Get your geek on is like the smart-aleck in the back of the class. It’s sharp and saavy, and it’s not afraid to crack a sex joke about dinosaurs. For that, the irreverent 3-year-old science and technology news site took home a 2007 Online Journalism Award in the Specialty Journalism (large sites) category, beating out and

LiveScience “did a good job of keeping an often static subject fresh and new and you really had a sense they are on top of it,” according to the ONA press release. The judges also lauded the site’s “top-notch use of multimedia” and mix of user and expert voices on a topic that “can get static and old very quickly,” according to Ruth Gersh, co-chair of the 2007 awards.

What’s their secret? OJR chatted on the phone with Anthony Duignan-Cabrera, Editorial Director of Consumer Media at LiveScience’s parent company, Imaginova, to find out. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: What do you do at LiveScience?

Duignan-Cabrera: I oversee what types of stories we’re using, and if we can bring new partners. I’ve been with Imaginova for eight years. It’d been launched as, and I’d always been interested in space.

OJR: What’s LiveScience’s mission?

Duignan-Cabrera: We make science not boring. We think science news should be relevant, funny and engaging. The reader should come to the site and leave smarter after five minutes.

OJR: How are you better than your competitors?

Duignan-Cabrera: Our competitors – the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, and other mainstream organizations that reach a broad audience – their news has a lack of irreverence and that “gee whiz” factor. Some of the things they cover are obscure for the public. We want readers to think: I should care about that – whether it be global climate change or how things work in the workplace.

OJR: Can you give some specific examples of how you respond to your readers?

Duignan-Cabrera: We looked at what science stories are very popular among our competitive set as well as at general subjects that are hot right now. We tweak our coverage and watch where our traffic goes.

Last year, we gave our site a major redesign, which took six to eight months. We made accessing our stories easier, especially the top 10 lists and image galleries. We’re expanding how our reporters use our blogs. We increased our environmental coverage, because we realized there was an interest. We always pay attention to how people are going through the site. We track the stories and how the users use the stories they read to go through our site.

OJR: What’s your advice to journalists trying to improve their sites?

Duignan-Cabrera: Pick a concept, and then observe what your users like and what your competitors are not doing. If there’s a need, fill it. If the readers want more of something, give it to them. Depending on the topic, they might want more pictures or video.

We make fun of things that are dry. We have them take quizzes. We cover the top 10 ancient capitals of the world, taboos, and myths about sex.

OJR: I recently covered a panel discussion at Annenberg that featured scientists and science journalists, and there was a lot of talk about how inadequate science reporting is in general. Some people blame on the public being science-illiterate. What are your views on the state of science journalism?

Duignan-Cabrera: The scientist, the academics that live in their ivory towers depend on public funding, and the only way to get support is to engage the public. That aside, not everyone’s an astrophysicist, and there’s a way of explaining the coolness of it that entertains as well as educates. Learning should be fun, not funny or goofy, or exploitative. It shouldn’t be like cod liver oil! It should be “neat” and “cool” and all those different adjectives.

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Q&A: Topix CEO Chris Tolles on adding user comments to 61 newspaper sites

News forum Topix seeks to power local conversation in every city in America. It announced Tuesday a deal to provide MediaNews Group with online discussion and article commenting capabilities for each of the publisher’s 61 daily newspapers.

OJR chatted with Topix CEO Chris Tolles about how the partnership works and what it means for the future of citizen journalism. Below is an edited transcript. [Note: Topix is a financial supporter of OJR. As a result, OJR editor Robert Niles did not participate in the reporting or editing of the story, which was edited by OJR graduate assistant editor Noah Barron.]

OJR: What happens in a Topix and media company partnership? What’s the benefit to media companies?

Tolles: It’s a no-brainer for them. They get content up without any work on their part. There’s additional ad inventory. And there are opportunities down the road for them to actually integrate their journalism and the commentary – using forums as a place to get stories, to take the pulse of the community.

The opportunity in the partnership is to work with several different large networks and a massive audience that federates between them, and to monetize that.

OJR: You take the comments on newspaper articles and cross-post to Topix sites.

Tolles: Right, if someone comments on an article about the New England Patriots in MediaNews Group’s Lowell, Massachusetts newspaper, it appears in the Lowell paper as well as to the New England Patriots section on Topix and on the Topix local page. Likewise, a comment on the Patriots page on Topix will also go into the newspaper page. It feeds off each other to create greater utility out of that same comment, filling up empty room. It also drives more traffic back to the original story.

OJR: Have you learned lessons from previous partnerships that you plan to apply to MediaNews Group?

Tolles: We want to make sure that we engage with their local sites quickly. Essentially, the more input and feeling of participation that the people who work there have, the better they’ll feel. I think that’s the biggest lesson. The other challenge is for us to figure out how what we’re doing isn’t just an adjunct of what they’re doing, but rather central to their mission.

