Seeking engagement, media firms toss readers the keys

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Gawker Media boss Nick Denton tells his journalists they are "witnessing a new way of developing stories." ()
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On April 24, during an all-hands meeting at Gawker Media's SoHo headquarters, founder and publisher Nick Denton was extolling the virtues of Kinja, his proprietary publishing platform that allows readers to participate in the company's editorial sausage-making.

Kinja is essentially a next-level commenting system that breaks down the barriers between writer and reader by enabling the latter to drive conversations around stories on Gawker and its sister sites. That could mean surfacing tips to be reported and vetted in public. It could mean writing alternate headlines and display copy. Or even starting your own Kinja blog and curating the conversations that take place there.

It's an open, crowd-sourced approach to journalism in which (ideally) commenters are as important as the bylines that appear on Gawker Media's eight publications. And Denton believes it's the future of media—or his media, at least.

"Don’t anyone deny to me that that is actually happening right now," he told the troops during that April meeting. "You can see examples every single freaking day. There are half-a-dozen of them. It’s not even hard to find examples of discussions of stories that have been developed, of truths that have been uncovered, information that has been disseminated, tips that have been shared, and it’s happening every single day. You’re doing it. You’re witnessing it yourselves. Like, open your eyes. You are witnessing a new way of developing stories."

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Denton's always been seen as a bomb-thrower in an industry moored to tradition. But his placement of the audience on equal footing with his professional gatekeepers doesn't seem like such a radical proposition these days.

Comment sections, once (and in many places still) considered the swampiest enclaves of the web, now enjoy plum status as a key component of that all important "engagement" metric that keeps readers—and advertisers—committed to their favorite sites. At the same time, reader contributions are becoming an increasingly vital part of the media ecosystem, with more publishers creating and improving the platforms that bring those contributions to life.

Some of them, like The Huffington Post and Forbes with their contributor networks, CNN.com with its "iReporter" citizen journalists, or The Guardian with its signature open-journalism initiatives, have already been at it for years. Others are just starting to really get their feet wet.

The "people formerly known as the audience," as digital-journalism professor Jay Rosen calls them, got one of their biggest endorsements with last week's announcement that The New York Times and The Washington Post have teamed up with the open-web advocacy organization Mozilla to build an open-source community platform funded by a $3.89 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

In addition to managing comments and contributor profiles, the platform will enable readers to submit pictures, links and other media that journalists could potentially use in their reporting and storytelling. It will also let publishers "easily include reader contributions in their content cycle, manage their communities and gather valuable user data," according to a news release, while using "reputation scores, self-policing and other tools to make it easier for news organizations to monitor comments."

Not everyone thinks news outlets should be expending time and energy on this sort of thing.

"What they want is 'community ownership'—a large group of people with a sense of investment in the community, around the NYT or the Post or whatever," Rusty Foster, the programmer and author of a popular inside media newsletter called Today in Tabs, said in an interview with The Daily Dot. "But the only way to do that is to give up a lot of control to the community, and I don’t think what has to be done to really build community ownership is compatible with the mission of a news organization."

On Twitter, some skeptics scoffed at the idea of doling out $4 million to more or less make commenting better.

"The world's worst use of charity money: online comments," wrote Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.

But Marc Lavallee, the Times' interactive news technology editor, said the "scale" of what the Times will be able to achieve through the Knight collaboration, which will make the platform freely available throughout the industry, is "much larger than what we can tackle" independently.

"If we had started down this path a year or two ago, I'd have been less confident that it was ready," he said. "It feels ready now."

Smaller outlets are likewise becoming savvier with regard to how their readers interact with content. Atlantic Media's global business site, Quartz, for example, now allows readers to annotate the margins of its articles.

"The idea is to encourage thoughtful commentary and substantive contributions," the site explained when it debuted the feature last summer (with—bonus!—a sponsorship from Citi). "We’ll also reward your great annotations by featuring them more prominently, responding to you, and removing others that are off-topic or abusive."

Platforms for user-generated content are becoming more ubiquitous, too. The latest entrants in the contributor craze include Entertainment Weekly and Condé Nast Traveler, both of which recently announced outside-contributor networks for their websites, with plans to scale each of them to the tune of 1,000 participants.

“The expansion here hopefully allows us to tap into new audiences who are increasingly having conversations in fragmented locations,” EW.com general manager Liz White told Digiday.

The cynical view is that platforms like these are just a way for publishers to goose their traffic with content that is either free or requires little money or effort on the publisher's part. Quality control can be an issue, and there's been no shortage of spitballs fired at websites that have made community content a core part of their editorial models. (The Huffington Post is covered in them.)

The believers would probably argue otherwise.

"Community is ... at the core of journalism," wrote Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project (and founding editor of the classic '90s fanzine Punk Planet), on his Tumblr blog, "whether it’s geographic communities that form the bedrock of local news or the communities of interest that form around subjects as broad as basketball and politics, journalism has always had community at its core."

Rosen, who's been writing about this stuff for years, said the idea of a network of contributors connected to professional journalists has been around in some form since at least 1999.

"The attempts to realize it wax and wane, gain and lose ground, but it's such a powerful idea that it never goes away, and people who understand it keep coming back to it," he said.

At the moment, those attempts appear to be waxing.

Lavallee, of the Times, sees it as "the arc we've been on for the last 10 years or so, from democratizing publishing with blogging and social platforms and people having their own audiences." Platforms like the one he's now working on will "bring readers who have thoughts on and reactions to media closer to each other," he said.

Ken Doctor, a media analyst with the firm Outsell, said that news and media companies are beginning to care less about mass (pageviews, unique monthly visitors, etc.), and more about deepening their relationships with readers. Those relationships are critical at outlets like the Times and the Post and anyone else who's in the relatively new business of convincing readers to pay for digital content.

"The business opportunity here is pretty clear," said Doctor. "The more engagement you get, the more likely readers are to pay you, and to renew."

At the same time, said Doctor, digital ad buyers are being pitched on premium brand associations with highly engaged readers, most of all that small but valuable percentage who actually stick around for a while—leaving comments and participating in discussions and submitting content of their own, for instance.

Doctor said the Times-Post-Mozilla mashup is a significant step in "trying to create a standard" for that high level of audience engagement (or "former audience" engagement, to borrow the Rosen parlance). And with its open-source model, it could be the first big opportunity to encourage widespread adoption throughout the industry.

John Bracken, the Knight Foundation's director of journalism and media innovation, agrees.

"We know that hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost in the news industry over the past few years," he said. "This creates the opportunity for smaller publishers to benefit from these tools, and to me that's where the real economic benefit is."