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Are Comments Necessary?

March 30, 2010

Comments: to moderate, disable, or let roam free

I only read comments on blogs for a few reasons. I’ll do so if the comments on a particular site tend to be high quality (i.e. they are not all simply “I agree” or “I think you’re stupid and should not be on the internet”), I want to comment and so am reading to see what has already been said, or the post in question was very intriguing/specifically asked commenters/readers a question.

Reader Interactivity Carton

Is reader interaction essential to online publishers/writers?

When comments hurt more than they help

I was inspired to write this post because of an article on how news sites won’t survive simply through “digital razzle-dazzle.” In it, John Yemma, the editor of The Christian Science Monitor, wrote about how he feels about reader comments:

As for interactivity, we typically don’t invite readers to comment at the bottom of our stories. Don’t get me wrong, we want thoughtful comments. But comment-happy sites that don’t moderate often allow a brilliant piece to be followed by a string of rotten tomatoes thrown by—how can I put this delicately?—comment jerks.

[Note: The Christian Science Monitor does in fact allow comments on its blogs.] My first reaction was “how dare you, in this day and age, refuse to allow readers to interact with your content and your writers?” I have some experience dealing with getting deluges of comments, and when I think about it a bit more (The Christian Science Monitor is owned by a religious body, and so probably doesn’t want their readers to have to deal with the possible rude comments that naturally appear) there’s method to Yemma’s madness.

Negative comments (trolling) is worse than no comments

Think about this example. You’re reading a news story on a website. You enjoyed the story and you’re happy with the site you read it on. Then you look to the comment section. Here’s what you see:

“you’re stopid”

“fck this website this is the dumbest article”

“I don’t think anything posted on this website is worth reading.”

This might not turn me off of a website I admired (I am cynical when it comes to the average value of comments on the internet) but for the audience of a publication such as, say, The Christian Science Monitor? I can see why they shy away from comments.

Comments can help, too

On the other side of the comment spectrum, great, helpful, intelligent comments can be a draw on their own. As I’ve said before, a discussion is worth a thousand words, and nobody gets better comments than my favourite TV blogger, Alan Sepinwall. The problem lies in how to get the good comments and weed out the bad.

For one, it takes a lot of effort. You can’t just enable a comment free-for-all and hope for the best. (If you do so, you might end up with comments as useless as the conversations on popular YouTube videos.) Sepinwall enforces his 6 simple rules for commenting. And by enforcing, I mean he reads the comments and deletes anything that breaks the rules.

Other websites go a different direction. YouTube, for example, has a system that allows logged-in visitors to vote comments up or down, with those receiving a large amount of down votes being hidden. But this depends on a lot of good sameritanism, which is often lacking on the internet.

Three options: enable, disable, moderate

On sites that get very few comments (and few visitors), it’s okay to just enable comments. If you get a troll or two, it’s not a big hassle to simply delete the bad comments and keep the good. If you get 10+ comments on everything you post, and of those, 7 are trolls, you’re pretty much stuck with moderation or disabling unless you’ve got a lot of time or devotion on your hands.

Giving readers the ability to comment, without considering what kind of comments you might get, is a good thing. Discussion on an article makes the site it’s posted on look good and gives newcomers more to read. If all you’re getting is bad commenting (not to be confused with oppositional comments, such as thoughtful, polite arguments from opposing points of view), then it might be time to try a new strategy.

Addendum

Today (March 31st, 2010), YouTube rolled out a site redesign that I made a humorous comment about over on my Twitter. They’ve made it so that comments by a video’s uploader appear first, followed by the highest rated comment, followed by the most recent comments. In addition to simply being able to vote a comment up or down, they’ve added a “flag for spam” button. It automatically hides a comment from your view, and probably does some behind-the-scenes stuff I’m not aware of. Kudos, YouTube. Here’s a good article from Mashable about the YouTube site makeover, if you’re interested.

