Reaction to the recent shooting tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado proves once again that electronic bulletin boards and live chat sessions bring people together and move newspapers closer to their readers.
Just ask online news chief Todd Engdahl of the Denver Post Online and crosstown rival Robert Niles of the Rocky Mountain News' InsideDenver.com. Both men have seen more messages posted on their bulletin boards in response to the Columbine tragedy than for any other news event.
'Interactivity is the one feature that distinguishes the online medium from all others,' says Niles. 'Broadcast is as immediate. Print offers as much depth. But no one can do interactivity like we can.'
The Columbine tragedy was a BIG event. In an open letter to AOL members, AOL President Steve Case said that in the first week more than 350,000 individuals visited the special chat rooms that the online service provider set up for discussion of the Columbine tragedy. More than 140,000 messages were posted in related bulletin board-style forums. ? But have online discussions on news sites matured to the point where they can succeed without a major tragedy or scandal? Many proponents of the medium think so.
In a March 31 story, 'Discussion Areas on News Sites Aren't Just for Rants,' New York Times writer Lisa Napoli is bullish on message boards and chat. She cites the discussion enthusiasts at major broadcast media sites such as MSNBC.com and CNN.com, as well as Salon's intellectually oriented 'Table Talk' section. Message board regulars should be attractive to publishers, several Web site managers told Napoli, because they stay longer and return more often.
In reality, most print media Web sites -- with a few notable exceptions -- run their message boards with benign neglect. They're decidedly dull and little-used.
The San Jose Mercury News' message boards are difficult to find, for example. Many topics haven't had new postings in months, and the volume of postings in many topics is exceedingly low. A Web site staffer explained that the message boards have not received much attention lately because resources were focused on building SiliconValley.com, a daily package of tech industry news stories.
At Latimes.com, where I've had a hand in co-managing the message boards, editors create topics as needed and link news stories to them occasionally. But even at this major newspaper Web site, higher-ups give message boards short shrift. They cite higher priorities, technical difficulties and a lack of staff needed to monitor discussions and schedule guests for Q & A sessions.
'It's just the same 40 or 50 people talking to each other,' argues one Times editor of Latimes.com's 'Clinton Under Fire' forum, which has drawn more than 25,000 posts. 'They need to get a life!' ? Add to such attitudes a fear of getting sued for libel, or that someone will write a suicide note or threaten the President. Or other fears: Participating newspaper staffers will voice personal opinions, some of which may be out of sync with the newspaper's editorial stance; forums will cost too much, even without any dollars budgeted to advertise them. ? Jenna Woodul, vice president and co-founder of Talk City, one of the Web's most successful chat and bulletin board venues, says 'You have to wait for the audience to build...'
To be successful, Woodul says, requires promotion other than in-house ads planted in the print product. She cites Talk City's experience with Starbucks' CEO, whose chat session would have flopped but for targeted promotion outside Talk City's own Web site. It was a success because Starbucks' customers saw placards advertising the chat session in each store. ? Woodul knows what it's like to encounter resistance. She ran Apple Computer's ill-fated online venture, E-World, where corporate types often froze at the prospect of going online to chat. Now Woodul supervises an organization that produces 6.5 million hours of chat per month, 12 to 13 million minutes of chat per day, and has 2.5 million regular users. ? Writing in the Online-News listserv discussion, Alyssa Boehm of Extranet Solutions, a firm that specializes in developing and managing online communities, says: 'I have found that people who participate in such interactions tend to be more loyal to the product or the Web site where they've had the opportunity to interact.'
'For one of our clients -- I'm unable to disclose who it is -- we've found that interactivity equals about 6-8 more months of subscription to the product, compared with those who do not participate in the community,' says Boehm.
In a controversial move, The Washington Post recently dumped bulletin boards in favor of scheduled chats hosted by the newspaper's better-known staffers and columnists. ? In the Online-News listerv discussion, Rick L. Ellis, principal in the 'Rick on TV' Web site, observed that the Post's message boards were ineffective. 'My hunch is that management would have been more receptive to keeping the boards had they been thriving,' he says. 'And had they understood the culture involved.' ? The Post and other news sites can stir the pot and mitigate the cost of monitoring discussions by using volunteers who get small stipends or other perks, such as free archives access, Ellis says. Talk City and AOL use this strategy, although AOL's 'volunteers' recently rebelled and are demanding regular pay and benefits for their many hours of work. ? The trouble with many newspaper sites that do have bulletin board discussions or chat is that there's no follow-through, Ellis complains. 'Why have a TV section if your TV person never responds to questions?' he asks. 'What's the point of asking readers to comment on a story if the person or persons who wrote the piece never look at the responses? Message boards and chats have to be interactive, or there's just no point. In the best case situations, you offer them something special. A chance to ask columnists questions and have them answered is a good start. And it will draw people to the site.'
Indeed, most fans of virtual communities online say a chief benefit is return visits, and the positive feedback loop about a Web site that is created whenever interactivity is done well. ? Chris Ma, editor of the Washington Post's Web site, agrees, even though he was the person who killed his site's bulletin boards. He says it was due to a combination of factors, including the staleness of the topics, problems with the software and the unwieldy scope of the endeavor. ? 'It was an enormous resource question,' Ma explains. 'At the same time we had been experimenting with live chats with Post staff writers and editors... And we decided that was the way to use it and have [interactivity] working for our brand, because with scheduled 'talk' we gained much more benefit, much more mileage...' ? 'We don't want to be a common carrier for anybody who wants to say anything,' Ma adds. 'That doesn't play to the Post's position within our community or the meaning of the brand. It's a matter of what we can do that's different than what everyone else is doing...'
Ma sees Post writers and editors as a talent bank with which the community is already familiar.
'The more that sites can promote the specialness of their editorial/journalistic voices,' Ma says, 'the more unique your product is compared to others who don't have those resources to call upon.'
Live discussions, Ma adds, create a 'very different sense of kineticism about the site...It's more dynamic, there's more energy about the home page if something is happening right then.' ? Ma gets newsroom cooperation on a voluntary basis. 'We're doing a lot of proselytizing about why reporters should care, why it's not only valuable to the site but valuable to them,' Ma says. 'We're making a lot of headway.' ? Some online executives are critical of Ma's decision to kill bulletin boards, including Denver's Engdahl and Niles. Both say it's important to allow customers to interact on their own schedule, not just at prescribed times.
But neither the Denver Post Online nor InsideDenver.com have exploited newsroom resources as well as Ma does in Washington.
Engdahl wants to add live chats to his offerings but doesn't have the budget or the staff. 'I haven't taken the initiative to go to the newsroom and browbeat people, he says. 'I tried to do it during the Super Bowl and the sports people just ignored us.'
Talk City's Woodul understands the problem but counsels that scheduled events are essential. 'Any kind of regular thing you can set up is good,' Woodul says. 'People need to know that they can count on you.'
In the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy, people across the world logged onto Web sites to post their condolences and offer assistance. Judy Harrell chose InsideDenver.com to express her sympathies.
'Hi. My name is Judy and I'm a survivor of a very similar situation,' Harrell wrote in a message board post. '...I've overcome my tragedy... I'm here to listen and to offer any suggestions that I can. If you were one of the kids who was at the school that day or you know any of the kids or maybe you weren't there but are still affected by this senseless tragedy, then feel free to write me...' ? 'I'm just compelled to want to reach out to these kids and their families because I share a very similar experience,' Harrell says in an e-mail interview. 'Talking it out is the best medicine there is.' ? And, Harrell adds, 'I picked the site strictly because of the forums.'