This summer a number of news organizations announced new projects designed to rethink how readers engage with the news. Some will fail, no doubt, and all of them need more testing and development. However, these are all creative responses to critical questions about how journalists relate to their readers. I look forward to following each one.
Quartz now let’s readers annotate articles by commenting on each paragraph. This is how they described it: “Think of it like the margins of a book or memo, where the best and most insightful ideas are often found. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was traditional for newspapers to include space for readers to jot down thoughts, gossip, and observations before passing along their copy to others. Some papers kept their margins wide for such notes; others, like the very first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, included an entire blank page. Annotations are an extension of that tradition. The margins of Quartz now belong to you.” (Medium has a similar, though not identical, feature)
Whereas Quartz’s new feature focuses on cultivating conversation around the news, Gawker flips that on its head. Their Kinja commenting platform was recently revised to, as Nick Denton described it, “turn the conversation into news.” At the Nieman Journalism Lab Adrienne LaFrance summed it up like this: “The idea is to give anyone the ability to reframe an existing article for any audience. Think of it like super-aggregating: You can share an entire article rather than just quoting excerpts or linking to the original, but you can also top it with your own headline, lede, and commentary.”
Voice of San Diego
When Voice of San Diego re-launched their website they baked community engagement in from the start. VOSD CEO Scott Lewis described the change as moving from being gatekeeper to being a community organizer. Here are the three key elements as described by Lewis: “1) Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or ‘narratives,’ on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification. 2) Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers. 3) The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.”
BoingBoing chose a forum model similar to VOSD’s “The Plaza,” but built on the open source Discourse platform. The goal was to “give readers more creative latitude, but keeps a bit of the established order.” They describe it as a healthy mix of forums and comments: “With forums, you’re not limited to discussion of our posts. You can create your own discussions and tell us how you’d like the forums to develop, as well as comment on the threads that we create ourselves. At BoingBoing itself, the best comments will often appear under the posts, much as they do now.”
At the Atlantic, they are trying something which is, in their words, “more radical.” Rooted in the idea that “comment sections can good when aggressively moderated” the editors began looking for a way to manage the conversation without dedicating inordinate amounts of staff time to it. Working with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, editors deputized two longtime, faithful readers of the site to moderate the comments on Coates’s articles. Giving them “the keys to the site,” these two moderators “have the power to discipline and even ban.” So far, they report that it is going well.
It was perhaps inevitable that when FastCompany Labs launched a program to garner more community feedback, they would invite people to become their “Lab Rats.” The FastCompany project is not a rethinking of comments, but rather a major push to listen more and provide a range of ways for readers to “help make FastCo.Labs better.” It was an invitation to converse with the promise that the editor would get back to readers and “hash out your ideas.”
Finally, Andrew Donohue, former editor of Voice of San Diego, used his year as a Stanford Knight Fellow to develop a platform and process to infuse community engagement throughout the reporting process. Donohue describes “Scratch” as “A small, nimble team that combines community organizing, investigative reporting and design thinking to creatively engage citizens in government through live events, storytelling and the latest technological tools.” The best explanation is this short video Andrew made. Watch it. What I love about this is that it adds much more offline engagement throughout the entire reporting process.