Can we all just learn to interact?

As more newspapers use the Web to engage with readers, rather than treating the medium as just another publishing platform, their reporters will need to learn the skills necessary for interacting with the public. Unfortunately, these skills are not evident merely from observation, and take some time to develop.

Consider two recent failures: Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer prize winner, lost his blog, and print column, when he was caught posting under aliases on his and other blogs, and Justin Quinn, a court reporter for the Lancaster (PA) Intelligencer-Journaller, left the paper after he was caught posting comments to the I-J’s online forums using pseudonyms.

In both cases, the reporters tried to engage the public according to what they perceived to be the rules of the game. Their intuitions, however, were incorrect. The reporters not only violated the mores of online communication, but also violated ethical principles of journalism.

Rushing reporters to interact is, in some respects, increasing a fear of interaction and confusion about how to interact. The popular impression of blog comments sections, and sometimes of blogging in general, is that the interaction is less than civil — and that the comments sections inevitably end up resembling trolled-to-death, flame-happy “echo chambers.”

That’s not the case when it comes to interaction on many popular blogs. Rebecca Blood, who has over the years written extensively on blogger ethics, gives several highly constructive don’ts of interaction in The Weblog Handbook — don’t attack others (but feel free to disagree), don’t ask for links, and don’t respond to flames. Blogging evangelist Andy Wibbles, in his book BlogWild! gives what he believes are some basic guidelines for “cultivating a climate for comments”: don’t be afraid to “unapprove” a comment, but respond to every comment posted. Even send a separate thank you e-mail. Many bloggers will follow Blood’s suggestions, and implement at least the former of Wibbles’ suggestions. Even the most ardent bloggers are often caught in a comment-response time-crunch and don’t have time to double-up on acknowledgments.

Time-crunch is a concern for the interactive newsroom, and evidence of a time-crunch for reporters surfaced in a recent article by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell. In “Have You Emailed the Post Lately?” (Sunday, May 21, 2006) Howell notes that “Reporters today get more daily feedback from readers than any journalists in history,” and surveys several editors and reporters at the Post about how they manage the email they receive from the public. The response was mixed, with some reporters loving it, and others hating the “rude, crude, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic email” that seems to come as knee-jerk reactions to stories. Howell, though, having been the lightening rod for a series of hostile comments posted to in response to a statements she made in January regarding Jack Abramoff, understands how an insufficient response to the public can harm a paper. She concludes: “The opinions can be accepted or not, but knowing them is important. And replying–even quickly,–to local subscribers lets them know they’re needed. We blow them off at our peril.”

However, when we consider that the position of ombudsman did not exist prior to 1967, and that many newspapers still do not have this sort of basic attempt at interfacing with the public in their newsrooms, how can newsrooms expect reporters to make the leap into knowing exactly how to communicate like bloggers?

When the transparent, peer-to-peer interaction necessary to interact effectively on blogs has never truly been part of the average reporter’s day to day tasks, and when negative perceptions of blog commenters seem to overshadow the positive aspects of blogger to blogger interactions, newspapers in their rush to interact online can surely expect to have some very confused people in their newsrooms. And some might end up making very big, career-costing mistakes.

But is it even necessary to even have comments on a blog? It is generally agreed upon — although often debated — within the blogging community whether or not blogs need comments to be considered “real” blogs in the first place. That ideal, though, has been challenged in the current environment of “Web 2.0,” where conversation and peer-to-peer communication are as valuable, if not more valuable, than the dissemination of information, linking to others, and good storytelling. Newspapers are aware of this, and are establishing policies that allow for interaction, but are not educating reporters on the subtleties necessary for effective interaction.

In an effort to try to figure out how reporters can bridge maintaining journalism’s ethics while developing the skills necessary for positive interaction, I recently asked conversational media consultant, freelance reporter and former editor Amy Gahran for some suggestions. First, Amy advised that reporters, “get rid of [their] egos.” When reporters blog or write about subjects that get people emotionally charged, “realize that you are not responsible for how they feel about it” when they leave a comment. Learn to intuit the syntax comments, and try to “separate what they say from the tone in which it is conveyed. Then decide what’s worth listening (or responding) to and what’s not. ”

The appropriate response will also depend on cultivating a non-reactive temperament: “Learn not to snap back at hurtful, rude, inaccurate comments that misconstrue what you say or report on. It’s okay to say things strongly, and to be clear about what you are saying, but resist the urge to react back” to readers’ negative or contentious comments. Even if they’re acting like jerks right now, on another issue later on they might be valuable allies,” Gahran said. If you disagree with a commenter, make your point and “give them some room to save face. Most will tend to take the option.” If they persist to hammer at you ” you can ignore them or take out the big guns of the witty repost,” Gahran said. Just be prepared for the consequences.

