Online technology can help any website use people, not pundits, to drive public debate

My mind spent much of its thoughts this week on the U.S. presidential campaign – specifically, on this week’s, final, debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. What inspires me to write this piece, though, is the disconnect between some of the hired pundits who watched, and reacted to, the debate and the “snap” polls conducted of viewers after the event.

CNN’s John King, for one, called the debate for McCain, only to have his own network’s snap poll show that the viewers, resoundingly, thought Obama the winner. That got me thinking about the opinion sections that many newspapers run in print, and on their websites.

Many now run Web polls where any reader can click to vote which candidate won a debate or to show which position on an issue they support. These polls of self-selected readers can be useful in eliciting discussion, but are worthless in providing good data about the public’s collective opinion on something.

But online polls don’t have to be garbage. The same technology can be tweaked easily to enable a previously selected, demographically balanced, random sample of individuals to log in and record their votes on an issue, such as a local candidates’ debate.

So, why not? Why not provide marry online technology with random-sampling techniques to build a readers’ panel than provides a scientifically accurate measure of your community’s response to important issues? Why ask a hired reporter or pundit to guess the public’s reaction to something when you have the ability to gauge the public’s reaction directly?

Several large news organizations commission public opinion surveys on a regular basis. I’m suggesting something less ambitious than that, something cheaper and faster, using online polling exclusively.

Who won a debate is a great application for this technology because the call of a winner is purely a matter of opinion. There is no empirical evidence that one can tap to render an indisputable judgment on a candidate debate, as one might use a tape measure to determine how far atheletes had launched a shot put, for example.

News organizations still need critics and commentators, people who can put an issue, or a debate performance, into a broader perspective and challenge readers or viewers to consider a different point of view. For things that can be judged with “tape measure” accuracy, such as voting records and scientific research, we also need reporters who make or report those measurements to better inform the public. (These are very different responsibilities than simply reciting partisan talking points, or shilling 24/7 for one party, as too many news pundits now do.)

Technology has made obsolete the need for pundits to tell us how we think. I asked on my Facebook page, “How many times does a Washington pundit get to be wrong before s/he is fired?” (To which Huffington Post political editor Marc Cooper replied: “4,000?”).

I’d love to hear from news organizations that are using online polling, not just for fun, but for serious, random-sample audience reaction. E-mail me via my blog page if you have a story you’d like to share with OJR readers. Or if you’d just like some guidance on how to make this happen. If there’s demand, and I think there should be, I’d be happy to help find a way to get more news organizations using better public opinion polling techniques online.

Newspapers need to learn that great online communities should not be dictatorships

I had a conversation yesterday with a former colleague, who, like many online journalists, is trying to steer his newspaper toward a more Web-savvy future. As we were wrapping up, he mentioned that he had to go to a meeting of his paper’s “standards and practices” committee.

The what? I asked.

“Yeah, we have a standards and practices committee,” he said. “We’re supposed to figure out policies about managing user-generated content, hyperlinking and stuff like that.”

Why don’t you just crowdsource that? I asked.

He rolled his eyes, said “I know,” then proceeded to detail some of the reasons why the paper’s old guard had shot down his proposal to do just that. The reasons boiled down to two: 1) We don’t trust outsiders to know what we ought to be doing, so 2) we’re not comfortable letting “outsiders” influence decisions about internal operations.

What a wasted opportunity. What better way to help readers feel part of a community with the paper than to ask those readers to help craft the community’s rules?

And how arrogant, at the same time. While newspaper journalists and managers might not yet understand them, the online community into which newsrooms are entering does have established conventions for linking and conversing. Good ones, too.

I know that many news reporters have struggled with writing hypertext. At most papers, reporters have just given up and leave the hyperlinking to automated tools on the paper’s website. (Which can leads to hysterical results, such as a New York Times feature on Pasadena, Calif. that initially linked references to the city’s Colorado Boulevard to… a Times archive of stories about the state of Colorado.)

