The 'decline of online message boards' doesn't have to happen

Virginia Heffernan wrote this week on the New York Times website about Decline of the Online Message Board. Heffernan recalled several of the message boards that she frequented in the past, noting the precipitous decline in traffic on many in recent years.

While I have no doubt that many discussion boards have suffered under competition from social media hubs such as Facebook and Twitter, those sites aren’t killing off every board on the Internet. But board administrators will have to recognize their true purpose in publishing if they are to help their boards survive.

Why are some boards thriving while so many others whither over time? As with many other online efforts, the answer is found in its publishers’ commitment to community – not simply to amassing a collection of readers, but creating a true community where participants inform and care for one another.

Discussion boards, by themselves, are simply a tool – as are blogs, wikis, emails, text messages and, yes, even news articles. While any of these tools can provide value to a publication, as other tools come along to compete with it, these tools’ value to a publisher ultimately is measured by the value their content provides to readers and users.

Discussion boards proliferated online when they were easy to set up and provided the only way for large groups of people to communicate with one another. They’re still easy to set up, but now readers have so many other places to gather and communicate, such as Facebook, Twitter and now, Google+ (which I finally did get on, by the way. Here’s my link.)

Of course boards that can’t offer their readers something more than that competition are going to suffer. While that’s no big deal for cooperative boards, run by volunteers who never made any money from their sites and who are happy to shut down and let Facebook do all the work, this is a very big deal for publishers who grew to rely upon income from these boards.

If you’re earning a living from publishing, you ought to be paying attention to what’s happening to online discussion boards, and learning these lessons so that your publication doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Don’t focus on tools – focus on what you can do with them. Like newspaper publishers needed to learn to see their publications as something more than a collection of staff-written articles, discussion board admins needed to grow their sites from simple boards into true community hubs. That might mean expanding beyond the board to add blogging, news articles, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to provide multiple avenues of communication for readers. And it might mean that board administrators themselves grow from simply managing the board tool to becoming leaders willing to advocate for issues and causes in the community’s best interest (as the best newspaper publishers have done for generations).

Remember as well that as a publisher or a featured writer on a website, if the only way that people reading the site are communicating is with you or through you, you don’t have a true community. You have a kind of cult of personality, one that will whither without your daily participation. You must find ways to get readers engaged with each another, and ideally in ways that get them engaged with each another in common cause offline as well as on. Message boards can continue to be part of this mix, but if the board’s identity needs to extend beyond the board tool itself.

Your community must provide value to its financial supporters, too. This isn’t simply about selling advertisers access to your readers’ eyeballs (though that can be part of the financial value you provide) – this is about creating community engagement that creates value for people, businesses and organizations in your community who are willing to pay to support it.

Yeah, this is harder work than simply opening a vBulletin account. Not everyone who attempts this hard work will survive in the online publishing businesses, either. But those who do prosper will be the ones who have found ways to lead and develop communities that can grow beyond their message boards.

The Polecat Writes Back

Norman Tebbit may not be the most obvious of web journalism innovators. Soon to be celebrating his 79th birthday, Tebbit – until 1992 a Conservative Party MP, and now a Peer in the House of Lords – has been renowned for being one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies – even a potential successor at one point, a small ‘c’ as well as a capital ‘C’ conservative, and certainly a provocative figure.

For example, his retort in the early 1980s that unemployed rioters should ‘get on their bikes’ as his father did and look for work made him a hate figure on the Left. (Admittedly this did not take much effort, given the poisonous atmosphere of UK politics at the time.) He has spoken out against the European Union and even suggested that traditional Conservative voters should instead support the Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party, infuriating many in his own party.

In addition, some of his comments on race and multiculturalism have been equally controversial, though he has also denounced the neo-fascist British National Party. This abrasive, uninhibited approach earned him the nickname of ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ via the late Michael Foot, but also cemented his reputation as a hardman of the British mainstream right.