Not all comments a reporter receives, however, will be negative, and Gahran suggested that reporters guard against big-ego responses to positives as well. “Don’t too swelled a head when people like what you say. You’re not responsible for that reaction either.”

Unlike standard journalism that strives for independent objectivity, blogs function best when the bloggers’ opinions and thought processes are known. There is room for both types of communication — objective and conversational — to develop within a newspaper’s web presence. “Not all journalism needs to be conversational. When it is conversational, it should have balance. When someone points out mistakes and makes a reporter think extra-hard about what’s been said, it should give a reporter more to write about.

“Reporter-bloggers should strive to develop a level of transparency. People want to see and know that the reporter is a person and revealing one’s thought processes can help. Show how you got your information and where you got it from,” Gahran advised. This will allow readers to backtrack and discover their own perspective. They may then bring up points that cause the reporter to re-think his/her position. If readers “see that a reporter is willing to reconsider a position in the face of criticism, readers will respond well to it,” Gahran said.

Asking reporters to blog, and to then interact like successful bloggers, is perhaps at this point in time asking for a quantum leap in the ways in which reporters have been instructed to perform their jobs. Misperceptions about blogging abound — in part because of the constant negative attention that is given to contentious comments and snarky blogs as much as it comes from simply not knowing the community. Focusing on the negatives, however, only serves to feed a fear of interaction. Positive interaction can occur, but reporters must first cultivate a non-confrontational temperament and other subtle skills — such as interpretation of syntax and a level of transparency — if they are going to interact successfully.

If newspapers are truly interested in cultivating interaction, and do not want to see some of their best reporters go down in flames because of bad interactions, newspapers will need to do more than give their reporter-bloggers a “blogging policy.” Newspapers cannot expect reporters to be able to immediately intuit a form of conversational media where the manner of interaction appear to run counter to the ethics journalists must uphold in their reporting, and has its own particular communication quirks. Rather, newspapers should neither rush nor refuse their reporters the task of interaction. They should allow for exploration and for asking questions.

A strategy for increasing revenues based on increased reporter interaction cannot be rushed. To do so might not just cause more reporters to unintentionally wreck their careers, but may also have the undesirable effect of driving readers, and revenue, away from newspapers.

Can newspapers do blogs right?

Within the past few weeks two of America’s leading newspapers have watched staff-written blogs blow up in their faces. First, Ben Domenech left after outside bloggers uncovered numerous examples of plagiarism in his past work. And last week, the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Hiltzik (interviewed by OJR just before the scandal broke) after he was discovered to have posted comments under false identities on his and other blogs.

Can newspapers do blogs right? I e-mailed that question to several prominent online journalists. All have experience with “traditional” media and either blog or oversee bloggers in their work. Their edited responses follow:

Anthony Moor
I’m not sure we know yet what “right” is when it comes to blogs. We’re in an R&D phase here, for lack of a better term, when it comes to incorporating blogs into our “traditional” Web content. There are going to be missteps. We know that blogs are a powerful software tool for self-service, instant publishing with a built-in tagging capability that plugs us into the conversation online. We also know that blogs are fostering a new kind of editorial voice in our writing: intimate, off-the-cuff and breezy.

Now, how that powerful new force on the Internet intersects with our mission to provide accurate and credible information to our audience is what we’re figuring out. We don’t have to do what bloggers v.1.0 are doing now to incorporate blogs effectively into what we do, and I think we shouldn’t try.

What makes us journalists is our ability to gather facts, synthesize, and write about the world around us — and those are not necessarily the requirements of blogging. As long as we couple our essential skills as journalists with this new medium, I think we CAN shape blogs into a valuable new asset for newspapers.

Look, the analogy is this: When software became widely available to easily manipulate photos into photo illustrations, the public-at-large found a myriad of uses for it. And news organizations suffered some notable missteps as they began using it too. Now, however, we’ve learned how to incorporate this power into our journalism without giving up the essential things that make what we do journalism.

