Comes now a survey sponsored by Associated Press Managing Editors that contains a couple of interesting conclusions: 1) That newspaper Web editors much prefer user-generated comments and contents that are not anonymous, vs. how non-journalists feel, and 2) that 58 percent of the Web journalists surveyed worry that "letting journalists join online conversations and give personal views would harm journalism," while only 36 percent of readers agree.
Leaving aside the somewhat odd methodology of the survey—which talked to more than 1,200 newspaper print and online journalists but just 500 readers (which seems very low as a sample size)—this study shows that we're making progress in some areas of letting our readers contribute online, but still have lots to learn in other areas.
Let's all agree, please, that pure anonymity in comments is bad. I've written about this before, and a lot of Web journalists agree, as the survey shows. But there are still way too many newspaper Web sites that are sloppy about handling comments, starting with a failure to require registration—which is the first step in combatting anonymity. The result, as one Web editor friend calls it, is "a sewer" in comments (perfect example: the Tribune papers using registration-free Topix as a comments engine).
Look, you're probably never going to fully do away with anonymity in comments—not and get any real participation—but requiring registration at least means that site managers have some idea who's behind specific comments, and can control them appropriately. It's really not that hard—but too many newspaper Web sites still seem to think that anonymity is part of the Web ethos, for some reason, and don't take the proper precautions to register the people they allow to comment on their sites. Result: the aforementioned sewer. It's nice to see that a majority of editors surveyed by the APME agree, though that opinion still doesn't necessarily square with industry practice.
Far more troubling is this notion that journalists shouldn't join online discussions. I've heard this anecdotally recently, as well, from reporters who don't think they should be interacting with readers online. Huh? Sure, I understand the concern about reporters expressing opinions in online forums, comments and discussions. That's probably a realistic—if overblown—concern.
But the best online forums on newspaper Web sites are two-way conversations involving reporters and other journalists interacting with readers, answering questions and generally making themselves available. Just look at WashingtonPost.com's fantastic discussions area for daily examples. Or check out some of the better newspaper blogs, where the authors are regular participants in the comments.
Yes, sometimes these toe the line of allegedly objective journalists expressing opinion (it's not a problem when the participant is a columnist, incidentally). But far more often they enrich the conversation—not to mention the readers' understanding and the reporter's beat—by fomenting a healthy, interesting, helpful dialogue. Oh, and by the way, journalist participation in comments and forums tends to improve the quality of the discussion in general—a factor almost as important as banishing anonymity.
This study shows that we still have a ways to go in understanding how best to deal with the new participatory styles of journalism. Some of these opinions reflect fear of the new, of what it means to interact with the audience. But the upside of doing so is phenomenal, and most journalists I've talked to who've taken the plunge into conversing with their readers have become big fans of the idea. To those 58 percent of newspaper journalists who worry about participation in comments and discussions: Get over it. Fast. You're missing out on an important part of the online revolution that's fundamentally changing our business. A large majority of readers wants you to interact with them. Start doing it.
Oh, and one more way that journalists are still a little disconnected from the Web: The full version of the survey is available only as a PDF download, you know, so it's easier to print out. Hey APME: Why not put it up in HTML so it can be read online?