Despite this, he is also doing something very interesting on his blog, hosted by the web site of the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper. Namely, he replies to comments made by reader in the main body of his blog posts, structuring them as if taking part in an informal discussion:

I think “dirlada” was right. Any one in any walk of life may make honest mistakes, even sensible mistakes, but in that recent incest case it was over 100 people from 28 different agencies, all making some pretty obvious mistakes which was the worry. And right again, “Bionic Raspberry”. What about the offenders and the extended family too?

Oh, “crownarmourer”, what a temptation! Me as Lord Protector. No, I do not think so. I sussed out how power corrupted him when I was a 15-year-old history student.

Again, I must tell “incensed” that I simply am not Mr Tebbit. I lost that title. I don’t mind Tebbit, Norman or, as cabbies usually address me, “Norm” but I am not “Mr”. And I hope that you still might see the difference between the EU and the USSR. Millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others who have experienced both can do so. Oh, and just a thought: were not the progenitors of the BNP ready to sell out to Hitler?

Whereas other columnists may occasionally reply to comments as commenters themselves, Tebbit seems unwilling to maintain such a barrier between blog and response. Instead he selects what he believes are either the most interesting posts made, or the ones that he believes require the most refutation. This is curiously inventive, cementing as it does, a direct connection between him and his readers. If we consider that online journalism’s strength is that it allows such a two-way conversation, even in a textual medium, then Tebbit is unusual in that he treats this as an essential part of the process, but also leaves aside the traditional aloofness of the journalist in doing so. He blogs, they read, they comment, he reads in turn and comments in turn. It is both cyclical and personable, but also an acceptance that what the reader says and thinks is at least as worthy of consideration as what the author writes, within some parameters – Tebbit still chooses what to reply to, whereas the reader still chooses what to comment on.

Tebbit also refers to each commentator by name, or at least, screen name. Again, this implies a greater intimacy between reader and author, but also a shared subjectivity – Tebbit picks comments, not all of which he agrees with, but answers them in a personalised and informal fashion:

As for “john the bear” I am just sorry that he has so little faith in his country. He fears that if the UK left the EU our former partners would set out to destroy us. They are not that stupid. They export more to us than we to them. They would be the bigger losers. And they would be in breach of the GATT…

…I should apologise to “blustering colonel” for ignoring his kind invitation to visit Singapore. I have been there many times, the first of them in 1954, so I am not unaware of the immense achievements of Lee Kwan Yu and the people of Singapore. Indeed I only wish that we had had more leaders like him here.

We might have been as successful as Singapore, but we only had one, and she was not leader for long enough.

Whilst Tebbit’s politics may not be seen as always desirable by either this author or many OJR readers, to dismiss them or how Tebbit articulates them is to ignore how he has developed a currently unique relationship with his readers. The closest equivalent may be the ‘ombudsman’ employed by some US news organisations, who uses his or her column to respond to reader/viewer queries and complaints. The main difference between these however is that the ombudsman still retains his or her distance from the reader – he is an emissary of the ‘writer’, embodied in this case by the hierarchy of the newsroom – and responds to missives from otherwise passive readers, but only on his or her terms and in an official – or even officious – capacity.

Tebbit meanwhile does choose what to reply to, but beyond that is an openness to a variety of comments. Tebbit may not necessarily agree with some commenters but still lists some of their more notable comments and responds to them accordingly:

I noticed amongst those posting comments on this site a number of contributors, john the bear cub, Matthew Gris, mark999, frederik and others telling me the EU is a done deal, a good thing, and that I should shut up and learn to love it. Oddly enough, as mickeypee and rapscallion pointed out, none of them explain why we should put up with a government we did not elect and cannot change compelling us to do things which are clearly not in our interest.

Oliver was not convinced by my explanation of why the main parties are pro EU and asked me why Cameron is so, too. Well, I simply do not know. He has not told me.

I thought basset was a bit grumpy. He forgets that I stood down from the Cabinet and refused invitations to go back. And to suggest that I have more influence over voters than David Cameron is a bit unrealistic. If it were true, then perhaps Camp Cameron would ask themselves why.