Xeni Jardin and National Public Radio
Newspapers will get it right when the people responsible for designing and launching blogs for them take the time to understand the culture, the process, the dynamics and the sociology of blogs. It’s important that newspapers not launch blogs for the sake of launching blogs. There had to be a purpose to other than to have the ability to tell the world that you have a blog.

What’s the point of interacting with your audience? Is the point just to leave snippy comments on the blogs of your critics? Or is the point of interacting to provide bits and pieces and nuances of information that traditional newspaper reporting doesn’t lend itself to?

I feel like way too often it is done as a gimmicky thing. Not to name names, but some companies launch blogs because there’s someone at the company who monitors search engine traffic, and one day that person recognizes, “Hey there are a lot of people searching about babies — I think we need to have a baby blog.”

Just because the traffic shows a lot of traffic, and potential for advertising revenue, they lanuch a blog and hire some inexperienced copy writter to fill it with stuff. It’s just an excuse to have something to sell ads against. I don’t think the Los Angeles Times created its blogs as an excuse to sell banner ads against, but too often in situations like this there’s disjointed thinking. There’s this idea that you stick a blog up there, you stick unmoderated comments up there, you don’t give your reporters who are totally unfamiliar with this medium any guidance, and you’re going to expect it to turn out well?

I think the fact that people make such an unnatural distinction between blogging and writing for a newspaper is part of the problem. Behave in your blog as you would in the paper.

Lisa Stone
Of course they can. Blog, wiki and audio technologies are just like the printing presses used to publish newspapers — tools that a broad spectrum of thinkers are using to get their word out. Period. Just like in traditional newspapering, some of these blogs, wikis and podcasts are superior, others are bird-cage liner.

Newspaper blogs that work are carefully planned, openly executed exercises in public conversation about news and information. These blogs allow comments and turn into 24/7 townhall meetings about everything from the headlines to how well the paper is doing to deliver and discuss the news. Newspapers that blog well embrace the community and use the blogs as an extension of their op-ed pages. There are dozens of examples, from MSNBC’s oft-ignored Bloggermann (one of the national media’s best blogs) to brave local daily sites taking important baby steps such as and

Newspaper blogs that don’t work tend to dismss blogs as, in Alex S. Jones’ famous words, the sizzle rather than the steak — as useless chatter rather than as an extension of the newspaper’s journalism that deserves the same care, feeding and standards of accuracy and ethical behavior. How can newspapers expect to survive if they keep mooning their readers like this? Answer: They won’t.

The problems of failing standards of accuracy and ethical behavior among the nation’s leading newspapers are not limited to blogs. As someone who grew up on newspapers and will never give them up, the past five years have been agonizing to behold, from Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg, to Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik. America’s newspapers have the opportunity to leverage blogs as credibility-building exercises — but the first thing we need to do is to stop architecting our own demise. To avoid meltdowns like this, newspapers need to do exactly what exceptional blogs do: For God’s sake, assume the position of the reader and behave accordingly. Readers want to know what they’re getting, who they’re getting it from and how, so that they can trust their sources — that’s you. Here are two easy steps:

Step 1: No more rookie maneuvers. Call in a blog expert with a journalism background and have this outside person walk you through community scenarios to test what your newsroom (and management) can tolerate and what you cannot. If nudie pictures on your wiki are a no-no, you have a choice to make: (a) Don’t publish the wiki, and/or (b) Don’t publish the wiki without human and/or technical filters. But you have to have someone advising you who knows how wikis behave. Or, say, if you don’t want a blogger to violate fair use acts on this blog or in previous blogs, (a) Check out their personal records, and (b) Say so and sign them to agreement that says so.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 in an open conversation with your readers and ask them to behave according to these guidelines too. Publish your community guidelines and ask readers what they want and why. Edit your guidelines accordingly.

Step 3: Integrate blogs into the newsroom’s efforts. Starting slow is fine — but the best blogs are a team effort. In a newsroom unused to community conversation, to groaning when readers write and call-in, is to make it part of the journo’s job description — and their editor’s too. That means a conversation with the community via blogging (including Steps 1 and 2) needs to be embraced by the people at the top of the newsroom hierarchy.

Bob Cauthorn
I think it’s going to be difficult for newspapers to do blogs right because their DNA continues to be trapped in the “we talk, you listen” mode. Fundamentally, staff-written blogs are nothing different than what newspapers do now — simply spilling more of the same voices onto the public streets.

Sure, staff-written blogs have a fragile patina of interactively because some accept comments. Scuffing off that patina doesn’t take much.

