Takeover of the trolls: how newspapers can shake off the haters

Troll

Trolls:  The bane of many a news site

As a former editor I know that one of the biggest daily headaches in the newsroom is reader comments on website stories and social media.

Got a controversial issue?  If so, you can guarantee it’ll be made ten times more controversial by the people behind the curtain of the web who have their say without saying who they are.

So with all the ‘trolling’, ‘hating’ and inane backbiting that can go on at the end of news reports, why allow comments at all?

Well, despite the problems they can cause, reader comments add value in a variety of ways:

– Allowing readers to comment on stories gives them ownership of an issue and therefore ownership of the newspaper title providing the stage for debate – in a sense it makes the news site more important to the readers – making them more likely to return.
– Reader comments sometimes give a human voice which couldn’t be shown in a story for whatever reason. Not all comments lack value, instead some can really shed light on how a story or issue has affected a real person. And sometimes this can allow for follow-up stories with that user too.
– Stories with comments, controversial or not, get more clicks and  hits than stories without. They generate discussion, debate and downright outrage, and all of that gets  other people clicking to read the unfolding drama. The most unlikely stories can find themselves at the top of the web hits list just because of the comments left by website users. Popular stories mean popular sites and more advertising revenue as a result.

Of  course, this all happens on news providers’ social media sites as well – but the beauty of website comments is  that they ‘belong’ to that newspaper. Those readers have made the effort to create an account and log in to that website in order to have their say – that effort is invaluable not only in terms of advertising revenue, but also in terms of loyalty; getting people to sign in almost allows a newspaper to claim that person as their own and, more than ever before, having loyal online readers is important.

So how can newspapers make the most of online comments and balance the headache of irrelevant or legally dodgy comments with the rewards of allowing readers a space to have their say?

One of the biggest factors causing problems for websites is the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. Allowing people to choose usernames which don’t reveal who they are means users feel they can be totally honest, therefore prompting more people to join the conversation. Unfortunately it also means many of those comments stray from the realms of honesty to something much more extreme – confrontational, angry, insulting and so OTT that their authors couldn’t possibly believe what they are writing…could they??

For this reason, according to a podcast featured on www.journalism.co.uk , the Chicago Sun Times and Reuters have both banned commenting from their websites and The Huffington Post now only allows people to sign in via social media – meaning their identity is more transparent. The latter solution sounds a great way around the issue – but social media does not necessarily garner comments of a higher quality. Currently links to stories on regional papers’ Facebook pages tend to generate more comments than stories on the news sites themselves due to the ease of interaction (users are usually logged into the social network already, removing the  obstacle to commenting). But even with user identities revealed, a lot of comments on newspaper social media sites are abusive or irrelevant and many also seem to be  uninformed – with people forming opinion without clicking through to see the full story on the website. While the latter would not be an issue if social media was the way into commenting on a news site, it is hard to see how the former issues would be different. And then of course there is the problem of ownership again – social media log ins, even onto a newspaper site, take the hits and loyalty value of that log in away from the news provider and back to the social media provider.

Most newspapers publish stories to allow ‘post moderated’ comments on their sites – meaning comments do not have to be checked by a moderator before they appear. Much of the time it seems comments left by the public are rarely looked at by journalists following publication and legally it’s only comments which are seen to be defamatory or legally unsound that need to be taken down. Dodgy comments are usually flagged up by website users rather than newspaper staff – and this again raises the issue of whose role it is to ‘police’ comments.  With the huge amount of work already resting at the feet of reporters in modern newsrooms the extra job of moderating online comments would be virtually impossible to manage.

In fact, it could be a full-time job checking and responding to online comments – but unfortunately this is a  position which most editors don’t have the budget to fill. Those who do have web editors usually have them tied up with troubleshooting, publishing and promotion – again time and money does not allow for a full-time web discussion moderator.

But, with more and more newspapers building their communities online rather than in print, perhaps this is a role that needs to be considered for the future. Turning the comments  from a one-way response into a conversation with the news provider can surely only strengthen that bond with readers – as already done by national titles like the Guardian. Taking a firm stance on policing the quality of comments would also show people what was expected and hopefully, in turn, generate comments with a greater value. There is opportunity, if managed correctly, for regional papers to become the social voice of the community they serve – providing discussion points and chairing the ensuing debate both on websites and social media. But this can only be done if managers recognise the value this could add to their product and invest in the staff to make the model work effectively.

