McLellan

A person in my world thought my coming back to graduate school to study journalism was a questionable career move. Especially with gasp the ‘dismal’ state of the newspaper industry.

I don’t agree with my friend’s over-dramatic use of the word ‘dismal.’ I think my friend is looking at it the wrong way. I am not naïve enough to believe that there are not areas of the industry that are, in fact, struggling. I get that the industry is changing. What my friend didn’t consider is that change can equal innovation and opportunity.

A venue I see, among all of the industry struggle and change, as an opportunity for innovation is in the commenting practices of websites. Over the course of this independent study, I have observed news sites, read literature and interviewed journalists regarding commenting. I stumbled upon my own piece of breaking news: Journalists can interact in the commenting conversation while maintaining traditional industry values. Oh and this just in: there are wonderfully creative editors and journalists who are making it work.

My reason for being so passionate about journalists getting involved in commenting practices is two-fold.

First, as graduate school is preparing me for a career in journalism, my biggest question has been “How will I navigate the changes going on in the industry?” This study has provided me with a start at answering that question.

Secondly, my passion for this issue grew as I started observing two hyper-local news sites over winter break. I observed Knoxnews, Knoxville, TN’s online news source and  MyBallard, a Seattle neighborhood’s news source.

While reporting on both sites is top-notch, I was shocked to discover the lack of interaction from the journalist’s in the sites commenting conversations. The comments I did observe, for the most part, were thoughtful and poignant. Don’t get me wrong, there were a fair share of inappropriate comments, but they did not outshine the good stuff. People in these commenting communities were asking questions about the articles and also coming up with some great solutions to issues some of the articles addressed. But there was no journalist interaction to be found. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I was disappointed. Isn’t one of the responsibilities of a quality journalist playing the role of honest broker of information and referee in the community discussion? At least that is what I am being taught here at Mizzou. I get that staffs in newsrooms are shrinking at a rapid rate. But let’s be honest. Places like comments on news sites are quickly becoming the new public forum. If those struggling publications out there want a chance to survive they have no choice but to become engaged online in places like comments. Excuses of little time and short staffing are not holding up in this dog-eat-dog state of the newspaper industry.

After making these observations, I was determined to find sites that are making the commenting conversation work for them. I found some, and they are making it work while still holding true to time-honored journalism principles.

The time-honored journalism principles that I am referring to are straight out of The Elements of Journalismby Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Being that this is required reading for both undergraduates and graduates here at Mizzou, and has been painted as a handbook for journalistic conduct, I trust its credibility and validity.

Perhaps without even realizing it, Brad Flora of the Windy Citizen, Andrew Donohue of the Voice of San Diegoand Justin Kendall of The Pitchhave not only made tremendous strides in making commenting practices work for them, but also they have done so while adhering to four of the elements of journalism that I feel are applicable to these practices.

These elements include:

  • Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  • Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  • It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  • Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

I first interviewed Brad Flora. Flora heads up the siteWindy Citizen. In his own words, Flora describes Windy Citizen: “The Windy Citizen is not a news site, we are not a newspaper, we are not a blog. We are a social network for people who post cool stuff that they find in Chicago.”

Next up was Andrew Donohue. He is the editor of theVoice of San Diego. According to theVoice of San Diegosite, they are a “public-service, nonprofit news organization that focuses on in-depth and investigative reporting. We cover the issues that are crucial to the region's quality of life: its politics, educational system, environment, housing, economy and more.”

It was important to me to get a reporter perspective so I interviewed Justin Kendall, a reporter for Kansas City, Missouri’s alternative weeklyThe Pitch. He is a blog writer for Plog:The Pitch’snews blog online.

When a hyper-local news site is starting up, the audience (aka the citizens) is key and journalists need to be loyal. That loyalty just might start in the comments according to Flora.

Flora says, “I think the problem with the start-up site is getting an audience. The only way to get an audience is to build a community especially if you are doing online only. You have to build a community. The only way to do that is be a member and be a part of it. If you’re running a site like that and you’re not on there, you’re doomed.”

Loyalty also has a lot to do with trust. Trust in the information. Trust in the audience participation. Trust in the journalist. Trust and verification, especially in commenting conversations, is key to building that loyalty and ultimately maintaining a relationship in the new age of media between journalist and citizen.

Andrew Donohue has found this trust and verification within theVoice of San Diego’scommenting community vital to the site.