1) Under the best case, newspaper blog comments are enfeebled interactivity. Only fractional percentages of readers comment on staff-written blogs. Maybe the public has simply given up on the idea of newspapers listening or caring. Consider the case of the Guardian’s staff blogs. The Guardian is one of the best online newspapers in the world and its commitment to the staff blog borders on the fanatical. They throw substantial resources at it. And yet, if you look closely at the number of comments per post (realize in many cases comments are more than a week old) and then you consider the total traffic on the site, you must conclude that the supposed interactivity of the Guardian’s blogs has failed utterly. I mean we’re talking less that 1/10 of one percent of all readers who are moved to comment! (FYI, I did a quick study of this last fall because the Guardian folks had a hissy over my post attacking the concept of staff blogs.)

2) Even if you get a few comments, the moment they turn hostile to the newspaper, suddenly the commitment to interactivity wavers. It’s happened a number of times. And indeed, the Hiltzik incident specifically highlights this. Today’s newspapers are sufficiently thin-skinned that the idea that people might use comments to attack the writers doesn’t go down well. So you either stop comments, or you remove the accounts of critics, or — as in the case of Hiltzik — you create deceptive online personas to respond to the attacks. It’s the “we talk, you listen” attitude taken to the extreme: Even if the public talks back, the media requires the last word! It’s a fatal appetite on the part of the modern newspaper. Some sociologists have pointed out that modern America can exert power on the global stage, but it no longer exerts authority (for authority comes from the nexus of wisdom, restraint, morality and cleaving to higher purposes). Newspapers are in a similar boat — they’re still powerful institutions but their authority is in shambles. OK, let’s get this straight: So we let the public speak and when a tiny number do we come rushing in with fake personas to defend the paper against attacks. We never let anyone else get the last word. That’s wrong and it’s stupid and it’s going to kill papers. Instead of stifling criticism, newspapers should embrace it and learn from it and grow wise.

(Incidentally, The fact that the LA Times perceives the Hiltzik’s actions as a violation of ethics is a *very* good thing. One of the dirty little secrets of newspaper blogs is that many, many of the comments come from unidentified staff members. I applaud the LAT for this move. It’s high time to stop this deplorable practice.)

So if newspapers blogs are not *really* about interacting with the community — and I challenge anyone to demonstrate they’ve been successful at that goal — what makes them different? They just offer the same voices you read all the time.

This is *exactly* what my beef with staff blogs is about and why I’ve been trying to get newspapers to change the approach. Jon Stewart put it nicely when he said mainstream media blogs “give voice to the already voiced.”

Look, it’s easy to get this right: don’t have staff members blog and instead bring in the legitimate outside voices. There are many ways that a mainstream media organization can do this — make a blog about *outside* blogs, point some of your traffic to outside voices (even those who, gasp, criticize you!), invite some of the best outside bloggers in your community to post right on your pages. Give selected bloggers early access to your stories — particularly enterprise stories — so that they can have same-day reactions. (Make sure these are bloggers you can trust not to jump the publication, obviously.) In other words, genuinely and sincerely embrace *outside* voices. Allow the community to have a stake in what you are doing once more.

As stand it stands right now, newspapers keep shouting louder in a room that, increasingly, is emptying around us. Maybe, before the last reader departs we can convince people to stay by letting them know we want to talk *with* our community, not *at* them.

Chris Nolan
This is a pretty big set of issues that really, I think, go to the heart of what’s wrong with newsroom culture these days. Suffice it to say that the contempt that a lot of folks on the floor feel for people working online really has to stop. The problem is that guys like Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik aren’t exactly helping to make that argument. I’m not entirely sure that’s anyone’s “fault” as much as it is the result of having the news business open up to its audience at a time when newsrooms are in crisis and readers are better informed than they’ve ever been — thanks to the Internet.

The idea that the Post of the L.A. Times have somehow screwed up royally by hiring folks who cut corners isn’t the end of the world as we know it. It’s a series of mistakes. It’s done. We’ve learned a few things — among them, there should be an intermediate step between running your own website and writing for a big newspaper.

Newsroom editors and writers need to spend a lot more time reading and watching the talent that’s out here on the Web. Lots of folks sitting in newsrooms are going to have to get over the fact that people outside the building really do know what they’re doing much of the time. Just as online folks are going to have to stop cutting corners and claiming that they represent a new form of “media” free of all basic rules and constraints that’s some how superior to what’s being done in the ink-and-paper format. The way you produce your story has nothing to do with what the story says to the reader.