How fast is valued over foundation in the world of social media news

This tweet made me laugh, and then it made me stop and think about how social media has changed the way news outlets respond to breaking news.

TwitterReports

In the olden days (just a year  or two ago) news organisations would get reports of an explosion from people on the phone, on email and perhaps on Twitter and Facebook too. The old mantra was to get as much information as possible, then phone the police and find out if the reports could be confirmed. As  soon as that information was granted we would write a report for the internet which we would then share on social media. We would then update that report as the news changed. In an ideal world, the publication of this first report would take no  more than ten minutes. But, in reality, it could take much longer, depending on the response from the authorities and how lively our website was feeling that day.

The old mantra also used to be ‘no point in publishing if you haven’t got anything to say…’ with the idea that established news organisations were better be late and informed, than rushed and flimsy.

Oh, how times have changed.

Now, the people using Twitter are the eyes of the world. As proved by this tweet, people on social media report a noise like an explosion in Manchester. Give the BBC ten minutes to get the story online and that’s ten minutes where people interested in finding out more have been searching, retweeting and clicking on any accounts of said loud noise. It doesn’t matter if those tweets being retweeted are from people who have sought to establish if the explosion has happened or not. Twitter doesn’t care if information is correct as much as it cares about information first.  By the time the BBC tweets out its factually accurate news report, it has missed out on hundreds of hits, clicks and retweets and already it looks ‘out of date’.

So, what to do instead? If every cough, sneeze and loud bang that was tweeted was then picked up and reported on by traditional news sources then people would soon tire of the  scores of mistaken explosions being reported inaccurately and would rightly accuse the BBC, or whoever, of trashy journalism based on flimsy sources. From experience, I would say this is a deciding line based on individual circumstances. The newsdesk has to make a snap decision about the ‘quality’ of the original report source before deciding if it’s worth pursuing. Usually there will have been at least three tweets from different people before calls are put in to the authorities and, depending on the potential severity of the situation, that’s when a decision will be made to put a ‘we are aware of a breaking news event, check here for more updates’ tweet and story online.

Where that story then goes is up to Twitter and the people using it (including other news providers, as proved by this tweet) – but the point is, if it’s a big tale, you were the first to break the story (even if it was a non-story at the time) and your tweet and tale will have people following you for the story rather than a rival.

Journalists are being forced to learn and adapt with the changes that social media throws at them and mistakes will sometimes be made along the way. It could have turned out these explosions were the start of something life changing. It in fact developed no further than a storm in a Twitter-tea cup – a prime example of how In the melee that is social media, traditional news sources are fighting to keep their place as the ‘go-to’ providers of information and more and more emphasis is being placed on speed over substance.

BBCTwitterReports

Hyper-local: While the online debate continues, Made in Leeds marches onto our screens

Made_In_Leeds_logo

Work has been going on behind the scenes between regional newspaper publishers and the BBC to allow all parties a satisfying slice of online hyper-local video sites. Well, according to Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield, that’s the case anyway.

Highfield said this week that JP had been in talks with the Beeb to come up with a solution to a problem that’s been lingering like a bad smell for several years now. The conundrum up until this point has been that in launching hyper-local sites the BBC would use its vast resource to monopolise a market which really belongs to someone else, thus probably putting already impoverished and super-stressed newspaper journalists out of a job. The fear was that Auntie would squash the work of regional newspapers in her mighty wake and really, it just wasn’t fair. The BBC, wanting to play nice did back off from its hyper-local plans (they were going to cost too much anyway)  and then the bid was thrown out entirely.

But the Beeb still needed to do better, as did newspaper sites which were growing audience but not meeting the expectations of quality. Cue, a lot of behind the scenes jiggery pokery with exec types (and probably quite a few corporate lunches) to come up with a brand spanking new idea which would be just the ticket for everyone involved: shared content and platforms. Rather than the BBC setting out a lot of very expensive hyper-local sites which it would then have to grow an audience for from scratch, why not instead use the audience already provided by well-established local titles and their existing online visitors? This will allow newspapers with struggling staff and equipment resource but with well-established online audiences to share that valuable asset with the BBC in return for production-quality broadcasts made by the corporation being screened on their websites. And most  importantly for business, both parties get to claim the shared audience as their own. The bosses will see this as a win win for everyone. But it’s likely that the journalists on the ground will have a different opinion – with questions over product identity and voice being just some of the hot topics up for discussion.

