“I do not think it means what you think it means”: valuing comments

This is not a comment...

Google’s Sidewiki project shows that commenting is a valuable part of the online environment – but do the people who invite comment always understand how they should interpret this sort of feedback? A pseudonymous local freesheet editor (blogging as “Blunt”) puts on a triumphant display of error as he abuses his readers for commenting on all the wrong pages (the “chod” he refers to is an earlier assault on PRs):

I am both upset and disturbed for the fact my chod got more comments than a recent tale on my newspaper’s website (unique users = many 1,000s a month) about a scrote getting just three years for kicking someone to death outside a pub.

It got more comments than a story about a kid getting run over by a drink driver who walked free from court on a technicality.

More comments than a council’s decision to evict five OAPs from the homes their families grew up in. The homes they thought they would live in until they died.

More reaction than our campaign to save a kid dying from leukaemia.

In the last two days more than a quarter of the total readership of my blog has come on to read and comment on what is, in essence, a load of made-up shit written by a self righteous, opinionated idiot.

Is this what really gets us riled? Is this the future of news? Why do you really give a shit? You don’t even know who I am.

Welcome to the internet’s world of meaningless shat [sic] and massive indifference.

Play The Game, “Fact versus fiction”

The comments on the PR piece continue the argument that Blunt comes out with: some come from offended PRs, some from sympathetic hacks, others from people who agree with the sentiment but take issue with the extremity. It’s a discussion, in which each participant is addressing an individual – the author of the original post.

A news story doesn’t offer the same incentive for response. The reader might feel appalled, outraged or supportive – but none of those emotions are likely to inspire a debate about the piece of reporting. They all come under the category of “reinforcing” in Tom Ewing’s taxonomy of reactions to information: “praising it without adding to it, sharing it, ‘liking’ it on Facebook or Tumblr, recommending it, etc.”

The opinions on the PR blog post are generally “refining” or “rejecting” Blunt’s characterisation of the journo/PR condition. And the preference for commenters to contribute to an argumentative blog post rather than a news story is explained by Ewing, in a summary of what he considers the best vehicle for the different types of reaction he describes:

“If pushed I’d say that you should reinforce via networks (sharing stuff), refine at the original site of the information (commenting), and reject by creating a new site of information (your own blog post).”

Blackbeard Blog, “Reinforce, refine, reject”

In other words, it would be inappropriate for the readers of Blunt’s newspaper to comment when they have the option of sharing this information instead.

What’s slightly alarming is that this shows the way in which a newspaper editor can mistake both the nature of the information he’s supplying through his paper, and the reactions of his audience – whom he apparently holds in contempt on the basis of his own confusion. If he doesn’t understand online communications, how can he make his product work for online consumers? And is Blunt representative of editors generally assuming that comments on a story are a good measure of its value to readers? Given the eagerness of news portals to encourage people to have their say – he’s probably not alone.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by suburbanslice, used under Creative Commons.

Unlike a blacksmith

blacksmithIn a world where subs weren’t being stripped away to a rump, the “journalists are doomed like blacksmiths” cliché would be getting green-inked into oblivion. Sadly, we live in this world, with editing viewed as an expendible cost, leaving writers free to jerk out thoughtless comparisons on the future of their trade, and no one on hand to instill any quality. And so we find Chris Anderson talking to Der Spiegel, repeating the old journalist/blacksmith analogy:

In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part time job. Maybe media won’t be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby. There is no law that says that industries have to remain at any given size. Once there were blacksmiths and there were steel workers, but things change.

Der Spiegel, “Chris Anderson on the economics of Free”

Anderson’s problems with language start at the very beginning of the interview, when he rules out a bunch of perfectly servicable signifiers (“Sorry, I don’t use the word media. I don’t use the word news. I don’t think that those words mean anything anymore”) before helpfully declaring that “There are no other words.” But the blacksmith reference really riles me.

I’ve written before about why I find this trope unconvincing for journalism. Blacksmiths made a product which was muscled out by technical innovations that allowed functionally-identical (or better) items to be made cheaper. The work of a journalist can’t be mechanically substituted – it has to be performed by a person going through certain processes from research to writing to publication.

There are chunks of the print trade that have become technically obsolete, and as the move into digital publishing continues, more people are going to become unemployed: the paper and ink manufacturers, the warehouse employees, the newsagents. But journalism itself – the thing that is distributed – isn’t necessarily going to be stripped away by a change of format, and it’s rather embarrassing that journalists’ main angle on the electronic transition so far has been their own job security.

At the moment, newspapers and magazines are feeling pressure to retrench while they work out how to make money from electronic publishing. But one of the things that Anderson’s Free argument falls down on is that Free doesn’t seem to be quite the unalterable “force of gravity” he thinks – there are studies that show the people who make the most use of free stuff are also the people most willing to spend on similar material. And the people who spend are going to need something worthy of their cash, as John McIntyre writes:

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

You Don’t Say, “After the storm”

In fact, Anderson admits this much when he tells his interviewer that “If you have attention and reputation, you can figure out how to monetize it.” Media outlets that plan to retain their value had better retain – and pay for – their standards.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by caravinagre, used under Creative Commons.