With audience engagement, analog is the new high tech.

Technology has come a long way to make audience engagement a little easier on reporters. Gawker Media and the nascent Coral Project use algorithms to sort through reader comments, so that journalists don’t have to get too involved. I’ll argue that this automated method works best with large audiences (Gawker Media claims a total readership of 64 million people), but The Coral Project does intend to build something for smaller publications.

There are also less tech-intensive ways to engage an audience. At December’s gathering of Hacks/Hackers in New York, web developers and editors described how they actually shut down their comments sections and opened their email inboxes to develop better audience engagement.

vintage valentine girl mail card
Image courtesy of Karen Horton.

Derek Mead, editor-in-chief of technology website Motherboard, said he closed the rarely used comments section and offered readers analog engagement, such as phone calls from reporters and editors, and a semi-handwritten newsletter. (Just to keep some things digital, Motherboard staff moved conversation strings to social media and corresponded with readers via email.)

The results: fewer interactions (read: less work) but much more meaningful discourse between Motherboard reporters and readers, as well as staff’s increased connectivity to what was being discussed on social media, Mead told assembled hacks and hackers.

The Marshall Project, which covers the criminal-justice beat, also closed its comments section and replaced it with letters sent to editor Bill Keller, who manually sorts through hard copies. And like Motherboard, conversation strings were moved onto social media, namely Facebook, audience editor Blair Hickman said.

Apparently, the labor involved in composing a letter to the editor is enough to turn off trolls and engage genuinely interested readers, Hickman said. (Also, The Marshall Project’s niche subject matter and relatively small readership probably save Keller from being buried in a pile of letters.)

Engagement via Facebook, on the other hand, has been a double-edged sword, Hickman described. The site’s “authentic name” policy ostensibly means users are more likely to behave with decorum than they would under an anonymous screen name. But personal information posted on some users’ profiles can become comment fodder when arguments boil over, a problem that Hickman said the news site was trying to solve.

For both The Marshall Project and Motherboard, unplugging the comments section has meant more time for journalists to be journalists, and more focused engagement for readers to be resources. And I’ll bet that brand loyalty goes a long way when the nonprofit Marshall Project passes the hat, or when Motherboard pitches native advertising at potential sponsors.

My next post will examine what The New York Times is doing to keep audience engagement flowing without letting in the riff raff. And at some point, I’ll discuss real-life events and gatherings as the ultimate analog form of audience engagement.

Engage the bot!

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ben Husmann.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Ben Husmann.

The other day, I came across a headline that declared audience engagement the hot journalism trend for 2016. Yes, interacting with readers will be all the rage this new year, along with rose quartz-colored hyperlinks and analog GIF animators.

To be honest, I didn’t get one pixel past the headline before I drove my head into the desk. In 2016, audience engagement should not be a trend. It should be part of every journalist’s job description. Don’t like it? Suck it up.

However, there are relatively painless ways to share the online podium without casting time and energy into a black hole, without surrendering civilization to the trolls, and all while creating value for a publication. At the December gathering of Hacks/Hackers NYC, web developers from different news organizations described how they were helping journalists engage without the rage.

At Gawker Media, the proprietary Kinja publishing platform applies ever-evolving algorithms to sort audience comments, developers Lauren Bertolini and Mikolaj Szabo explained. The technology promotes popular comments and demotes others deemed too short or too dull, and mostly leaves reporters to do their own thang.

Mozilla’s nascent publishing platform, dubbed The Coral Project, also will use algorithms to sift through readers’ comments, project leader Andrew Losowsky told the assembled hacks and hackers.

Yeah, I know: algorithms. Bleep beep bop! My eyes reflexively roll back into my head whenever I’m told that circuitry and Boolean algebra will weigh the value of human interaction. It’s almost antithetical to the concept of audience engagement.

But the end result for Gawker Media is snarky, quality commentary that reflects and reinforces the tone of the editorial content. Readers interact with each other by giving virtual stars to favorites (thus promoting them to the top of the discussion thread) and by calling out trolls, who are demoted or deleted. Bleep beep bop! Algorithms, baby!

The robust commentary also adds value to the volume of Gawker Media’s web traffic. It means that the company can leverage that brand loyalty to earn native-advertising and e-commerce revenue, instead of depending entirely on traditional, volume-dependent display advertising, which wasn’t working for the company anyway.

As for The Coral Project, partner organizations will begin testing the new, open-sourced (read: free) tech early this year, the project’s website said.

Best of all, automated commentary “moderation” gives reporters a little breathing room from readers. But algorithms and Boolean algebra do not excuse reporters from engagement. At the very least, journalists should read what’s being written about them and their work, if only to exercise their knowledge of a topic.

(To be fair to Gawker Media, reporters for Jezebel and the original Gawker site do occasionally reply to reader comments.)

In my next blog post, I’ll describe how some online publications engage their audiences by unplugging the comments section.

Twitter weighs on my heart (and the English language)

Big bird
Illustration courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine.

The big news floating around the Twitterverse these days (besides Colin Meloy’s #bundyeroticfanfic) is a planned tweet expansion. In the next few months, Twitter’s long-standing 140-character limit could swell to 10,000 characters “in hopes of luring new users,” Re/Code reported this week.

This has triggered some online rage, though I’ll try not to reiterate what others have already tweeted. I’ll only say this to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: Consider the effect of a 10,000-character limit on the evolution of American English.