OJR: Are people at newspapers resistant to the integration?

Tolles: Not on the online side, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a news editor that likes unedited comments on their site. News editors would want to vet every comment, which would kill the whole system.

OJR: Are you looking at other partnerships? What are you doing in the future?

Tolles: We are. We are also working on another product, a hyperlocal editing platform. On Topix, we have a “wires” page with a whole list of articles we’ve crawled from the Net. We also have a “news” page that can either be automated with an algorithm to figure out the top story every couple of hours, or managed by an editor who pulls stories from the wires or the Web to create a custom news page. This page is centered around a subject or topic. Ideally you get three or four people from the community to take charge of this and an editor who walks in once in a while to make sure nothing’s wrong. It’s a way to create a micro-targed news section with very little editorial on top of it.

For example, if the LA Times wanted to create a page for Silver Lake, you could have an editor feature the paper’s Silver Lake stories on the site, solicit comments, and solicit first person reporting from the community. We have a whole system to manage all that. We’re working to provide that syndicated product to other people now.

OJR: The upside of those pages is obviously matching them to local advertising.

Tolles: Monetization, absolutely. It provides a way of creating more product for less money. MediaNews Group and Topix share revenue from ads on the comment and forum pages.

OJR: Let’s talk about your competitors. One of them is Google. In August, Google announced that they were asking people featured in news articles to comment. What’d you think of that?

Tolles: I was very worried about that. But if you’re only going to allow people featured in the article to comment, then it’s going to be a boutique, hand-cranked feature that requires a very, very high editorial touch. And Google’s not the high editorial touch kind of place. That was launched three or four months ago, and I don’t think it’s had any effect. Google’s our number one advertiser, and they’re a great partner of ours. I just don’t think they’re going to compete with us in this area.

OJR: Which competitors are you worried about then?

Tolles: There’s no one person doing what we do. Yahoo! had comments on all of their articles until last December. They have a lot more resources that could be aimed at us than Google. They don’t mind putting content on their site. So they have all the pieces to build a much more effective weapon against us. They just have not done so.

Pluck provides comment sections to newspapers, but they don’t have their own websites. They compete for partner business.

OJR: Up until earlier this year, Topix didn’t use human editors. Why’d you add them?

Tolles: Topix has gone for a volume strategy – getting the most people who can participate in your online community and trying to automate the process of moderation to take out true horror from the commentary. The same automated system we use to aggregate and categorize news content, we use in the commentary space. We hide about 10% of all comments before they ever hit the site. We optimized the automated system for growth. If the comments are too horrible, then people stop commenting. If you take too many comments out, then you don’t grow as fast.

We’re about freedom of speech, but a newspaper, for example, might have a much different editorial sense. We’re OK with hot-blooded comments. Some newspapers aren’t. It comes down to making a better product.

There’s a cultural problem: Newspapers don’t want to see bad comments. An editor is almost viscerally offended by an insensitive comment. We’re not. If you come in with the attitude that 1% of comments are great, then the challenge becomes how to escalate the good comments out of the mass of bad commentary.

OJR: Enter citizen journalism?

Tolles: The New York Times is not going to emerge fully formed out of a comment system, but the New York Times isn’t the desired result either. Ideally, with citizen reporters – I don’t want to say “journalists” because “journalism” has certain ethical and stylistic burdens – you’ll see several different reports of the same thing, and you, as the reader, will have to make the decision yourself on what really happened, what’s true and what’s not. A newspaper generally tries to provide an analyzed result, a fair and balanced report of what happened. What the Internet did to travel agencies, it’s going to do to journalism. Travel agents used to have recommendations for hotels, now they say, “Go choose yourself. If you make a mistake, it’s your fault.” An article becomes the start of a product, not the product itself.

Reporters aren’t graded on how many people read their articles. They’re not judged on whether their articles made money. In the last decade or two, reporters tend to think the Pulitzer is the ultimate recognition. Pulitzers are decided by other journalists. At the end of the day, what does that matter? Getting commentary, getting people excited, changes what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to create the most politicized, polarizing article possible. You want to get right in the middle and throw a hand grenade. That’s what people used to do in newspapers.

The beauty of this is maybe we’ll help bring journalism back to its origins. The golden age of newspapers was when they made you angry or made you happy. They weren’t boring. They heart of journalism is not where it is today. Fox News is the closest thing we have to real journalism. It’s successful.

If you’re going to do something, do something that people will like. I’m sick of this idea that journalism’s a priesthood. It’s not. The First Amendment covers all of us, not just journalists. There are no specific privileges that journalists should have that aren’t afforded to everybody. Why don’t you just do something that people will want to read and talk about?

