by TJ Lane

Using a $3.9 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the New York Times and Washington Post are teaming up with Mozilla to build a platform that allows users to comment on stories. The platform, slated for a two year development cycle, will allow readers to submit pictures, links, and other media as well as track discussions.

You may be asking why would they do this? Almost every online newspaper has a comment section for each story already, nothing new here. Indeed, both the Times and Post already have this capability. The trouble is, no media outlet to date has really figured out how to engage audiences with these comment sections.

And engagement is the name of the game. With the tightening of belts at news outlets everywhere, engaging audiences by making them part of online communities is extremely attractive. If you’ve ever commented on a news story, you know how this works — you simply can’t wait to go back and see what others said about your comment. Did people agree with you? Argue with you? Start a war with you?

Instead of reading the story and moving on, you’re engaged. Maybe over time, you learn who the other active commenters are and enjoy reading their thoughts, agreeing with them, or sparring with them. There are multiple places you can get news, but you want to go where there are people you enjoy discussing the content with; just like you spend more time talking to friends and co-workers you feel connected to.

This is a common element of online message boards. The problem is, mainstream news sites have been terrible at fostering the same types of communities. They run the gamut from completely uncensored comment feeds that quickly diverge into name calling and chest beating, or they are so heavily moderated that only the most sanitized comments get posted. And who wants to read that?

Nobody.

Even outlets that strike a balance between unfettered bedlam and censorship with an iron fist generally can’t get the presentation right. This comment 7 posts up is arguing with this point from down there, and this person is on a tangent, and is this feed arranged by date, number of likes, or some other arbitrary metric?

Making sense of it all is often a mess.

This all leads to the exact situation that hinders community development: the 90-9-1 rule, which states that 90% of readers won’t post any comments, 9% post infrequently, and 1% make up the vast majority. In the current state, comments filter for the 1% out there that are bored, passionate, or just trolls. However you cut it, they aren’t representative. And the whole point of community is to feel heard, understood, and belonging. The 90-9-1 rule alienates the best community members from ever posting their comments.

What if somebody could capture that population and turn them into active community members? Once engaged, they’d be likely to keep returning to whatever forum they feel comfortable, validated, and heard in. That’s what the Times and the Post are going to try to achieve.

If they succeed, it doesn’t just mean more eyeballs for them; it also stands to change the way they tell stories. Once posted online, comments and other media become user generated content that the outlet is able to collect and use however it sees fit. The path of least resistance is to be rather hokey with this material and feature someone’s homebrew cat video on the main page to generate some quick page views, but amateur video of the uprisings in the Arab world certainly proved that user generated content can help tell legitimate stories.

Whether they do this right and make some game changing waves is anybody’s guess. But I, for one, am glad to see respectable news outlets making real effort to stay relevant in the digital environment. There are plenty of alternative news outlets, but the value of brands known for integrity and accuracy is significant. If some of them can provoke discourse among the public, well, isn’t that what the fourth estate is for?

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