Fundamentally, the rules of the reporting game — be fair, be honest, represent the reader as you do your job, limit the harm you do as you do it, and always be aware that there’s someone on the other side of the story — are not going to change. Part of what’s going on with Domenech and Hiltzik is that those lessons are being meted out in a very public fashion. This, by the way, is how those things used to get taught by foul-mouthed city editors who thought nothing of yelling at new reporters. I knew a few of those guys … didn’t you?

Nick Denton

Gawker Media
Reporters, trained to put aside opinion, make uninteresting bloggers. And it’s notoriously hard to manage, in parallel, a daily news cycle and regular updates for breaking news.

The sweet (and sour) smell of success at YourHub

If the 1957 movie “Sweet Smell of Success” were made today, the central figure might not be the tyrannical, sadistic newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), but his foil, the sycophantic, scheming press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Today, Falco would not have to crawl up to Hunsecker’s throne at “21” and say pretty please to get an item in his column. At least not in metro Denver.

Instead Falco could click onto, the site that covers 44 local communities and is run by the Rocky Mountain News. Falco would upload his release and — zip! — watch it materialize in its entirety on all the community sites, if he hit enough keys on his computer. No editorial gatekeeper would stand in his way, much less a J.J. Hunsecker.

On Feb. 27, YourHub ran a piece of stage-center product placement that Sidney Falco could only dream about. It was headlined, “Wynkoop names 2006 beerdrinker of the year.” It opened: “Tom Schmidlin, a 36-year-old University of Washington graduate student, devout homebrewer and yeast enthusiast, won the 2006 Beerdrinker of the Year title in Denver on Saturday, Feb. 25.” An accompanying photo of the grinning winner, posted at the top of the story, was captioned, “Tom set an unofficial record for most pounds gained between the weighing in and weighing out of the finalists. He picked up 4.5 pounds thanks to his hearty consumption of a growler [pitcher] and a half of Wynkoop beer while on the hot seat.”

The author of the piece was Marty Jones, a former journalist who’s now a publicist. Jones was paid by Wynkoop Brewing Co. of Denver to generate publicity for the Wynkoop-sponsored contest, in which entrants answered brain-twisting questions about beer while quaffing large quantities of the Wynkoop brand.

YourHub liked the story so much it was featured in the No. 1 promo position on the homepage of many communities.

Jones said he originally submitted his release to the Denver Post, hoping the paper would spin it into a breezy feature. The Post didn’t bite, but routed the release to YourHub, with which it has a relationship through the Denver Newspaper Agency. (The Rocky Mountain News and the Post are partners in the agency.)

Jones said he was surprised — pleasantly — to discover that his piece appeared intact on YourHub, under his name. Nowhere in the article was Jones identified as a publicist for Wynkoop.

“YourHub is exactly that: Yours!” exclaims a statement on the site, which was launched in May 2005. “It’s a Web site built by the people in metro Denver with help from the Rocky Mountain News. People throughout metro Denver can access their own community’s Web site, featuring stories, photos, events, blogs and personal profiles posted by others in their community — that means you!” Within the site are 44 sub-sites covering Denver and the suburbs surrounding it. Every Thursday, a selection of postings are packaged in 15 tabloid YourHubs that are inserted in editions of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post that go to the papers’ subscribers.

YourHub is called “citizen journalism” by the Denver Newspaper Agency. John Temple, the editor and publisher of the News who brought YourHub into being, calls it a “community news initiative.” YourHub Managing Editor Travis Henry calls it a “bulletin board.” What it definitely is, based on the actual content, is a place where publicists like Marty Jones can be sure their releases will be published, with every product placement intact.

Whose hub?

YourHub’s freewheeling policies about its content and how its stories are identified recently sparked attention after the online magazine New West, which mainly covers growth and environment issues in the Rocky Mountain region from its base in Missoula, Mont., carried a Feb. 24 tongue-in-cheek article about YourHub. Author Howard Rothman focused on Denver-area politicians who were using YourHub as a free megaphone for campaign ads or attacks on their opponents. The same day, two Poynter Institute columnists — Steve Yelvington, an Internet strategist at Morris Communications, and Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute — picked up on Rothman’s story.