Blog Archetypes: The Notebook

March 7, 2010

Blogs come in many different flavours

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “I want to start a blog” you may have also thought about what kind of blogger you wanted to be. A few days ago I read a great essay about different blogger archetypes (you have to scroll down a while), and it inspired me to look through the blogs I read and try to find distinct blog archetypes. Since this is a deep well of a subject, I’ve decided to split it up and cover one archetype per post until I run out.

Skier Warning Sign

Sorry, your blog isn't a unique snowflake

First up: the notebook

A lot of bloggers depend heavily on personal anecdotes to introduce articles or ideas. One such blog is Lexington’s notebook (the inspiration for the name of the category). Since this blog actually rotates authors depending on who is the current Lexington column, the blogging style will be feel a bit different if you happen to read far back enough.

First, here are a few examples of posts and why they fit into the notebook archetype:

The view from a Wal-Mart parking lot: As the title suggests, the post focuses on views from people presumably interviewed outside of a Wal-Mart (in Forrest City, Arkansas). The post continues to look, in a broader way, at how President Obama’s governing is affecting conservative democratic districts. The usefulness of this kind of introduction versus, say, quoting an article from a newspaper about conservative democrats is that this is more eye-catching. I’m more willing to read a bit of story at the beginning of a post than one that dives straight into quoting other reporting.

Is a tap on the shoulder a violent crime: The personal element of this story is minute, but important. It introduces the scene in a way that more impersonal writers can’t compare with. (As I write this, I wonder why I don’t try to write noteb00k-style, as I find it more and more interesting doing this research.) To delve into journalism cliches, starting the post with “I” gives the post immediacy. Something is happening and now I and other readers are curious as to what that might be.

Notebooks aren’t quotebooks

For a comparison, here are some columns from the old Lexington blogger, whose writing relied more on quotations and straight-on descriptions: Cornstock lives, Two nations, The issue of issue. I don’t think this style is as interesting. In the most unscientific of explanations, I read much more of the new Lexington’s posts than the old ones and I attribute it the change in writing styles.

What archetype is your blog? What archetype is my blog, for that matter? Stay tuned for the next installment.

The Future of Magazines: An Essay

March 1, 2010

Why magazines should embrace a swag business model

The print publishing industry, like the music industry, is struggling to find new ways to make money. Currently, magazines are focusing on three main revenue streams: advertising, newsstand sales and subscription. Given the number of magazines that folded in 2009 (notably Gourmet, a popular food and drink magazine, and Country Home, a magazine that had over a million circulated copies), it is not a stretch to say that the standard avenues of income for magazines are dwindling.

As a solution, many magazines have been focusing on drawing readers and advertisers through smartphone and tablet applications. The problem with this is that it merely extends the problems that magazines already have (acquiring subscribers and advertisers and making sales) into different mediums. Instead, magazine publishers should broaden their horizons and look into new, less related ways of increasing profit margins.

Google and successful webcomics paved the way

Five years from now, successful magazines will be defined not only by how many readers are aware of their brand but by the size of the brand. Successful web-based businesses, such as Google and webcomics like Penny Arcade and XKCD, survive because they became more than what they started out as. Google started as a search engine and now provides e-mail, maps, calendars, the unique Google Street View and much more.

Penny Arcade began as solely a webcomic, and now runs a video-game convention, a charity for children, an online store and even a scholarship program. Magazine publishers view expansion in the digital age more narrowly than these successful web brands. Cathie Black, the president of Hearst, sees “360-degree experience” as “offering liquid content by using print, web, mobile and television to get the brand to the audience.”

Magazines should follow the well-traveled path

Follow that car! I mean, webcomic

Instead of focusing solely on making the public aware of the brand, magazines should leverage the brand recognition that they already have to sell products, even if they aren’t directly related to magazine publishing.

Penny Arcade has successfully done this; they began by building up a following for their main product (the comic), but instead of selling only prints of the comics and collections in book form they chose to expand and now they sell a Penny Arcade card game, t-shirts, video games. These are all products that appeal to the Penny Arcade’s audience (mainly young men). Any magazine can follow this example by knowing their audience and creating and selling products for them. For example, Vogue could create a fashion line and use the brand recognition they have in the fashion world to sell it.