But the Web offers newsrooms thousands of readers, and could-be readers, who’ve been writing hyperlinks into stories for years. Many more have been reading linked text, and understand the conventions of the form. Why not ask them for advice?

You can’t hyperlink every noun with a website — writers must preserve the usability of their work. Experienced bloggers can share their advice on when to link, as print vets can raise some of the questions that they need to consider. Fairness, for example. What happens when you want to link to an elected official’s website? Do you link to her office’s page, or her campaign website? It could depend upon the context of the story.

In the give and take, print veterans making the transition to online can do so with experienced guidance, while readers can learn more about the decisions reporters make when deciding what to include, or exclude, from a news story.

Same with handling user-generated content. If I’ve learned anything from running reader-driven discussion sites over the past decade, it is that the readers are themselves the most fierce defenders of good discussion communities. They’ve seen too many communities wrecked by poor oversight, inconsistent moderation and ill-conceived software. Let them tell you what they want from a discussion community, and what should happen to folks who don’t comply.

Trust me, the even the most Web-savvy newspaper newsrooms can’t offer a fraction of experience with and passion for online publishing that a reader community can. Publishers need readers, but readers online have so many choices that they don’t need to go where they are not wanted, or even where they are not courted.

So why not court them?

Let me anticipate another objection to crowdsourcing your practices: the spam, outrage and babbling that infects so many comment sections and message boards. Open up and ask for advice, and you’re giving your readers the chance to upload with every petty grievance and conspiracy theory they have.

Let ’em. Let ’em get it all out; suffer the indignity of it all, but don’t shut down the board and quit. Show your readers that you have no fear of their voice, and that you will work with them to take out the garbage and build a better community that works for everyone, newsroom and readers alike.

Just in time for election season, virtual debates at

U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree 85 percent on 108 issues. Sen. John McCain and his Republican Party: 61 percent on 31 issues. Obama-McCain? See for yourself. is a new wiki opinion forum that allows users to hold public figures, organizations and themselves up to one another like baseball cards and compare the stats—their stands on various issues—listed on the back.

Here’s how it works: A staffer or reader poses an issue. Then, once approved, anyone is invited to weigh in on that issue and submit a yes-or-no stance. Individuals can then compare themselves to their friends, other users or even public figures, who also submit their opinions.

Well, not exactly. A public figure’s reported stance on any issue is only as accurate as users’ ability to dig up and present the evidence thereof. For example, Barack Obama did not actually log on to to offer his stance on gay marriage. Rather, user brianr posted the evidence plucked from the senator’s website and voting history. Users and staff verified it, and others are now invited to “take a stand” of their own on the issue… or even compare Obama to, oh, some other politician and see where they stack up on all debates.

It can be an increasingly fuzzy line between fact and spin out there. That’s where this (almost-)straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth opinion aggregator comes in. Unclear about what Clinton really thinks about dropping out after Pennsylvania? The evidence is there, in her words. Wondering where McCain might fall on an untapped issue? Create a new debate and wait for a junkie to dig up the evidence. Not what Dan Abrams says McCain’s stance is. What McCain says McCain’s stance is.

Of course, it’s not all election speak at, where recent opinions range from home-field advantage in the World Series to the circulation of the U.S. penny. But until November, the site does make for a handy political cheat sheet for our esteemed candidates. OJR traded e-mails with president and founder Nick Oliva to find out more about the logic behind an opinion wiki and how it might help voters decide whom they really support.

OJR: Why What void are you filling on the Web?

Nick Oliva: has a unique model whereby users post the opinions of public figures and organizations (and other users verify these) on the same issues on which members take stands. This makes the only comprehensive source on the Web for finding the user-verified opinions of anyone on any issue and for comparing people to each other based on their opinions.

