After my last post on bloggers' misuse of the word 'conversation', Sean Coon - who wanted AdAge to put comments in with journalists' columns - responded with his reasons for wanting comments to be aired in public and a question of his own:
Why do you think the majority of the mainstream media have dragged their feet in opening their online columns to allow commenting? Simon [Dumenco]'s point about antiquated publishing systems might have something to do with it, but *i feel* that editorial departments, and possibly traditional 'writers' want no part of it.
There are lots of answers to this one. One point I'd like to make first though is that sections of the mainstream media or old media, whatever you want to call them, were quite quick to put discussion forums on their sites to allow people to comment and talk about stories and columns. They were not hugely successful for the most part, which came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people in the industry.
One assumption that people outside the traditional publishers make is that journalists believe they write copy, which is edited to fit a page, consumed quietly and avidly by a hungry public that nods sagely in response before moving onto the next story. Even the most misguided hack knows otherwise. People comment on stories to themselves at the very least, talk to their friends, colleagues or neighbours about what they saw in the paper - whether it was arrant rubbish, news to them or quite interesting. Forums were meant to cater to that discussion and, theoretically had the spin-off benefit that the more that people hung around the site posting comments, the more ads they could see. Yet, the forums often turned out to be tumbleweed-strewn wildernesses despite the belief that participation should be strong.
Marshall McLuhan wrote about the participation in Understanding Media, published in 1964, just about the time that Douglas Engelbart built the first computer mouse and a year before Ted Nelson came up with the term hypertext (albeit 20 years after Vannevar Bush postulated the Memex). "The individual news item is very low in information, and requires completion or fill-in by the reader...we have discussed the press as a mosaic form successor to the book-form. The mosaic is the mode of the corporate or collective image and commands deep participation. This participation is communal rather than private, inclusive rather than exclusive."
On the one hand, you have bloggers who claim to now feel excluded from the modern press process. On the other, you have the journalists who differ in their opinions in whether they are being exclusive and what to do about it but, deep down, do not feel that much has changed in human nature. Blogging has brought a new mode of expression but it's questionable as to whether the medium has actually changed what people were doing before. Blogging lets people communicate their thoughts on what is in the news to a much wider circle. If your work colleagues or friends do not care all that much about events in Turkey covered today, you can post them on a blog and maybe find someone else who agrees or disagrees. Or just watch the webstats and find out that other people like to read about events in Turkey. In McLuhan's worldview, it marks a further extension of the human, but has it altered what people wanted to do in the first place or just given them a much more efficient way of distributing their thoughts than through a small circle of acquaintances.
But, amid this change, the news media have done nothing, absolutely nothing to stifle the debate. A quick check of Technorati's home page will generally reveal that the top stories and columns under discussion almost always derive directly from the mainstream media. In fact, there are so many places to go one has to question whether the media sites should try to kick-start comment threads on their own pages. If you look at the mags that have them, the comment threads are often lonelier places than external sites.
There are many possible reasons, and a number of them lie in the way that the media sites handle the user interface for comment threads and forums. The software packages are often incompatible with the content management systems used to post news stories, so you force people to jump, which puts them off. But some of the problem is, to my mind, structural. People want to be able to comment off-site so that they can own their part of the debate. Having the comment threads on-page often brings up questions of control and censorship - whatever happens, those threads will be moderated. Off-site, it's up to you.
I shouldn't ignore corporate inertia. Almost every company seems to have a different structure for mediating online and print products, and the IT that powers the website and production systems. A common conversation, no matter what the structure is, goes like this:
Editor - "We really need X for our site."
Person in charge of the infrastructure - "The public don't want X."
End of conversation.
I once worked in a place where the people in charge of the websites were ex-editorial but had IT responsibilities. The search function was badly messed up - to the point that we advised people to use the site-search option under Google rather than attempt to use the on-site search. Questions about why repairing the archive search was not a priority, or at least making it possible to put a Google button on the site as a competitor had done, were met with the bald response: "People don't use search for news." This was some time before Google News happened along, but I think even recent visitors from the planet Zarg might have been baffled by the response from the people in charge of running the website. The real answer was, of course, they knew it was messed-up but they did not know what to do about it, even though it was possible to come up with a business case as to why effective search was important to the site.
For adding something like comment threads to stories and columns, the business case is less clear. Editors, even if they think adding the threading software makes sense editorially, will find themselves beating their heads against a brick wall if the people in charge of the site software do not agree. And I think the business case for having comments on-page is so intangible that few would want to push it through - there are so many other things you can go after that could bring in more readers. Don't forget, each and every blog post brings in more traffic. By sending people away - albeit by default - traffic is still turning up at the door.
The issue then becomes the one of the feeling of exclusion that bloggers complain of. But do you need on-page comments from the writers, or simply a way of debating points with them? You can see that happening with a number of journalists already, using either blogs on the magazine sites or their own. More will follow if they see a benefit to the process. However, I think any sensible media organisation will do what it can to move where this market is headed rather than try to play catch-up with blogs as they are today. Second-generation intermediaries - the companies that follow Technorati - are likely to be able to bring together the sources of debate and the commenters more efficiently than is possible today.