Was it not Twitter that compressed catastrophe into “fail”? Did Twitter not shrink wrap our motives into single nouns, as in: “I’m writing this post because rage.”? Does Twitter not have us hashtag everything, not only to collate conversations but to add lush subtext? #HashtagAsVerb

For better or worse, Twitter’s 140-character limit has made tighter, more concise writers of its users. It didn’t invent any of these idioms (the traditional 160-character limit to text messaging did much of that), but it forced users to develop their voices and to master their vernacular.

Those who were willing to bend grammar and syntax came up with “dat ass tho.” The rest evolved into more efficient and (ironically) less restrained wordsmiths. Tight space meant that users had to get directly to the point, without formality or shame, and to use language in creative ways.

Twitter’s 140-character limit gave rise to unlimited characters, tweeting lyrics in an epic poem that flows in reverse-chronological order. Inflating the limit to 10,000 characters dams that flow with rambling journal entries wrought with ambivalence and indecision, culminating in an anticlimactic “I dunno, whatever.”

American English has come too far to revert to a stream of clumsy, bumbling consciousness or (even worse) bloated government speak. Don’t do it, Jack Dorsey. Please, man, just don’t.

Hello, rapidly expanding international news service. Will you be my friend?

Weather report on Al-Jazeera

I don’t know jack shit about Qatar. Its location, its vernacular, what its people eat: lost on me. Chances are I’ll never set foot on Qatari soil, as I don’t like long plane rides and it sounds far away. I’m not even sure how to properly pronounce Qatar.

But there is one thing of which I’m sure: I love Qatari news service Al Jazeera. Love it, love it, love it! Love that it bought Al Gore’s Currents TV network and now plans to sneak into the homes of 49 million cable subscribers in the United States. And I love that it’s hiring as many as 800 people to run its news operations from 12 US cities. Love it!

The best part is that Al Jazeera’s US network won’t be just a funnel for its existing English-language programming, produced in downtown Doha. Instead, it will “look inward, covering domestic affairs more often than foreign affairs,” and is relying on American reporters to do it, according to The New York Times.

And really, what’s more inward, domestic and American than hyperlocal news? If a hyperlocal organization can package its neighborhood or town as a profile in larger, national concerns, then it just might open the door to a lucrative business partnership with Al Jazeera.

Got a hyperlocal newsroom in El Paso or Detroit? Hook Al Jazeera up with coverage of immigration, international trade and national security policies, all with a local angle. Creating content for a hyperlocal news site in the Raleigh-Durham area? Sell Al Jazeera on the impacts of scientific discoveries, federal research funding and student-loan debt on average North Carolinians.

Even if a hyperlocal news beat doesn’t have any perceived sex appeal (a silly notion, as all hyperlocal news is sexy), newsroom talent can be a selling point. As of press time, Al Jazeera was hiring editors and designers in digital and video content. If an existing newsroom can carry some of that workload on a contract basis, then a partnership is still possible.

In return, hyperlocal partners earn additional revenue and bragging rights, though the latter is a double-edged scimitar. Al Jazeera’s objectivity as a news service has been (and will continue to be) questioned, which can be a drag on any of its business partners. However, if a hyperlocal news outlet’s main audience is sympathetic or at least ambivalent to this issue, then the risk is minimal.

And if Al Jazeera isn’t the proper partner for a hyperlocal organization, there’s always the Anonymous News Network.

Related: Hello, 2012 presidential primary season. Will you be my friend?

Photo of Al Jazeera’s weather report courtesy of Flickr user John Kannenberg.

Where hyperlocal news meets the “like” button

On Tuesday evening, I received a message via Facebook from Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, a friend and fellow hyperlocalist from Maryland. It was the kind of message that made me wince, smile and then slap my knee at her ingenuity.

First, the wince. Cotte Griffiths announced that she and her business partner, Brad Rourke, were pulling the plug on their Rockville (Md) Central news website. After three and a half years in publication, both had grown tired of juggling content creation and advertising sales, she told me. Furthermore, competition from Patch, another indie websitethe local print publication and the municipal government’s site made their reporting redundant, Rourke blogged.

Then came the smile. Rockville Central would live on as a news source through its Facebook page, where their fans were already gabbing about current events. With a combination of news aggregation and original reporting, “we can create a true community hub,” Cotte Griffiths wrote.

facebook like button

And then the knee slap. Even though Cotte Griffiths and Rourke won’t generate advertising revenue from their Facebook page, they can establish themselves as social-media experts with tabs on the local vibe. That can translate into serious revenue from social-media consulting, building an online presence for small businesses, nonprofit groups and even government agencies.

Then another knee slap. Facebook is already a mobile-friendly service, whether one uses its mobile website or a native (platform-specific) app. That gives the Rockville Central fan page greater reach without having to “mobilize” its own website or develop an expensive app. The technical witchcraft has already been done for them.

And still another knee slap. Cotte Griffiths and Rourke can take their social-media savvy onto Twitter, where they can generate revenue from sponsored tweets. Also, they can use the multimedia-heavy publishing platform Tumblr to build a portfolio of marketable stock photos or to publish original audio or video content, though Tumblr’s community of users is still small relative to Facebook and Twitter.

By the time I reached the closing salutations of Cotte Griffiths’ message, my knee was swollen from the slapping and I was swearing up a storm. (“Fucking genius!” came up a lot.) Sure, they’d have to stay ahead of the social-media curve in case some future service turns Facebook into MySpace. In the meantime, they can provide hyperlocal information, foster dialog among neighbors, and make bank as consultants.

One day after our Facebook exchange, the news of Rockville Central’s transition had made its way through Twitter. And by Wednesday evening, members of the Online News Association were talking about it at a mixer inside the offices of The New York Times. Some were intrigued, others were disappointed that local news would take this route.

I’m hitting the “like” button on this one.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr user Sean MacEntee.