The Internet being the first mass two-way communications medium gives you the opportunity to get people involved. The way to do that is to talk about issues that no one wants to talk about that have historically caused the most commotion. That’s what newspapers should do. Instead, newspapers say: Let’s not talk about the homeless in San Francisco because people are going to be upset. No, the goal is to get people upset. That’s what citizen journalism brings to the party. That is destiny. There’s no fighting it. That is the way it will be.

OJR: But we’ve seen recently how citizen journalism can lead to tragic results. Are there ethical problems with building a platform that enables something like that to happen?

Tolles: I believe in the purloined letter approach. You need to make sure that there’s an information overload on any given person so it’ll take a lot more to ruin their lives. There are limits of what I want to see online, but those limits are a lot different than what a typical newspaper editor would have. You have to honor the scale of the problem. If your requirement is to have no bad comments, then you’ll have four comments on your site. I’ll have 80,000 a day. At the end of the day, I’m a big fan of supply and demand. Those are the real laws of the world. As long as there’s a demand, we’re going to create a supply. If your religion prohibits you from dealing with reality, you should probably change your religion.

OJR: Is that the general feeling in the Web 2.0 community?

Tolles: Web 2.0 is all about bringing people into the conversation and making the media, the product of Hollywood and New York, into the starting point of more interesting conversations.

As for the commercial aspect, well, I think journalists should all be publishers. They should all be responsible for bringing in an audience and monetizing that audience. If you’re disconnected from that, then you’re inherently not understanding your profession.

OJR: Lastly, do you have any plans to expand globally?

Tolles: We rolled out Canadian news a couple years ago. Probably would have been better if we rolled out in the UK because the advertising dollars are higher there. But I don’t think we have any plans to go global more than to license our stuff to a foreign partner. We’ve had several conversations with large publisher coalitions in other countries – we might sell the Topix system in the German language, for example. But there’s enough market in the US to be successful.

The thing is, how do you get newspapers to think about communities as an opportunity? MediaNews Group looks at it like they’ve got to do this. That’s pretty forward thinking.

How social media can help shape society

Building on July’s YouTube/CNN presidential debate, has opened a new channel of communication between the public and the presidential hopefuls.

Welcome to the agora of the 21st century: 10 Questions is a people-powered platform for presidential politics created by Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry of techPresident and high school physics teacher David Colarusso, who also runs a site called Community Counts. Anyone can upload a video question for the candidates. The public votes on the questions it wants to see answered, and the candidates respond to the top 10 questions.

Will such a forum bring the democracy of the Internet to politics? OJR spoke on the phone with 10 Questions co-creator and self-described “technical guy” for the site, David Colarusso. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: 10 Questions is based on the technology of your site, Community Counts. How did Community Counts get its start?

Colarusso: Back in the beginning of this year, YouTube began spotlighting individual candidates on its page by posting a video of the candidate asking the community a question. YouTube users were then invited to submit video responses. Lastly, the candidate responded to these responses. For example, the first question was by Mitt Romney: “What do you believe is America’s single greatest challenge?”. I submitted a response, and luckily, the first two candidates replied to my videos.

It became obvious to us users after a while that there wasn’t a good mechanism for the candidates to understand what the community valued. We thought the community should have some say as to what they wanted to see the candidate respond to. So we said, why don’t we just survey everyone? That turned into Community Counts.

When the YouTube/CNN debate came along, I had the tools necessary for people to vote on those questions. We got a good deal of press coverage. We had a lot of users: 30,000 votes by 6,000 voters. That got the attention of the people of techPresident.

After the debate was over, we thought about what we wanted to see happen, and that turned into 10 Questions.

OJR: How is 10 Questions different from the YouTube/CNN debates?

Colarusso: There are some rather profound differences. The primary one is that we’re doing this as a people-powered forum, not a debate. It’s a discussion with the candidates. The YouTube debate allowed people to ask questions, but CNN had the ultimate say in choosing the final videos. YouTube also took away the features that let users see their peers’ most popular videos. Community Counts allowed the users to vote on the questions themselves, to prioritize them. We pose the question: Do you think this should be asked of the candidates? Community Counts shows that when you ask that you get serious stuff.

Another difference is that we offer the ability for the community to comment on the candidates’ replies and to rate whether the question was answered.

OJR: As of this morning, 10 Questions had about 76,000 votes and 160 videos. What is the traffic like? How do you add traffic to the site? What do you expect in the final week?

Colarusso: We’ll probably get about 100,000 votes by November 14. The videos come in spurts as different groups get interested.

The idea of leveraging the wisdom of the crowds – that a group of people together can make better decisions – works when the crowd is diverse. The two ways we try to get diversity is to make the audience very large and to reach out to different populations. We have a collection of 40 cross-partisan “sponsors,” such as the Huffington Post, Hugh Hewitt, DailyKos, BET. There is no financial relationship. The sponsors let their readers and viewers know what’s going on over here. We have a nice mix of left and right voters.

