Inside the FT’s approach to online comments and audience participation

Lilah Raptopolous, community manager at the FT, explains how the newsroom approaches editorial projects and stories in a way that involves readers from the beginning

“The FT places an emphasis on comments because they are a valuable tool both editorially and commercially, she added. Editorially, they help build trust with readers, become story leads or sources, give direct feedback to FT’s reporting and connect people.

“I like to remind reporters that there are a lot of people commenting, but when you are responding to them you are not just responding to that one person but also to everyone else reading the comments. So the interactions that happen there are valuable to everyone who is quietly paying attention.”

On the commercial side, the FT’s internal audience research and reader surveys have shown “a strong link” between comments and engagement. People who write comments are, on average, seven times more engaged than those who don’t, so they spend more time on the website, read more stories and return more often.”

With Open Notebook, Hearken wants to help news orgs do more of their reporting in public

David Fahrenthold never did find much evidence of Donald Trump’s charitable efforts, but he got a Pulitzer Prize for his trouble. Fahrenthold’s reporting, which he tracked via pen and paper and which relied on input from readers, “created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities,” according to the Pulitzer Prize board.

Hearken thinks that that model of transparency in reporting is one that more news organizations should emulate. The company is testing Open Notebook, a new feature designed to give news organizations a way to do their reporting in public, giving readers a chance to follow along and potentially contribute. Julia Haslanger, an engagement consultant at Hearken, said that the idea, inspired by the updates that Kickstarter projects send their backers, is a cross between “a mini-newsletter, a live blog, and a place to store files in public.”

“Our entire mission is built around the idea of making sure that the audience has a seat at the editorial table ahead of publication,” Haslanger said. While Hearken has pushed news organizations to include readers in the reporting process, the company didn’t provide the tools to make that process easy. “Open Notebook,” she said, “is filling in that gap.”

Hearken is modeling the idea on the efforts of organizations like ProPublica and The New York Times, which recently have made efforts to both publicly verify breaking news stories in real-time and involve readers in the reporting process.

Here’s Haslanger introducing Open Notebook in February at MisinfoCon:

The tool so far has only been opened up to a handful of organizations, which are still in the testing phase. But the organizations say they’re enticed by the tool, which offers new ways to report stories and keep readers involved. At Inside Energy, Open Notebook gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the makers of the documentary “Beyond Standing Rock” created maps and graphics that were handed out at screenings. Vermont Public Radio, another early Open Notebook user, made audience engagement core to Brave Little State, a podcast built around fielding questions about the state. In March, the podcast introduced the Open Notebook functionality with its reporting on a reader question about the high number of dilapidated barns in Vermont. “Our working motto is that we want to make journalism more transparent and inclusive and more fun,” said Angelia Evancie digital editor for news at Vermont Public Radio and the host of Brave Little State. “Open Notebook is interesting because it’s a continuation of the show’s model.”

With Open Notebook, Hearken hopes increased audience engagement will help reverse the declining trust in mainstream media among Americans. A 2016 Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in news organizations “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” dropped to an all-time low: Just 32 percent of Americans said that they have a “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media — an eight percent decline from the year before. Pew found similar numbers in its own polling last year. Just 18 percent of American said they trust the news they get from national organizations “a lot,” and 22 percent said the same for local organizations.

Hearken’s Haslanger said that this is a crisis that radical transparency in reporting can help to solve. “Journalists continually need to earn trust,” she said. “I don’t think earning trust is something you do once and just bank on for a long time.”

Beyond engagement, Hearken’s pitch is built around the idea that, by building an engaged audience that has an active hand in producing the reporting it’s interested in, news organizations can turn more of that audience into paying customers. “People won’t give you money unless you’re serving them, and this is a way to make sure you’re actually doing so,” Haslanger said. Public media organizations, which make up a significant portion of Hearken’s user base, have been particularly enthusiastic with their embrace of the approach, said Haslanger.

The approach does have some hitches. The work of journalism has traditionally operated behind closed doors, with stories carefully assembled and fact-checked before being offered to the public. This is true particularly for sensitive in-depth investigations, but it extends to lighter stories as well, even in the digital era. Evancie, for example, said that Vermont Public Radio wasn’t immediately sure which kinds of stories would work best with the Open Notebook approach. That’s why the organization felt that Brave Little State, which was “already aligned with with the transparency idea,” was a natural fit. She said she was less sure about the process would work with stories that had more sensitive sourcing.

Haslanger said that this has has been a common concern among the early users of Open Notebook, and her response has been unequivocal. “If you’re doing a very secretive investigation that relies on no one else knowing, this is not the tool for you,” she said.

Photo of reporter’s notebook by Roger H. Goun used under a Creative Commons license.

What happened when Gun Memorial let anyone contribute directly to victim profiles

If you’re reporting local or niche news, there’s a good chance that your audience collectively knows more about the story than you do. That’s especially true for us at Gun Memorial, a small publication with a nationwide mission of covering every American who is shot dead. In our latest, mostly successful, experiment, we let readers add to our stories without editor intervention. This article shares some lessons from that experience.

Asking for reader contributions

A large fraction of Gun Memorial’s traffic comes from “organic search” and many of those people are friends and family who are trying to follow the news on their recently-deceased loved one. These are exactly the kinds of people that reporters try to interview for the “friends and family mourn” articles sometimes written a day or two after a homicide.