The views exhibited are in fact varied, despite the political bias one might assume of a blogger who as a rule tends to delete or ignore posts that are not in line with his own views. Steven Duncombe’s fears in 1997 that the World Wide Web would simply facilitate a myriad of ‘virtual ghettos’ or echo chambers* have often been realised many times, yet Tebbit’s blog has become an unlikely alternative – there may be no agreement, but nor is disagreement dismissed out of hand or shouted down. Tebbit allows commenters to disagree with him, and simply disagrees in turn.

How best to contextualise this? Conservative media figures, primarily in the United States, have always demonstrated a strong rapport with their audiences, as demonstrated by the success of right-wing ‘shock jocks’ such as Rush Limbaugh and latterly Glen Beck. Yet this does not take into account, for example, the considerable differences that exist between American and British schools of conservatism.

Equally, it does not acknowledge that right wing broadcast media is precisely that: a powerful figure speaks to a mute but appreciative audience – and it is this authoritativeness as opposed to Tebbit’s openness with his audience that defines this sub-genre. Of course, many ‘shock jocks’ reply to e-mails and letters on their shows, but again this is more akin to the traditional ‘postbag’ section in both print and broadcast media, whereas – as said – Tebbit is much more willing to interact with his readers, without prompting. It is obvious from the tone and the ease that he undertakes this that it is through choice. The writer has become the listener.

It is what Nicholas Carr refers to as ‘Conservative Innovation’, wherein the innovative is combined with the old and established in order to create something genuinely new and promising. Carr did of course refer to this in the context of industrial production, but given its technological nature, it can also be applied to Tebbit’s blog. He combines the conservative with the electronic, the journalistic with the informal, and in doing so, creates a new kind of conversation between him and his audience.

* Stephen Duncombe, Notes From Underground ‘Zines And The Politics Of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997), p.72

It's time for the newspaper industry to die

My wife pointed me to a recent Chicago Tribune profile of violinist Rachel Barton Pine. The story itself is amazing, that of a promising solo artist whose career was jeopardized in a freak commuter train accident but who fought back to continue her career. Beyond that, though, the article’s play on the Tribune’s website illustrated, for me, some of the challenges that continue to frustrate so many people and companies in the newspaper business.

Howard Reich’s profile is a great piece of newspaper reporting. My wife and I were stunned by level of detail and fresh information the Tribune classical music writer found in this decade-old story. [Full disclosure: Pine maintains her personal blog on my wife’s website, an online community for violinists.] The Tribune story truly is an outstanding example of what this industry does best. There’s even original video to supplement it online. So why should this work, in any way, be representative of some problem?

The problem wasn’t with anything that happened up until the moment of this article’s publication in the newspaper. The problems developed later, once the piece went on the Web, with the public’s reaction to the story.

A member on my wife’s website sent her a note tipping her to the piece. But the member wondered if the story was “legitimate.” Since the member did not live in the Midwest, she – believe it or not – had not heard of the Chicago Tribune and did not know that it was a newspaper. All she knew was that she’d stumbled onto an extraordinarily long piece and she wondered if it had been commissioned by Pine herself.

It’s too easy to forget that, as powerful as newspaper brands might be in their local markets, most consumers don’t know the names of any newspapers from cities where they haven’t lived. Maybe they know the big national papers, such as the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal. Heck, even news professional don’t know the identity of many small- and medium-market papers. I’ve lost count of the times my wife and I have tried to link to a newspaper story from our websites, only to be frustrated by our inability to figure out just where in the world the “Pioneer Herald,” or whatever, is located because the publication didn’t bother putting its city’s name on its website.

Brands have power only to those familiar with them. For everyone else, they’re left to make a guess about a publication’s credibility only on the basis of the content they see on that first page they click to on the publication’s website.

In this case, the reader found a tiny byline, with no link to the author’s impressive biography. Much online content is driven by personality, from individual blogs, discussion forum responses, personal profiles to YouTube mash-ups. This truly is a writer’s medium. So an article without a prominent byline, or blogger ID, prompts many readers to wonder “just where is this coming from?” Especially if it doesn’t read like a typical, dry, straight off the wire, conventional news report, as Reich’s engaging profile did not.