OJR: How can you tell the political leaning of your visitors?

Colarusso: We can only say where they’re coming from – our main referring sites (our sponsors) have a nice mix.

As for traffic, there are different drivers. Up to today, we’ve seen three major spikes. (We can tell by looking at the history for each of the videos – the top two videos would show these spikes.)

The first spike was our initial launch. In terms of unique individual visitors to the site, we had about 5,000. There was a peak of 7,000 visitors per day during the launch period.

The second spike in traffic, with a peak of about 11,000 individual visitors to the site, was on October 29, during Barack Obama’s MySpace/MTV dialogue. We had worked it out so that the top ten questions on our site at the time would be asked. sent an e-mail to their users telling them to vote on videos. It generated a lot of attention and traffic. The result was that a question on net neutrality shot up to number one, and it’s still currently the top video. The following week there were discussions on the legitimacy of They were accused of “astroturfing”. We don’t think it’s the right characterization. Sending out an e-mail asking people to vote doesn’t guarantee that everyone will vote.

We do have safeguards on our site – only one vote per IP address allowed. At the end of round one [on November 14, when the top ten questions will be submitted to the candidates], we’ll start an auditing process to further refine those safeguards.

This last weekend, there was another spike of about 6,400 unique visitors, resulting in the question, “Is America unofficially a theocracy?” climbing into the current number two spot. A blogger had posted an entry asking his readers to vote on two questions on religion and politics. It took off like crazy after someone dugg the blog entry. It got a couple thousand diggs, and generated a lot of traffic. So in the course of the weekend, it pushed these questions right up to the top 10. Certainly this is not astroturfing. This is not an organized e-mail list. People came and stayed around to vote on other questions.

We’re big on being transparent. We’ve been blogging each day about the traffic. As of today, we’ve had about 65,000 unique visitors total since the site started. We’re pretty happy that these individual people came to vote, and then stayed around to vote on other videos. On average people voted on about three videos. That’s promising.

In the last peak, there were fewer unique voters but more voting. It’s interesting to see how these numbers are correlated. This is the mystery of the Web – how people participate.

OJR: Have you any idea which campaign is more Web-organized than others, in terms of submitting videos to the site or getting their supporters to vote?

Colarusso: It’s a tricky question. You see, you might have a small group that’s good at mobilizing its members – but it has few members. I can tell you that over the life of the site, we’ve got in the top ten list of referring sites (in rough order): digg, blogspot [both from last week’s spike], Crooks&Liars, MSNBC, Hugh Hewitt at Townhall, TalkingPointsMemo, HotAir, and Conservative Grapevine.

OJR: One of the hot topics surrounding the democracy of Internet-based forums is: Are the questions better? Smarter? More original? More relevant? What are your thoughts?

Colarusso: I think they’re definitely diverse, and that’s one of the main things we’re trying to get at – a sense of what our community, our visitors think are questions that should be asked. So it’s hard not to succeed with that rubric [laughs].

It’s interesting to note that these questions are different from the normal questions. I think that means they’re adding something. Policy-specific questions, such as net neutrality, or questions about whether America is unofficially a theocracy are obviously what this community feels strongly about.

OJR: What can journalists learn from this public forum?

Colarusso: An interesting question, but hard to answer at the moment. This is something that has to run its course. There could be another spike tomorrow and everything could change. This will work best when we have the most number of users participating. That’s when we’ll have the most diverse sample. The lesson might just be that there is a desire on people’s part to have this access to candidates. We see a lot of student voices, students asking questions. We see the participation of people who might not normally feel like they have access. It’s entirely egalitarian. We’re not promoting any one viewpoint. We’re just letting people decide. I think people very much appreciate that feeling that what you get is the will of the community.

OJR: Will the informal style of Internet home videos put an end to the sound-bite-driven style of politics on TV?

Colarusso: One of our goals is to provide a forum to allow politicians to move away from sound bites. It has to do with what we’re looking for. With all these debates on TV, candidates say they don’t get the chance to give nuanced answers. We’re giving them a month to submit answers. They’ll actually have to live up to that.

Additionally, having the community rate their answers lets the candidate know that they have an engaged community. And we hope that that will also provide an impetus for a more substantive answer.

As far as the informality of the questions, I think the main benefit is to put a human face on people who ask the questions, to make people feel more engaged when they are watching someone that looks more like them.

OJR: Is anyone analyzing or tabulating all the questions you’ve gotten?

Colarusso: We’re keeping tabs on it – trying to give commentary as we go. We’re providing data on votes and history. I’m definitely interested in seeing what the final tally looks like. There’s a lot to glean there.