Additionally, issues on are translatable, meaning that the opinions are readable, searchable, and comparable in any language into which they have been translated. The implication of this is that a Spanish-speaking user can see in Spanish where he agrees and disagrees with the candidates for an election in Japan.

OJR: All submitted issues are reviewed for accuracy by staff and users alike. Can you talk about that process? How has it worked out so far, and what sort of issues have you had to turn away?

NO: Members propose issues that interest them in any topic – politics, health, sports, etc. Members and editors comment and debate how well a proposed issue meets our guidelines – and suggest revisions to the wording. Among these guidelines are that the issue be relevant, that the wording be free from bias, and that the wording is “open” enough to find on the Web the opinions of public figures and organizations. At the end of this collaborative process, issues that have not been rejected are framed much as they would be by a meticulous polling organization. An editor then approves the issue and that’s when people can take a stand on it or post public figure opinions.

The best issues are those where there is enough interest that people of different backgrounds and views collaborate in the approval process. The community should decide what is interesting, so we try not to reject issues that represent a legitimate controversy or difference of opinions. The issues that get rejected are usually those that are inherently biased.

OJR: What sort of things are you doing to drive traffic to the site. And, once they’re there, why should they register?

NO: One of the things that drives traffic to the site is when members invite their friends to register and take stands so they can find where they agree and disagree. It’s remarkable how surprising it is to discover some of the opinions of your friends – particular those on which you disagree.

What most drives new traffic is the public figure opinions. When you search the Web, for example, for opinions or comparisons, whereIstand is often among the top results. For example, the following search terms on Google return opinions and comparisons:

mccain politics

obama outsourcing

angelina jolie writers guild

jordan athletes overpaid

compare barack and hillary

All content is free on whereIstand and registration is optional. If you have taken stands on a lot of issues, and bookmarked the issues and people that interest you, you should register so you can sign back in and access these. A big reason to register is so that others can see your stands and compare themselves to you. Some of the functionality, like proposing issues and commenting on people’s opinions, is limited to registered users.

OJR: Aside from bloggers seeking a syndication platform, who else would bookmark this site? People who really like to argue?

NO: does provide a platform for bloggers to promote themselves through their opinions, but it’s really much more than that. For example, when the community jumps on a news item, frames it into issues, and starts posting opinions, you can quickly see the lay of the land just based on who is taking which stand. Since public figures are tagged with rich information about their affiliations, you can also see where groups of people stand on an issue. Sports fans may be equally divided on whether Barry Bonds should get into the Hall of Fame, but where do “sports journalists”, for example, stand on the issue? To find that out either somebody needs to do a lot of research, or you need to go to

For people that are more interested in the opinions of their friends than of public figures, provides a forum to argue, but also to interact, engage, etc. Some people find it more interesting to read and comment on a friend’s recent opinions than to see and comment on the pictures from a friend’s recent barbecue.

OJR: I like the way the site aggregates public figures and invites users to compare their own views. Seems like a good way to package the presidential candidates’ positions into something relatively digestible. How do you see that feature playing out as campaign season heats up?

NO: Many people that are following the candidates closely still find it difficult to identify just on what issues particular candidates disagree. Sometimes this is because candidates change or clarify their previous positions – changes keeps up with. In particular, as the campaign season heats up, makes things more interesting, for example, by letting people see how the candidates for state elections compare to them and to each other.

Again, what’s most unique is that you can compare any two people and quickly find where they agree and disagree. So, for example, when the campaigns begin to float names as candidates for Vice President, you can very quickly see whether they are a good fit and where they may clash.

OJR: Finally, regarding the tech behind the site’s comparison feature, how are you determining compatible positions? What variables you are looking at?

NO: doesn’t try to measure “compatibility” per se, but rather points out where there are differences of opinion. The comparison highlights whether two people tend to agree or disagree on the issues on which they have taken a stand. What’s most interesting is when you read the actual statements made that support those opinions. In that sense, is like an opinion index where you go to find the answer and then click through to read the original source.