Online publishers need new heroes in the battle for community relevance

Picking up from my piece on Wednesday….

The Obama campaign did not build its social network in isolation. In many communities, it built upon an existing “netroots” of progressives that had developed over the past several years. That network, in turn, developed in frustration with both the Bush administration, as well as the new media coverage (or lack thereof) of that administration and its Congressional allies.

Markos Moulitsas, a j-school graduate with a law degree and an Army stint behind him, bootstrapped what might be the most influential of all progressive netroots websites, DailyKos. His new book, “Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era” offers a blueprint for political activists, one that well complements the Obama strategies I wrote about on Wednesday.

But Moulitsas’ book teaches important lessons to would-be journalist entrepreneurs as well. Remember, Kos (hey, calling him by his last name just seems weird. Everyone else online calls him “Kos,” so I’ll do the same) got his start in journalism school, at Northern Illinois University, and he’s worked in the newspaper field. At its heart, DailyKos is a publishing enterprise, a 21st century version of the old-fasioned partisan press. And Kos has enjoyed phenomenal financial success with it.

A “seven-figure operation,” as Kos described it, DailyKos is just one site in a wide-ranging publishing network that the Berkeley, California resident founded. Within the past month, another Kos property, SportsBlog Nation, announced a multi-million dollar round of venture capital funding.

The guy knows how to attract eyeballs, exert influence and make money online. I e-mailed Kos and asked him what he thought “Taking on the System” could teach journalists.

“I think the key lesson in Taking on the System to media entrepreneurs is that they no longer are beholden to the old journalistic establishment. They don’t have to get anyone’s permission to start up a new journalistic venture — no editors, no publishers, no producers, no anyone else.

“Of course, without the old media machines to back them up and fund them, it’s a difficult world. But for anyone who believes that people aren’t being properly served by the old media institutions, this is their chance to deliver what people want. Daily Kos is an example of that. And while these entrepreneurs are less financially secure, they can also use technology to accomplish far more at very little cost. I started Daily Kos — now a seven-figure operation — with a free blog account and an $8.95 domain. Sure, it also sucked up a great deal of my time, but it’s amazing how much technology allows you to accomplish so much for so little.

“Finally, it’s critical that these entrepreneurs have a well-defined niche. It helps if it’s an underserved niche, which is what motivated me to start my SportsBlogs Nation network of team-specific blogs (now up to 160 sites). Once you have a niche, it’s almost impossible to not tell a story. But the more compelling it is, the more drama you provide, the more exciting the payoff, the more people will arrive and stick around day after day.”

Two chapters from the book stood out to me for lessons that would apply to news start-ups. In chapter 3, “Set the Narrative,” Kos laid out the importance of story-telling in animating a cause.

“The most arresting narratives revolve around a well-defined hero and villain fighting it out over something uniquely important to the time and place,” he wrote in the book. “When it comes to activism, this usually means that core respected values need to be at stake in order to grab attention and spur action.”

Not just for activism, but for journalism, too. Among the damage that a misapplied desire for “objectivity” has done to journalism is too strain all the emotion from too many news stories. Stuff that reads like a lab report doesn’t excite anyone.

Kos’ six steps toward better narrative?

  • Target your villain
  • Craft your hero
  • Exploit the [villains’] weaknesses
  • Reinforce the narrative
  • Aim for the gut, not for the brain
  • Own the story

    “There’s a big difference between traditional stories and the stories we craft,” he wrote. “Our stories have yet to end. And so as we engage the audience, we give them a chance to help write that happy ending. It’s an empowering effect, giving the audience the emotional investment in the story, and then offering them an active and engaged role in shaping its conclusion.”

    I hadn’t read anyone else make that point before, but I believe it to be the most powerful argument in favor of news organizations embracing interactivity. Yes, our stories, inherently, frustrate the reader with their open-ended nature. But interactivity allows us to overcome that emotional weakness in journalism, and, in doing so, connect our audience to our narratives for the stories in their communities.

    In chapter 6, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Kos warned of the challenges and mistakes that derail so many activists, as well as journalists.