While everyone’s back has been turned focusing  on hyper-local video something completely new has snuck into the mix. A hyper-local television station. Made in Leeds  – a television channel made for, well, Leeds, launches today. The channel, which has been lauded on my own freeview set as ‘coming soon’ for a number of weeks now, is available to watch on Freeview 8, Virgin 159 and, later this month, Sky 117. But it has to be said, that is pretty much all I know. Despite having worked until last Friday for the Yorkshire Evening Post – the newspaper for Leeds – I have seen or heard very little of Made in Leeds. While the channel has been in the planning for at least three years, I don’t really know who the actual people are behind the production. I also don’t know what to expect  aside from a 24 hour daily schedule or where it slots into the market. It appears Made in Leeds is doing a soft launch, presumably to iron out any immediate problems before the flock of vultures descend and start picking over its potential carcass.

Competition is not a bad thing. And Made in Leeds might be just what viewers in the city are looking for. It’s got a great studio and has, so I hear, employed a lot of young talent, many of whom will be fresh, enthusiastic and throwing themselves  into every opportunity the channel provides. But I struggle to see where Made in Leeds fits into the existing mix. Is it pitching itself at students and culture vultures – like a televised The City Talking – or is it going up against big hitters like Calendar, Look North or BBC Leeds? Is it spreading itself too thinly with a 24 hour offering rather than focusing on eight hours of specifically targeted programming? And what about online? Much of the information I have found out about it so far has been via Google rather than its own website. It has an exceptionally large twitter following (6,232 at  last count) but doesn’t seem to really have set out its  stall. In this world of millions of media offerings vying for a limited audience’s attention – an audience which is more and more watching online rather than over traditional television sets – has Made in Leeds done enough to get  people to sit down, switch on and stay tuned? I’ll certainly take a look when I  get home tonight, but I’m yet to be convinced I’ll still be watching in six months’ time.

The Will Cornick dilemma

Some news stories stay with you as a journalist long after the media frenzy has left the building and moved onto the next hot topic. For each journalist there are incidents and happenings that are the backbone of your career. A defining moment. The killing of Ann Maguire was one such story for me.

Ann Maguire
Ann Maguire

That Monday (April 28, 2014) I was leading the newsdesk for the Yorkshire Post  and the Yorkshire Evening Post.

It was about 2pm and I was talking to the YEP crime reporter about a story he was working on when someone came over and said ‘A teacher has been stabbed to death at a school in Leeds’.

It was unbelievable.  The world stopped for a second. That moment is a snapshot in time for me – but in reality we had to move exceptionally fast. It was important that we covered this with accuracy, depth and with our team always remembering that we were THE media outlet for Leeds – the ones who would continue to report long after the national media’s interest had waned. We needed to be first with the news but we also needed to act with sensitivity and integrity.

It transpired that Mrs Maguire, a well-liked Spanish teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, had been killed in front of her class by a 16-year-old pupil. The boy had been arrested, but not charged, meaning legally we could name him. Some of the nationals chose to follow  this course. And the boy’s name was also being bandied about on social media, meaning anyone with the interest and the internet to hand would be able to find out his identity with just the click of a button.

So why did we choose not to name and was it the right thing to do? I believe it was. The teen was a child in the  eyes of the law. And, until a court hearing found him guilty just yesterday (November 3, 2014), he was an innocent one at that. At the time of the killing we sat down and discussed ‘to name or not to name’? Legally we could have followed in the footsteps of the Sun and named him. But morally it felt wrong. Yes, we will have lost some web traffic to other sites which named the defendant, but we chose to take that hit. A better hit than damaging the reputation and standing of the newspaper titles in the communities which they served and which they continued to serve long after the nationals went away.

William Cornick
William Cornick

So we covered the story online and in print. We promoted our coverage through social media too, but we did not name the person responsible. Instead we celebrated the life of an influential, highly regarded and much loved woman. We opened a book of condolence and printed tributes in the papers. It felt like the right response to a terrible situation which would resonate in Leeds for a long time to come. Now, six months on, William Cornick has been jailed for killing Ann Maguire. And I still feel satisfied that we made the right choice.

 

Update – added November 13, 2014: This is an interesting insight into the legal side of things from Hold the Front Page’s legal column.

 

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