Newspapers employ some of the best writers in their communities. They ought to be treating those writers as the valuable assets they are, and providing them the same level of credit on their stories that top bloggers take on their posts. Where are the mugshots, the links to biographies and to other stories written by the same author? That information isn’t there just to stroke a writer’s ego; it should be there to help establish that writer’s credibility with a potentially global online audience.

But what really got me shaking my head were the comments reacting to the article. [More disclosure: The Tribune’s comments section runs on the Topix platform, and Topix is a financial supporter of OJR.]

As of when I wrote this piece, the Pine article had elicited more than 160 comments from readers. Some of the comments ripped into Pine and the article, often based on widespread misinformation about Pine that Reich refuted in the piece. (Initial reports said that Pine was run over by a commuter train when she refused to let go of the strap to her multi-million-dollar violin, which was trapped in the train’s door. Reich reported that the strap had wound around Pine’s arm, making it impossible for her to free herself.) Other readers tried to correct them, and flame wars broke out all over the section, as the comments drifted from diatribes on the treatment of Iraq War veterans to arguments about jury verdicts. (Pine won a multi-million dollar judgment against the train agency.)

Nowhere in the comments section, however, did readers hear anything from a staffer at the Tribune. No one with that authority stepped in to admonish the rude, correct those who posted wrong information, or to respond to those who had questions about the story. Without that leadership, the Tribune lost the opportunity to forge a community based on these readers’ common interest in this engaging story. Readers were left just to argue among themselves.

The hostility and confusion in this article’s comments section reflected upon the Tribune’s credibility, to that member of my wife’s website. She, and other readers, saw a leader-less debate. Might they not wonder if the rest of this site lacked leadership as well? Or, if they’d wandered onto another unmoderated forum, of the type that litter so much of the Web?

That someone might jump to such a conclusion on a website run by an organization with the reporting power and local credibility of the Chicago Tribune probably makes no sense to people within the news industry. But few readers are industry insiders. They have little or no concept how this sausage gets made.

I love computers. I love the power of smart computer programming to help enable and encourage smart online communities. But programs alone don’t do squat. Every responsible online community needs, and has, human leadership in addition to useable tools. Newspaper newsrooms need to extend the production cycle of their content beyond the moment of an article’s publication in print. Reporters and editors need to stay engaged with a piece so long as people are commenting on it and linking to it. Otherwise, they are squandering their chance to use that amazing content as the foundation to build the communities that can sustain market success online. Who wants to belong to the fight club?

Yes, I sympathize with overworked, underpaid reporters who wonder how the heck they’re going to get the paper out tomorrow with 10 percent, or more, of their colleagues being shown the door by a panicked management. The last thing they want is another set of responsibilities, especially for articles they’ve already written and published. There’s another paper to get out tomorrow, after all.

That’s why it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the newspaper industry to reform its basic production processes to support online community building, so long as the industry sees itself as the “newspaper” industry.

That’s why it is time for the “newspaper” industry to die.

Words matter. So long as newsrooms see themselves as “newspapers,” the needs of that medium will dictate the organization’s production process. And things like online community management will be left to automated tools, and, maybe, a few supplemental staffers.

I’m not arguing that newsrooms should stop printing papers. They should continue, as they should offer their work in any medium for which there is significant public demand. But the day quickly approaches when successful news businesses will liberate themselves from the term “newspaper company.”

Only then can they end their focus on the old way of doing things and fully accept the possibility of a completely new one. One where reporters become as mildly concerned with production of a printed newspaper product as they have been with the production of the online one until now.

Great content and great tools are not enough to build the large, habitual audience that content publishers will need to maximize their opportunities to make money online, through advertising and sales. Even more than those two things, a website needs great engagement with its readers. And engagement with the public is something that’s been budgeted out of too many newsrooms over the past generation.

It’s time to bring that back. It’s time to do that online. And if a beloved label needs to be sacrificed to inspire the innovation that will enable this effort, so be it. It’s time for the “newspaper” industry to die. Because we all need the news industry to survive.