Rather than do real interviews, we introduced a “profile builder” at the bottom of each victim’s page. It is designed to efficiently gather personal and biographical factoids from our readers.

profile builder screenshot

GunMemorial.org’s Profile Builder enables readers to contribute to a page with minimal friction. Vandalism has been minimal and prevented by allowing any reader to delete an answer.

Each of the gray-boxed phrases is a response from an anonymous reader and in this article we call each of these phrases an “answer.” Of the six categories of information we are requesting, five are pretty straightforward and factual. The exception is “personality,” which is very subjective, and I’ll talk more about that later.

Anyone can visit a page and anonymously change a profile; there is no registration or login and that should encourage participation. We prevent vandalism and misinformation using a simple, anonymous moderation system; readers can either “like” or “delete” others’ answers. The number of likes is shown in green next to the “thumbs up” icon. On the other hand, an answer is removed from the page if any single reader chooses to “delete” it. Thus, a vandal’s work is very easily removed by anyone who later visits.

How readers contributed

In the first 20 days since the profile builder launched June 30, 2,364 answers were posted, 1,744 likes were recorded, and 249 answers were deleted, including 72 which were deleted by the same person who posted it (presumably as a correction.) For reference, in the same time period we had 339,000 pageviews from 45,000 sessions, and our popular “light a candle” feature was used 14,332 times.

Gathering about 100 little bits of new information each day is pretty significant for us, but we need to evaluate the quality of these posts before calling it a success. I scanned through all the answers and drew a few conclusions:

Overall, the answers were very effective at humanizing our stories. Readers wholly ignore the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, but they nonetheless do a great job of painting a picture of the deceased.

For example, here are 25 randomly-chosen, unedited answers for the “occupation” prompt:

  • dog groomer
  • Music Artist
  • business owner
  • Mechanic
  • bluebonnet feeds
  • disabled
  • Dan was to leave for the US ARMY days before his murder
  • amazing grandma
  • USPS
  • Killigans, Steel Company
  • CEO, Producer, Artist
  • Go Getter
  • Sales
  • Railroad
  • hostess
  • disabled
  • Cook at Kickback Jacks
  • hustler
  • soil testing
  • drywall
  • sing and baseball
  • unemployed
  • hustla
  • lived off of women

In most cases, this occupation information is not already published in an online obituary, a Facebook profile, or in a news report. We’ve unearthed and published new information (although it’s not entirely trustworthy.)

For the “personality” prompt some answers include:

  • fun loving
  • inspirational loving giving unconditional live with no regrets love with all you have
  • He loved his family. He loved to make people laugh.
  • He was a loving father, son, brother, nephew, and friend to many
  • Friendly
  • Funny
  • Best Father
  • fun loving, happy, goofy, responsible
  • Fun, loving, cheerful, peace maker
  • Funny
  • murdered sleeping in his own home
  • He is truly missed by so many
  • Amazing woman, mom and grandma! went above and beyond for everyone she cared for!
  • Aaron was funny goofy loved to make ppl laff and allways allways did anything to help anyone in need
  • savage stylish
  • alcoholic
  • FREE SPIRIT
  • Fun, Loving, Caring, Outgoing, Selfless,
  • hilarious, loyal, laid back, prettiest smile
  • loved his baby girl with all he had
  • Good friend,Mother and grandmother
  • He was murdered
  • People broke into home killed him
  • amazing! outgoing! and LOVED her girls!
  • Extrovert, Creative, Original, Real, Loyal

Some answers were off-topic, as you can see above. There was no prompt for general reactions or comments but that didn’t stop people from entering comments under unrelated prompts. I take this as an indication that our six prompts were too narrowly scoped (and the user interface is a little confusing.)

I found only five cases of vandalism which were not already deleted by readers. One of these vandals actually spent hours over several days posting dozens of answers to random pages. Two other vandals seemed to know the deceased and to harbor spiteful feelings; I expect to see this for murder-suicides in particular. Popular pages will be cleaned up by their readers, but unpopular pages may remain vandalized, so I started personally reviewing all new answers each day. This is a quick task, taking one or two minutes to scan through a list of 100 answers and click any inappropriate ones.

One very popular page was answered entirely in Albanian and Italian. Google Translate does not work very well on this dialect of Albanian. I am unable to effectively and efficiently review these answers, but this particular page has enough readers to moderate itself.

Our original launch included a seventh, multiple choice question to categorize the incident as: suicide, accident, domestic violence, police shooting, workplace shooting, stray bullet, road rage, armed robbery, justifiable self-defense, or “other homicide.” In practice, many people were confused by the definition of each category and the absence of other categories. One mother was extremely upset when she accidentally marked her son’s death as a suicide and couldn’t undo it. Our response was to simply drop this question for now. I suspect that this categorization will have to be handled by our editors.

What’s Next?

I am very encouraged by this crowdsourcing experiment and I think the next big step is to move beyond biographical facts and prompt readers to tell paragraph-length stories. Story Corps compiled a list of great questions for remembering a loved one, including prompts like:

  • Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?
  • What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?
  • What is the image of _____ that persists?

We can use the same moderation mechanisms for these longer-form contributions.

I can’t wait to see what our readers have to say!

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