John Temple’s lengthy reply to the three critics was posted on Jim Romenesko’s Media News letters page on Poynter. Temple emphasized: “[YourHub] is meant to be a wide-open exchange of ideas, experiences and goods. However there is one requirement. To post, people must register … .”

But Temple was disingenuous. While YourHub registration requires name, address, phone number, e-mail address and other information, the user profiles that accompany articles (reached from a clickable byline) include only a name and community of residence. Unless registrants go out of their way to post details in a “biography” section — which few do — there is no contact information for users. Nor is there any hint of a given poster’s business or occupation — which would be nice to know in case the writer were selling something.

And, contrary to Temple’s implication, press releases snail-mailed or e-mailed to the Rocky Mountain News or Post, or YourHub, can and do wind up regularly on YourHub, completely bypassing the registration process. That’s how Marty Jones’ piece on the beer-drinking contest got in.

But many publicists do choose to register, providing just enough profile information to mask what they do.

Between Feb. 24 and March 11, various YourHub sub-sites ran 11 travel stories 31 times under the byline of Toni Barnett, among them “Puerto Vallarta Will Warm Your Soul” and “A 112 Mile Stretch of Paradise,” about Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Barnett’s profile on YourHub consisted of four words: “Toni Barnett, Boulder, CO.” But Barnett is manager of James TravelPOINTS, a Boulder travel agency specializing in international tours. A general clue to the connection between Barnett’s articles and her employer can usually be found at the end of her pieces, where the firm’s phone number and website are listed, without stating that Barnett is an employee.

On the sudden blossoming of her articles on YourHub, Barnett said, “We were hoping to get the articles [published] because we just started doing print advertising with them [YourHub].” YourHub Managing Editor Henry said, “Advertising and editorial are completely separate. … If we believe a story will be interesting for our readers we will run it, whether they are an advertiser or not.”

YourHub invites users to “share stories and photos about your town.” Exactly what stories about resorts in Mexico or “floating through France on a luxury hotel barge” have to do with life in Boulder or Golden or other YourHub communities is not clear. Barnett said, “I look at it two different ways. I hope people will find it interesting, and that I’ll receive their business.”

Nonprofit businesses and area governments have turned to YourHub as energetically, if not more so, than for-profits. A Feb. 22 story on YourHub was headlined “Dolphins Splash into The Wildlife Experience!” It was written by Keith Carlson, whose profile was as modest as Barnett’s: “Keith Carlson, Parker, CO.” But Carlson is actually communications director for the Wildlife Experience museum in Parker, where the dolphins were doing their splashing. Carlson has contributed six articles to YourHub — all of them about his place of employment.

On Feb. 14, YourHub carried a story whose headline, “County and mayors to honor teens,” suggested the perfect assignment for the local paper’s junior reporter. But the article was written by Mindy Endstrom, a communications specialist for Arapahoe County, Colo. On YourHub, Endstrom was identified only by name.

But not all contributors to YourHub hide under a bushel. Between Sept. 15, 2005, and March 11 of this year, chiropractor Sean Reif contributed 197 stories (counting multiple publications across the 44 YourHub sub-sites). Even more impressive, Reif received 127 comments on his stories that give him an excellent 4.6 rating (out of a possible 5). But it turns out that the most frequent commenter on Reif’s stories was Reif himself. Reif used the comments section to give himself five-star ratings, and also to snipe at medical doctors, as in his comment on comment on Jan. 18: “Few physician attempt to manage the whole range of disorders that can occur in infants, children, and adults, but those who do must have available a broad spectrum of current and accurate information. All need more information for study and examination purposes as well as for patient care … .” Reif gave himself five stars for that dig at doctors.

A few businesses are upfront about who they are in supplying stories for YourHub. A Jan. 20 article headlined “Business owners: How much should you pay yourself?” clearly identified author Bill Werley Jr. as a member of the Werley Financial Group of Lakewood, Colo. Werley’s optional “bio” section on his user profile also made clear his affiliation.

Another example of online transparency is Allison Hefner, a public relations specialist for Adventist Hospital. Hefner is the author of five articles, all about her employer. Her YourHub profile: “Allison Hefner serves as Littleton Adventist Hospital’s Public Relations specialist.” Of course, you’d have to click through to Hefner’s profile page to find that out.

Where’s the community news?

YourHub is a “work in progress,” according to Henry. “I am always looking at ways we can do things better,” he said. Henry adamantly defended the site’s skimpy profiles of contributors. “I don’t think we’ll tinker with that — no,” he said. “On the Web, we kind of have to leave it open.”