It’s that subscription-commitment phobia again

Developing these alternate revenue streams is especially important now as subscription and circulation decline. The Globe and Mail reported that “In the first six months of 2009, of the nearly 600 consumer magazines in U.S. and Canada to report such figures, 67 per cent saw their paid circulation drop from the same period last year.” Part of the reason for this decline is that “the market is so much more fragmented.”

The internet provides many options for potential subscribers, and as a result choosing one magazine to subscribe is a heavy commitment. By paying to subscribe to, say, Canadian Living, and will likely not also subscribe to Chatelaine. What is the benefit of subscribing when readers have so many options to choose from online? As more and more content publishers appear online, choosing to commit to one hinders rather than helps.

A successful magazine will not be one that does simply force its current business model onto new technology but one that is able to adapt. It’s not enough to use the web to create a fancy gimmick like “the December issue of Esquire which features Robert Downey Jr. perched on top of an augmented reality box.”

Consider Erick Schonfeld’s response to the Sports Illustrated iPad application on his blog, Tech Crunch: “If I still read magazines, I’d much rather consume them in this form than on paper.” Presenting the same content in new ways will not revolutionize the business model and miraculously create profits, just as the advent of the internet did not. In order to succeed, magazine publishers need to recognize that what they need are new revenue streams, not different ways to promote old ones.

Why Pay for News Online

February 19, 2010

How I got wrangled into becoming a paying subscriber

I recently started subscribing to news articles on a website. There’s no print edition, it’s just a website. It actually started, a long time ago, as a completely free site, but now some of its content is behind a pay wall. I’m not going to talk about whether the business model is successful or if they can make money, but simply explain my reasoning for subscribing.

Free content is like a lasso for new readers

The website in question does very well at bringing in readers. Not only is there a large amount of free content going up daily (there are usually more free articles than paywall content each day) but all premium content is made available to the public after only a month. This is a very recent change; only a few months ago, content was only made public 90 days after the publication date. So when I came to the site, I was able to get a large sampling of what the premium content would be like if I subscribed. Then I started reading forward, starting from the previous year and going through as many articles as I could before hitting the paywall.

This is one of the best ways to get new readers to subscribe. Whether it’s giving readers five free articles a month or releasing old content to the public, websites with paywalls need to allow readers to see a sampling of their premium content. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — in fact, it’s elementary to most websites with paywalls. But it’s especially important for content providers with timely information. As I read through the old content, I found myself wanting the most up-to-date news. Not month old stuff, not 90-day old stuff.

Old news

I don't want to be this old by the time I get the news

The niche is strong with this website

Another thing that got me to subscribe was the lack of other publishers in the same category. I’d googled around, found a lot of out-of-date and badly written blogs, along with one other comparable site. But I wanted more. When I couldn’t find anything, I kept coming back to the premium stuff. Finally, beaten, I looked at the subscription prices. I found, much to my surprise, that they were entirely reasonable and had a number of different pricing options.

Not a lot of online publishers can claim to be one of very few players in a field. But the advantage that niche publishers have over general ones is significant. Recently, in my own personal blogobubble (like the blogosphere, but limited to what I read), I’ve been seeing a focus on local news websites. For example, the Nieman Journalism Lab linked to this post a few days ago, about a local news site gaining traffic by going more local.

Turning local

Will this mean that newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian will go more local, focusing on New York and London? Probably not — they’re international brands. But the more niche you are, not the more niches you fill, the more reason for people to subscribe to your site. Niche doesn’t always have to mean a small market, either. If you’ve consistently got the most articles on, say, World of Warcraft, you can do pretty well for yourself. It’s not a huge market, but it’s big enough to build a site around. This particular site is free, but it’s likely the kind of page that could set up a reasonably successful paywall.