Donohue says, “I see [comments] as having a great value for a number of different reasons. One, is the story doesn’t just die, the story keeps going. Second of all, I think it holds journalists more accountable. If you know that people are going to be commenting on your story, I think your going to be even more diligent about your work. You’re going to make sure [the stories] are tight and bulletproof. And lastly, journalism is no longer a lecture. It is a conversation. So this is just a part of where we are all going.”

I agree with Donohue. This is where we are going, and as journalists we need to be encouraged and supported by editors and each other to start getting engaged in the commenting community.

Donohue works hard to encourage his reporters to become a part of the conversation.

Donohue says, “The important part, the thing I try to impress upon reporters, is to be a part of those conversations too, and not be defensive, but rather transparent. Explain yourself…you have to be willing to understand that if you explain yourself, people understand a lot more about why you did things and how you did them.”

When both journalists and citizens are in there and in engaged, it becomes a forum for public criticism and compromise on both sides of the line. I maintain that it cannot be ignored that commenting is becoming the new public forum and editors like Flora and Donohue are paving the way as to how potential journalists like me will navigate it in the future.

Flora says, “We actually don’t publish original articles. So the comments are the site.The Windy Citizenis not a news site, we are not a newspaper, we are not a blog, we are a social network for people who post cool stuff that they find in Chicago and so the comments are everything. That is what we do. It gives a place for people to talk to each other about what is going on in the city.”

Having this community conversation is great, but personally, after making my observations, I’m concerned with common human civility in commenting communities. Donohue is leading the way in trying to clean up the comments and make them a safe forum for the people of San Diego.

As of December 2009, theVoice of San Diegono longer allows anonymous comments on their site.

Donohue says, “And it is also now the people engaging, I think, are going to be the people who are going to have those constructive, interesting conversations and really make our site alive. It is going to get, it is my belief, more public officials and other people involved in those conversations because they know they are not just going to get called names when they step in there.”

Comments have the ability to bring life to a news site and get people, like government officials, to enter the conversation. A safe forum like this celebrates democracy in the media, which may be what Kovach and Rosenstiel were getting at after all.

From a reporter perspective, Justin Kendall had interesting experience withThe Pitch’sproject called Killa City. For a year, Kendall blogged about homicide victims in metropolitan Kansas City and the surrounding area. Comments become a vital part of this project.

Kendall says, “The value I see in the Killa City comments is we got a perspective from people that we likely wouldn’t have known how to track down or we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I mean, there were grieving family members, there were grieving girlfriends, there were grieving mistress,’ there were people who were writing gang messages that I couldn’t even decode if I tried. There were people also talking about the innocence of the person or saying this guy’s innocent, here are names, which got the attention of some detectives here in Kansas City so…it was invaluable, actually.”

While commenting communities restore the notion of giving a voice to the voiceless, people can’t forget that citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news, too.

It is the citizens right to be able to speak openly and freely in a forum such as comments, but at the same time, they also have a responsibility to be human, decent and civilized.

Flora says modeling good behavior is one why they eliminate bad comments.

He says, “So we kind of operate on the “broken-window theory, kind of like the city developers. Where if someone posts a really bad comment, if there is a big misspelling in a headline or something, I or one of my interns will go in and fix it or delete them so we won’t have that bad comment on the site. It sets a bad example.

“Unless it gets out of hand and we have to ban someone for something like that we usually don’t have too many problems with it. You know, the registered users on the site set a pretty good example of the kind of conversation we want to have on Windy Citizen and that sets the tone and the anonymous commenters tend to fall in line.”

Also, if commenter’s post something that is important to the story, they have a responsibility to come forth and be heard.

Kendall says, “I interjected in the Killa City comments when someone was trying to call my facts into question because I would go straight off court documents and so if somebody was calling my facts into question, I’m saying look, if you have an issue with this, call me and we can talk about it, but I’m pulling straight from the court documents. This is what the court record says right now and if you have a different story, tell it.”

I sincerely hope that both journalists and citizens can come together in new forums like commenting communities and tell the stories that need to be told. We need to meet each other half way, and with sites like theWindy Citizen, the Voice of San Diego and The Pitch as well as others leading the way, journalists can be a part of the commenting conversation while still maintaining professional journalism values. At the risk of breaking the old journalism rule of avoiding cliché’s in print, maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.


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