The 34-year-old Henry, who wrote editorials for the Daily Times-Call in Longmont, Colo., before helping to start YourHub in spring 2005, said he won’t get into a debate about whether the site meets any of the criteria of the developing phenomenon of citizen journalism. “[YourHub] may seem sloppy or messy, but people can decide what they want to take, and they do.”

Does YourHub give users well-rounded takes on their communities? “Between the stories that are posted, the news updates and blogs — yes,” Henry replied.

I went to the sub-site covering Golden — population 17,550 — and checked the main categories under “news.” Since YourHub launched in early May of 2005, the Golden sub-site has had 133 “general news stories,” seven on “government,” 23 on “politics” and three on “traffic.” Most of the “stories” were handouts on coming charity or other community events. Not one meeting of the Golden City Council was covered. The hot debate over whether a beltway should be built through Golden to connect two major roads was ignored. There was nothing on the struggle to save four historic but unprotected sites in Golden, and zero on a city-sponsored survey on what residents thought of their city (most of them were quite pleased).

The daily news updates included 10 to 12 links to news stories in the News and Post and sometimes to competing papers serving YourHub communities. But on an average day, only two or three of the zoned links focused on news from specific YourHub communities. On Feb. 28, on the Highlands Ranch sub-site, two of the 12 news updates had a Highlands Ranch connection. One was about a Highlands Ranch basketball player at the University of Northern Colorado achieving an academic honor; another was about Republican Lt. Gov. Jane Norton saying she would not challenge Democrat Rep. John Salazar, whose 3rd District includes Highlands Ranch. The remaining stories were about such non-local events as the Colorado House majority leader — who represents Boulder — collapsing on the chamber floor and a controversy over whether to convert HOV lanes to toll lanes on a road that was nowhere near Highlands Ranch.

Rocky Mountain News Editor and Publisher Temple, responding to critics in his Romenesko riposte, said YourHub users “seem to get it.” But what do they get besides a steady flow of press releases? It’s true that most of the PR is about worthy causes — fighting diseases, scholarships for deserving students and fund drives for struggling arts organizations. But can you cover 40-plus fast-growing communities in a large metro area by press release?

Publisher David Lewis of Mile High Newspapers Inc., which publishes four weekly newspapers in communities served by YourHub and a website that was started in response to YourHub, said, “We’re paying attention to them, but I’m not panicking.”

Lewis said his company commissioned a survey of 500 households in one contested community, the city of Arvada (population 100,000), in September 2005. The results showed 53 percent of those surveyed got their news from Mile High’s Arvada Press, 16 percent from the Rocky Mountain News, 12 percent from the Denver Post and half of 1 percent from YourHub.

He said the zoned weekly print versions of YourHub — which run 16 to 20 pages on average, with about 65 percent advertising — have a few ads he wishes his papers had, but that some other ads were simply shifted from the Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post. The Rocky Mountain News’ Temple acknowledged as much in his Romenesko posting by saying only 40 to 50 percent of YourHub ads — print and online — represented new revenue.

Lewis said he’d rate some of YourHub’s editorial content “appealing” and some of it “pap and boring.”

Henry proudly noted that the Rocky Mountain News hired 26 “trained journalists” as community editors to help contributors report and write stories for YourHub. But here are the priorities of the editor assigned to the communities of Golden, Evergreen and Conifer, as he listed them on his YourHub blog:

  1. Dogs
  2. Kids
  3. Everyone else from Golden, Evergreen and Conifer
  4. Photos by people from Golden, Evergreen and Conifer.

These priorities may explain why hot civic controversies and threats to historic local sites don’t register on YourHub/Golden — or other YourHub sub-sites. Such issues tend to be complicated, which means they demand detailed reporting — a rare occurrence on YourHub.

Rocky Mountain News owner E.W. Scripps Co. has recently expanded YourHub to metro areas in five other states where it has print properties — California, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. If Scripps can get away with presenting a steady diet of press releases as “community news,” what impact will that have on grassroots journalism, which is still in its infancy?

In his column in the News, John Temple frequently talks about what journalism should mean. On Feb. 25, he wrote: “In my experience, a newsroom that produces great journalism is a newsroom that talks about values and standards.”

When will Temple, a passionate advocate of scrupulous journalism at his Rocky Mountain News, start talking about values and standards for YourHub?