So while in the past, newspapers have focused a lot on having a broad appeal, the way people interact with publishers online is changing this, making content providers get more specialized. Here’s an example from a different industry. Book publishers decide the markup on a given book based on how willing buyers will be to pay a large sum of money. The cost to make the book is usually not the deciding factor. So a book by a politics insider known only in Ottawa and by high-level Canadian politicians won’t have wide appeal, but it will have a very strong following among people in the know. Newspapers should follow suit and take advantage of people willing to pay large markups for specific content.

Subscription Phobia

February 6, 2010

Why we don’t want to commit to a subscription

A while ago the Nieman Journalism Lab published an article about how the act of subscribing to a news outlet, be it a magazine or newspaper, feels limiting. By paying for The Economist, I’m limiting myself to that one news magazine. I’m not going to subscribe to Maclean’s in addition.

Gun magazine

The only magazines people will subscribe to?

Gina Chen, the author of the article in question, suggests that the web has created a kind of commitment phobia with regard to subscriptions; she writes,

Things changed with the web. Now, if I choose one magazine to subscribe to out of myriad sources, it feels like I’m limiting my options in a way. I don’t want to commit to one publication, one source, one newspaper, one magazine

Don’t follow the hype

This desire to avoid commitment is changing the way we approach news and media far more than other, more hyped inventions. People said the iPad tablet would save newspapers and traditional media (well, not everyone). People argue that social networks completely revamp how we find and read news stories (I don’t disagree, as you can see here). But the relationship between us and news matters more than any device or network. Take this post (again from the Nieman Lab) about how online news is to print journalism as ramen noodles are to steak.

The creation of personalized news hubs (think Pandora but for news instead of music) is one reaction to subscription phobia. As you can see in this article about the many different sites devoted to personalized content, it’s already a popular phenomenon. These hubs want to be the one link you click on when you’re looking for news. The one I’m feeling out, iCurrent, allows you to vote individual stories up or down and choose which categories of news you want to hear (some examples being american politics or golf). iCurrent then learns from your choices and provides you with the news it thinks you want.

Not quite there yet

It’s not perfect, though. iCurrent picks articles up via keywords and not always by subject, so stories are misfiled occasionally. But it’s just in beta, and the simple existence of so many personalized news sites is what matters. If newspapers and magazines want to keep up with the modern consumer, they need to focus less on selling advertising and more on making sure that they understand how we want to relate to them.

I’m fine, for example, with subscribing to a print edition of The Economist. But I don’t know if I would want to pay for a purely online version. For one, I like having the printed copy. But more importantly, when I’m online, I often don’t want to stick to one source.

What will the future look like?

Maybe in the next 10 years, newspapers will be replaced by an organization of freelance journalists and blogs, who are paid by how many hits their stories get on personalized news sites like iCurrent and the many others sure to pop up in the coming years. Maybe they’ll all agree to put up paywalls so we’ll have to subscribe to at least one to get any news just like before the advent of the internet. So newspapers and magazines, if you’re reading, do some research. Ask readers not where they find their news or what they subscribe to, but how they feel about subscribing and how they relate to news providers.


(RSS) Readers and Writing

January 30, 2010

Are readers allies or simply a hindrance to online content publishers?

Nowadays, a multitude of content delivery methods exist for the internet-savvy. Do you use RSS (really simple syndication) and have everything delivered to you in your reader of choice? (Mine is Google Reader.) Or have you chosen the low-tech approach, simply visiting blogs you read every once in a while to check for updates? If, like me, you use a reader, you’ve noticed that some writers and websites only allow an excerpt of the article to be published in a reader, forcing interested parties to click through to the website.

RSS Icon

The icon of the future

Why excerpt?

Clickthroughs are valuable because it means that readers are going to see the ads on the website instead of just reading the content. (Ads do not appear in readers.) This means that those who only provide excerpts to readers are usually writing for a larger entity, such as a magazine or newspaper rather than a personal blog. But excerpting has its downsides.

Once a reader has gotten used to the comfort of following all their blogs and magazines through a reader, it’s jarring to see only a few sentences of an article. When I am reading through the various articles that have appeared in my reader overnight or after a day away from the computer, I am most likely to skip over the excerpted ones. This might seem lazy. Why not just make the extra click, it won’t take a lot of effort.

