Jun 13, 2008

What's in a newspaper?

The Pasadena Weekly asks whether newspapers have a responsibility to filter out hateful reader comments posted on their Web sites. The Weekly uses the Los Angeles Daily News and Pasadena Star-News (the Weekly's chief competitors) as examples.

The story isn't particularly insightful, but it does raise two issues newspapers should seriously consider as they turn to reader comments as a way to build brand loyalty. The first issue has to do with staffing. Recent cuts have left newsrooms stocked with many fewer reporters at a time when they're being asked to take on increased responsibilities: write and manage blogs, shoot photos and video for the Web, ratchet up byline counts and, now it seems, scrub the comments section of objectively objectionable stuff.

The second issue goes to the very foundation of what a newspaper is, and what it will become: To what extent should the newsroom be responsible for creating and monitoring open forums offer debate? Frank Pine, editor of the Star-News and its sister papers in the San Gabriel Valley, gets at part of this:

“There’s a larger issue in this story,” said Pine, “that is, to what degree should newspaper Web sites allow people to comment anonymously. It’s something that warrants further scrutiny. Certainly it’s a conversation we’ve been having in the newsroom and will continue to have.”

The issue of anonymous comments is certainly worth considering, but an even larger issue, I think, is whether the newsroom should be monitoring comments section in the first place.

Traditionally, the role of the newsroom was to ingest information from a variety of sources and then exercise responsible judgment about what to publish, with what context, and with what emphasis. In other words, the newsroom acts as a filter. Creating a platform for free and open debate is a whole other animal, one newsrooms are not set up to handle.

More importantly, we have to ask whether newspapers adding comments in a benevolent effort to foment civic discussion, or in a calculated effort to build a customer base?

29 comments:

Mike Rappaport said...

Fascinating subject, and one that has shown up numerous times here. On many of the blogs about LANG, anonymous comments have been some of the nastiest.

Seems to me that if someone is going to attack someone, they ought to at least have the honor to use their own name.

Anonymous said...

I guess being fired makes it easy to use your own name. Some people still have jobs they have to think about and families to support. It's easy t be righteous when you have nothing to lose right, Mike? Not everyone "has a wife with a six-figure income."

Mike Rappaport said...

Anyone who thinks I had "nothing to lose" is an idiot. Yes, we're doing fine financially, and will continue to do so. I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to, but all I can say is that if you only work for the money, it's pretty sad.

And when you post anonymously and attack me, for all I know you're Steve Lambert.

Len Cutler said...

The problem with the "protecting yourself" argument is that the posts Mike's referring to were in support of LANG, and attacking the union (correct me if I'm wrong Mike).

So what retaliation are those posters in fear of exactly?

Anonymous said...

Actually trying to serve the readership? I assume that's a rhetorical question.

The comments will be a tool used by the newspaper to attract readers. I just wonder to what level the newspaper will be responsible for issues of taste, accuracy and libel, or will there be a big disclaimer: "We take no responsibility for anything we print here, but we really hope you read it." And will that stand up legally? (Heck, they might decide to add that disclaimer to the print product, too.)

As for allowing anonymous, unedited comments, it will become a circus of uncontrolled but officially sanctioned graffiti. Then someone will anonymously post that the mayor is having a wild affair with his secretary or taking bribes from a developer, the mayor will threaten to sue the newspaper, and the people running the newsroom will have to start thinking again.

Anonymous said...

That's true, Rappy. There was still a lot of sleep to lose.

Mike Rappaport said...

Sad. So you're either Lambert or Lou Brewster, still whining about the sleep apnea I had four years ago.

Funny how nobody ever attacks the quality of my work.

Of course, quality doesn't matter much to you Sun people. As long as they keep giving you paychecks.

So get lost. I won't be back.

And I feel fine.

Anonymous said...

Aw gee Mike. Don't go away angry. Just go away.

And about your "quality" work. How is it that you Mr. Business Eitor issed the biggest story around as it was developing -- the mortgage crisis? You couldn't get a quote from John Husing?

Gary Scott said...

Anonymous, take your beef with Mike Rappaport elsewhere. It's uninteresting and I'm tired of the Groundhog Day effect in the comments section.

Anonymous said...

Gary, you're such a hypocrite. Your Groundhog Day standard clearly doesn't apply to those who share your agenda.

Gary Scott said...

Setting aside the fact that it is my blog, what agenda do you think I have?

Anonymous said...

If the libel appears on the paper's site, the paper can be held accountable.

The paper is publishing the libel on the Web.

As far as the comment section being used as a tool to gather readers for the paper. The paper is not gathering readers that way, the Web site is.

To date, I don't know of ONE newspaper that has made a profit off the web and its almost counter productive when the most interesting stuff is on the web and not in the paper.

Anonymous said...

Censorship is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

From what I've read Gary, it is starting to seem as though whenever one of your blog's readers, (and of course any blog admin should be happy to have readers,) says something you personally don't agree with their opinions get deleted. If someone doesn't like someone else, who cares really? Important issues are being discussed here in a safe forum, at least this is what I come here for, to hear the opinions of others and discuss my own. But from what I've seen time and time again, Gary, it seems that you prefer to pick a side between the two and delete the comments of whomever you personally disagree with.