    His advice?

  • Work your niche (“When you live in a media-saturated world,” he wrote, “it takes clarity of message and specialization to cut through the clutter. If you find a niche that resonates with a wider audience, a niche where you find yourself being effective, exploit that niche.”)
  • Guard your credibility
  • Factor reality into your plans

    “One of the things that I’ve always loved about blogging and the netroots culture is that there’s virtually no danger of living in a bubble surrounded by sycophants,” Kos wrote. “Every time I write anything on my own site, I have dozens of people telling me what an idiot I am. And that’s a wonderful thing. Even if I disagree with them, I’m forced to face the fact on an hourly basis that there are people who vigorously disagree with me and don’t think I’m beyond reproach.”

    Journalists fail themselves, and their audiences, when they retreat into a sealed, insiders-only world of self-analysis. Many of us are well aware of getting outside that bubble, and engaging with people outside of the worlds of journalism and “professional” news sources to get feedback on our work. But many of us also forget the importance of looking outside journalism for guidance on the practice of our craft. Especially at a time when journalism offers so few working models for online publishing success.

    Please do not mistake my enthusiasm for Kos’ advice as an endorsement for making all press partisan. One need not apply the entire blueprint to learn some valuable techniques from Kos’ approach. His advice on emotional storytelling, audience engagement and strictness in record-keeping and documentation will serve well any news website.

    Kos also offered another warning to start-up publishers in his e-mails to me:

    “The biggest mistakes web publishers make is to seek a hit from a bigger blog or site, but that does little to build long-term audiences. You can’t hook people on a story with a one-day spike in traffic. You need to build it organically, over time, by crafting those villains and heroes, and getting people invested not just in the storyline, but in the outcome.”

    We’re not going to learn to become leaders online by repeating the same techniques and listening to the same leaders who created the media landscape that so many of our readers now have fled. We need new heroes to fight the battle of getting people engaged in their communities.

  • 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.

    Best practices for online polls

    What do you think about online polls?

  • They’re a great way to drive traffic and build reader loyalty.
  • They are a misleading load of garbage.

    As a former statistics major in college, my reflex reaction is to choose option #2. But as an online editor, I think there are ways website publishers can use online polls responsibly… and effectively, to drive traffic and build loyalty.

    The first step toward doing that requires editors to understand the limits of online polls. And I’m talking about those widgets where anyone can click a radio button and hit submit, not controlled surveys open only to selected participants and run by experienced public opinion pros.

    The big problem with online widget polls is that they *are* open to anyone. That gives you a self-selected sample of respondents who most likely do not reflect society, or even your readership, as a whole.

    “Remember, the purpose of a poll is to draw conclusions about the population, not about the sample. In these pseudo-polls, there is no way to project the results to any larger group. Any similarity between the results of a pseudo-poll and a scientific survey is pure chance,” Sheldon R. Gawiser and G. Evans Witt wrote in their “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results”, published by the National Council on Public Polls.

    If you are simply looking for little, easy-to-read nuggets of information to brighten a page, you don’t need to conduct a poll. There’s a wealth of research available, from the U.S. Census Bureau to that found in various publications of the American Statistical Association, which can give you those nuggets. (The ASA’s publications also provide great resources that can help reporters call out sources whose misinformation deserve refutation.)

    So, you aren’t generating anything with your online widget poll that’s going to give you accurate information about the public’s collective attitudes or behavior. So what’s left as a reason to run such a poll?


    While widget polls won’t tell you anything useful about your readership’s *collective* behavior, they can engage your readers to share *individual* stories. They key is to stop thinking of these widget polls as little public opinion surveys and start thinking of them as… straw polls in a bar argument.

    In my experience, the best way to use widget surveys is as an introduction into a discussion on the topic raised by the poll. My personal favorite example, one that I’ve run on several websites, will make sense to almost all Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving: “Should cranberry sauce be whole berry or jelly-style?”

    It’s a silly question, sure. But it is one that most folks who have sat down to a Thanksgiving meal in the U.S. have personal experience with, and one that many of them are very willing to debate in public.