It’s not just an issue of sloth

When I come across an excerpted article, my first thought is always about why it’s not published in full in my reader. The publisher wants me to make them look better by coming to their website. (Website hits are counted separately from RSS subscribers.) However, I want to follow writers and publications who value my readership and want to spread their words rather than clipping them off. When I am reminded of how a publisher sees me, I cannot help but feel slighted.

If excerpting is something that largely irritates readers (something I believe publications should attempt to avoid rather than espouse), how can these websites generate clickthroughs?

Use finesse, not force

Excerpting forces interested readers to jump through hoops for your content. Why make it so difficult and bothersome? Publications should be interested in more than just hits. They should want fans and readers. That’s how you’ll get people to tweet about you and share your articles. A better, and more reliable, way to draw readers is to take advantages of what readers cannot do. Charts, interesting formatting, interactive elements and other such things do not appear (and even if they do, they’re often formatted oddly or just broken) in readers.

A great example is a recent article by Tim Harford that included, of all things, an interactive Monopoly game that tied into the story itself. When I realize something like that is on the website, I’m not irritated about clicking through, I’m excited. So where you can, create incentives for your readers to visit your website rather than forcing them to click through.

Don’t Be the Weakest Link: A Guide to Writing with Links

January 22, 2010

Links and how you should be using them

Links seem pretty simple. You know exactly what they do already — you click on one and it brings up a new page. But there’s more to it than that. When you decide you want to link to something in a blog post or article, here are a few things to consider:

  1. What text do you link
  2. What do you link to (the main page of your target or something more specific)
  3. How do you contextualize your link (if at all)
  4. When not to link
Which is the weakest link?

Which is the weakest link?

#1: What text to link

The easiest way to delve into this subject is with a sample sentence, so here’s what I’ll work with:

There’s a really great magazine that does especially excellent articles about search engine optimization.

This sentence has a few things that could use a link: “magazine,” “articles” and “search engine optimization” (depending on whether you can expect your readership to already understand what search engine optimization is). The adjectives in this sample sentence are generic, so avoid converting them into link text. So with links, the sentence would look like this (note: not real links):

There’s a really great magazine that does especially excellent articles about search engine optimization.

But what if you had more descriptive descriptors, as in “16th century coins” versus “really great coins.” This is fully a judgment call, but I think it’s important to making your links as clear as possible.

#2: Where to target your links

Be specific. If you’re linking a certain article, link that article. If you’re linking to an image, get the exact page of the image and not just the website where the image sits. If one of your readers clicks on a link, they should know exactly what they’re getting into and not be surprised at all.

But there’s also value in providing a link, for example, to a magazine’s homepage as well as to the specific article you’re referring to. And this leads into my next point…

#3: How do you contextualize your links

Going off of the example I just used, here’s what a line might look like that links both a home page and a specific page.

The Economist put up a really great article about pandas.

Links often take the place of parenthetical statements in print writing. So where in print I might write: “The Economist, a news and finance magazine,” online I can simply link to it. It’s the same reason I converted “search engine optimization” into a link earlier in this post rather than writing a quick description in brackets. Linking well allows articles to cover more ground. If you’re writing an article for print, you’re on your own. On a blog or online magazine, take advantage of the resources available to you and link.

#4: When not to link

Sentences shouldn’t end up with more link than regular text. You risk a) overloading your reader with information and b) distracting readers from your original content, which is the most important part of your site. An example of a badly over-linked sentence:

Maclean’s Magazine has a Twitter feed which they use to publish Canadian news and stories.

Too many links!

Some extra tips for linking

  1. Link only the words you want to link (i.e. don’t link spaces around a word, like this: word )
  2. Don’t link the homepages of websites like Twitter or Facebook when you’re talking about a specific feed or page (see my example of bad linking)
  3. Don’t link to explicit material, sites that spoil events in television shows/movies that haven’t aired yet, or anything else your reader might be upset about without adding a label, as in: Here’s a link to a cool website (NSFW).