Before you delete me Gary, I concede that this is your blog and your right to do so, of course, but then don't pretend you are an advocate of free speech. When you do these things, then you become an advocate ONLY of the speech that you deem to be alright for your readers to read. Similar to burning library books that you have deemed "innapropriate." We are all adults here and should be allowed to make up our own minds.

Let people fight their own battles, Gary. At least here, people can respond to the unflattering comments made about them and these comments are not being said behind someone's back. As far as I can tell since it seems that people have responded any time someone has said anything about them. Why is it fair that we can blast some people who fell down in their jobs and not others? Why are only some people fair game and others not? That seems unbalanced, at the very least.

And yes, I am anonymous. So what?

Len Cutler said...

Two things:


1) Most, if not all, of the LANG papers are turning a hefty profit off their Web operations, especially relative to the costs and overhead. That's why they're pushing online. The total profits aren't high enough to sustain operations as a whole, but LANG's web project is more than paying for itself.

2) By attacking Mike (whom I don't know and have never met) and hiding your name, you're essentially sucker punching him. It's beating up on someone who can't fight back. In other words (and this might sound a little too old-fashioned) it's pretty damn cowardly and doesn't show much integrity at all.

I don't think Gary would mind half as much if you weren't anonymous. I can't speak for him, but that's my hunch. The only time he's deleted comments that I'm aware of, it wasn't over the message, it was because of the delivery. Let's put it another way: Are you really going to try equating "don't insult someone unless you're willing to do it out in the open" with censorship?

Since you asked, the difference is Mike could respond in kind. I'm sure you already know that by bashing him from the shadows, he can't say anything about you. He can't even use your words against you, because all you have to do is say "that was a different anonymous."

Lastly, having your name out there would establish whether or not you're dishing it out because you have an agenda or not. I seriously doubt that you stand the risk of being fired if it comes out that you're defending LANG by insulting its detractors. Unless you're management maybe, in which case Mike was right in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I am not the anonymous person attacking Mike.

Gary can probably see my IP address and confirm this.

How exactly are the LANG papers turning a profit via the net? I have had two LANG employees tell me they have turned no profit.

Papers are pushing things online because they hope somehow that will bring people to the site.

Just about everything has to have a web site these days, but I am not sure that the Web is making everyone money.

The sites have almost no ads.

Len Cutler said...

Sorry for the confusion there. Those two posts weren't anything alike. That was my mistake.

Anyhow, were either of those LANG employees involved in Web operations?

I can't speak authoritatively on any other LANG property, but at the Press-Telegram, online revenues were somewhere in the ballpark of 8% of the total revenues. Our costs were substantially lower than that. I've been told that was common for LANG, but like I said, I never got any hard numbers to back that up.

They don't have ads? Since when? I haven't been to a LANG Web site since February (I'm not inclined to help bump up their pageviews) but they used to have ads everywhere. Did they finally change that?

Anonymous said...

I can assure you that when you add in a full measure of expenses that the web is not turning a profit.

That means sales expense, management time, reporters time, rent, etc.

We can argue about how much the allocation should be, but it needs to be allocated.

Now, I am sure down the road if done right, the web operations will turn a profit.

The key here is done right. So far, not yet.

Len Cutler said...

I think we'd have quite a different definition of exactly what constitutes "a full measure of expenses." Most, if not all, LANG properties have less than five employees (including editors) performing Web functions - how much rent do you think they're liable for exactly? Yes, Web content is generated by reporters, and edited by the copy desk, so a portion of their wages should be an online expense, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on just how big a share you think it should be, because at the moment everything is still done according to the needs of the print edition, not by what's best for the Web site.

That goes for sales and everything else too.

The reason management likes online is because it has low expenses and has a much smaller financial footprint than print. The flipside is that the biggest investment, especially for things like sales, still goes to print, which brings in the lion's share of revenues. Can you cite the number of dedicated online advertising sales reps for any of the LANG papers? My info is a bit dated, but at last count it was none. They don't spend money on Web operations because that would defeat the whole point of having Web operations in the first place, at least by the LANG model.

May I ask if you work in a LANG Web dept or not? This is purely a guess, but it seems as though your comments invariably focus on just how awful this new Web thing is.

Anonymous said...

I don't work for LANG in any capicity.

There are dedicated sales reps in online as well as other web only employees such as web developers.

Though, this is under continous change and last weeks info may not be accurate today.

The point of my last posting was that it is easy to cite figures that can breed false assumptions.

The web is less costly than printing news on paper. However, you do need to be fair in expense allocation to get a true measure of profitability.

Anonymous said...

I will call myself Anonymous2 to avoid confusion.

Just because the web is cheap doesn't mean it has paid off. How much did the server cost?? how much do they pay the webmaster??

If they have online ad reps, what are they paying them??

If profits are down at LANG and I have not seen anything that says they are up - then how can the company possibly be MAKING money from the web site??

Having five employees doesn't mean they are making money, that just means they are cheap.

Len Cutler said...

A2: Thanks for the identifier, if you use it as a sig that'll help reduce the confusion.