    Over the past months, my wife and I have been posting widget-poll “votes” to our websites every Friday afternoon. The questions have included asking theme park fans what they though should have been the new name for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Florida, and asking violinists to pick their favorite movement from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”. We’ve found them a useful way to build traffic during what’s typically the slowest time of the week on the site.

    Widget polls tempt readers to click. They provide the easiest form of interactivity, easier than commenting, easier than chiming in on a discussion thread, easier than starting a blog. But once readers click, they’ve broken that invisible barrier between reader and website and become part of the community of the site, if only in a small way. That’s why widget polls can become an important tool for online community building. It’s a crass analogy, but widget polls are the “gateway drug” of online interactivity.

    As with any other content that a professional puts on his or her website, careful thought helps make these widget polls a traffic-building success. A poorly conceived or worded poll will not elicit clicks, responses or referrals from other URLs, making the poll a waste of everyone’s time — the publisher’s and the readers’.

    I groaned to myself this morning when I found the following poll on the website of the Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News: “Should California’s electoral votes be distributed by congressional district or the current winner-take-all system?” with the answer options “Yes” and “No.”

    Ugh. (To be fair to the Star-News, the answer options were clarified later that morning.)

    Anyone who wants to make their website polls a powerful feature on the site ought to spend a few moments reading the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s “Best Practices for Survey and Public Opinion Research”. The document is designed for public opinion pros conducting proper research, but at least two items can help Web editors with their widget polls:

  • “Take great care in matching question wording to the concepts being measured and the population studied.”
  • “Pretest questionnaires and procedures to identify problems prior to the survey.”

    (The second, for example, would have helped the Pasadena paper avoid its silly gaffe.)

    In addition, specifically for online widget polls, I would add these best practices:

  • Pick a topic relevant to your specific readership, upon which they will have some personal experience.
  • Ask a question that has a limited set of obvious potential responses. (Truly open-ended questions work better as discussion threads.)
  • Ask a question for which readers will want to explain their choice.
  • Invite and provide a way for readers to comment upon their choice.

    And, finally:

  • Take steps to prevent multiple votes from individual readers.

    As a Web editor of an interactive site, nothing makes your life hell more completely than having your site gain a reputation as an easy place where crackers and script kiddies can manipulate your content. If widget polls are the gateway drug to reader interactivity, easily gamed ones establish the gateway to reader-driven mischief and abuse. Setting a cookie after a vote, or blocking multiple votes from IP addresses, or both, can help you prevent ballot-stuffing.

    Many newspaper website content management systems include built-in online polling capabilities. Even if your system does not, you need not know how to code your own polling application. For the polls on my websites, I’ve been using the embedded widget from, which I first encountered on the delightfully catty Go Fug Yourself.

    Twiigs hosts its polls on its website, and provides iframe coding that allows publishers to embed the poll on their own sites. That option makes it easy for an editor to direct readers to talk about their choice on the site, in a blog entry’s comments section for example.

    You might ask, if the point of this exercise is to have a discussion, why bother with the poll? Having the poll results on the page gives readers another, easy-to-see, point of entry into the discussion. One need not browse through multiple comments to get a sense of how the conversation is going. One can see that at a single glance with the poll results. And, as I wrote earlier, readers find the poll interface an easier and more welcoming interface than a comment button. (In my experience, we’ve gotten about one comment for every 15-20 votes cast in the poll.) Even if individual anonymity explains part of that wider appeal, I’ve found many readers on my websites make their first-ever comments to the site in response to a poll. Polls really can ease people across that threshold of interactivity.

    To be clear, I do not suggest reporting the percentage results of such online polls as news, or as representative of any group, even the readers of the site. At most, I might consider reporting the raw numbers of such polls (e.g. “250 readers of reported that they’d flunked math in college, according to a poll on that site”), then pulling some interesting quotes from the comments. But the real value of online widget polls is not to create news for other websites. It is to give your readers one more engaging reason to spend their time on yours.