Except...are both of the last two posts yours? I'm going to assume yes until told otherwise.

This is exactly the problem with anonymous postings.


The point of my last posting was that it is easy to cite figures that can breed false assumptions.

That is absolutely true, raw data can be misleading. But that doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand.

The servers and Web masters reside in Denver, where they primarily service the Denver Post. They exist only marginally for LANG, as a figure on the other end of a phone call or email. I would guess that their costs are divided among most of MediaNews, not just LANG.

If you don't work for LANG, how can you be sure there are dedicated online sales reps? I'm not saying you're wrong, but that's news to me, so if that info is coming from somewhere far outside the company I have to take it with a little skepticism.

Overall revenues are indeed down, but other Web types in LANG have suggested to be that's a matter of reduced print advertising, not online.

If profits are down at LANG and I have not seen anything that says they are up - then how can the company possibly be MAKING money from the web site??

Just because your local Ford dealer hasn't sold a car in six months, that doesn't mean the on-site repair shop isn't pulling in customers.

Anonymous said...

I guess i will be A1.

I don't work for LANG now, but did in recent years.


A2 is exactly right and my figures are accurate.

When allocated fairly, the web is not the rose garden you make it out to be for LANG.

I have no beef with LANG, but also don't want to get out false assumptions that go the other way either.

Newspapers can be very profitable on the web, but, like most things they are competing in an arena they aren't equipped to play in.

The pure internet players have and will continue to eat their lunch.

Len Cutler said...

A1:


You still haven't described just what a "fair allocation" means exactly. It's one thing to make vague claims about something, and another thing altogether to support it with some sort of evidence.

I never said ANY part of LANG was a rose garden, and if I mistakenly gave off that impression, please accept this as a clarification of that.

But I will say that even a halfassed Web site will bring in a couple of bucks if it's got any kind of content worth reading. All they have to do is keep their investment and expenses to a minimum (which they've done, believe me) and those few dollars become a profit, no matter how meager or inconsequential it might be relative to the larger picture.

Anonymous said...

Don't bother, Len. The only people left in LANG are the hardcore Kool Aid drinkers.

All they do is spout the party line and attack the people like Mike who dare say anything against it.

Anonymous said...

You know, anon, your comments about "hard core Kool Aid drinkers" is an insult to each and every one of us on the front line (reporters, copy editors, photographers, ad reps) who believe in what we do, are trying to make a difference and, yes, value our jobs. I have a daughter at home. I don't have the luxury of not working. Your comment makes you a pompous ass.

Anonymous said...

Just because your local Ford dealer hasn't sold a car in six months, that doesn't mean the on-site repair shop isn't pulling in customers.

I agree, but I think you would agree pulling in customers does not equal making money.

Think of it this way, let's say 8 percent of the money Vons' Supermarket makes comes from their Produce section - yet VONS supermarket, particulary that one store, loses money every fiscal year - is Von's making any money at the end of the day???

Nope. They still suffer a loss, but that department is faring well.

I think where papers are going wrong is putting NEWS online, why not just put your classifieds online and come up with something to compete with Craigslist.

Entities like Monster, Craigslist, cars.com and other have stolen parts of or all of the ad dollars when it comes to those repsective products - not Fox, CNN or MSNBC.

I'll say it again when a reporter's blog is more interesting than what's in the newspaper - yet the advertisers are not on your web site - than the paper is creating problems for itself.

A2.

Len Cutler said...

A2:

The thing is, we're not arguing about whether or not the company as a whole is profitable. We're arguing over whether the Web operations are turning a profit. The condition of the print side, or the company as a whole, has nothing to do with how well the Web site is doing. And you've offered nothing to contradict the numbers thus far.

But your other point is on the right track. Newspapers can't compete with Craigslist (yet) because CL offers most of their ads for free.

The catch (which we're only starting to see) is that as CL and Monster and the rest get more popular, they're going to become even more attractive targets for spam and junk. Paid advertising filters out the chaff. Newspapers have the opportunity to quantify classified advertising, filter it, and provide a higher quality forum than CL can provide. Right now, they're not positioning themselves to do so, which is a big mistake.

Once upon a time, organizing and filtering the Web was a non-issue. Simply having more content, more links (in the case of the search engine wars) or larger volumes of cyber-acreage was enough. But as the internet became common, suddenly that size became a hindrance. No one wants to wade through 20 junk links to find one good page.

In a few years, we'll see the same thing with online advertising.

In its nascency, the "free" internet classifieds model is very attractive. But over time, I think you'll see a shift in the other direction, as the quality of the content once again becomes a factor. The question is will newspapers have the wherewithal to hold out until it does.

Anonymous said...

The way forward would be to put SOME news on a site designed to compete with the Monster and Craiglist type sites or maybe a local restaurant guide - and then push that guide in the paper everyday and push the news stories that are in the paper from online.

The way forward is NOT putting everything online, its about balance and making money off the print AND web.

In Pasadena, everyone thought a certain online publication was going to put everyone out of business.

Didn't happen, that publication is struggling to get ads just like everyone else.

Because the sites we are talking about are taking money from him as well.

A2

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