The ultimate guide to newspaper curmudgeon talking points

by Jason Preston on July 31, 2008

Or, How To Win That Argument With The Managing Editor.

This list is a collaborative work! Send me your contributions by email, comment, or Twitter, and I’ll ad ‘em to the post.

This list is now a downloadable e-book! Check it out.

Jay Rosen, who I follow on Twitter, got me thinking about newsroom curmudgeons with his tweets last week. It got me to suggest that we compile a giant, handy-dandy guide to these curmudgeonly views and their counterpoints.

This is that guide.

And so, without further ado, here the is the ultimate guide to newspaper curmudgeon talking points:

1: “Comments are worthless vitriol and they degrade the work of journalists.”

This can be a tough one. It doesn’t take long to find a comment thread gone awry on a newspaper’s web site. Unfortunately for the curmudgeon, there is a wealth of evidence to prove them wrong.

The catch? These counter-point comments are often found on well moderated blogs that aren’t at major newspapers. Which leads to curmudgeon point…


1B: “Newspapers are totally different than blogs, so you can’t use successful blogs as examples for how comments have value.”

Step one is to point out the absurdity of their basic assumption: the people who read and comment on blogs are an entirely different group of people than those who read and comment on newspaper websites.

There are a lot of people online, sure, but there’s considerably more overlap than you might think. Furthermore, we’re all humans, which means even if you have an audience made up largely of different people, they still share similar responses to their environments.

Often a blog that boast a healthy, respectful, and intelligent troupe of commenters is different from a newspaper’s web site in ways that are far more significant than simple “blogginess.”

In my time putting on the Blog Business Summit and Web Community Forum and in helping clients craft social media strategy and engage with communities, these are some of the factors I’ve seen playing a large part in the civility of the comments section:

Mix and match, and each serves a different purpose, but there are a host of tools and techniques that can be used, or at least tried, before throwing the whole thing out the window.

1C: “Newspapers don’t have the resources to moderate comments”

Yes you do. It’s called your readers. If you have an active and engaged community, and you have easy-to-use tools, your readers will alert you to comments which have gone off the rails. When a post is flagged, that email should go to all your on-duty producers, one of whom will handle. It’s not perfect, but it will catch the most egregious problems 99% of the time.

Contributed by Tim Windsor.

1D: “Moderating comments opens newspapers up to legal problems that blogs don’t have to worry about. We will get sued.”

The general legal consensus is hat moderating’s no problem. Editing, however, could bring legal exposure. So the answer is: don’t edit, moderate. Kill problem posts, don’t try to fix them. Boot problem users, don’t try to rehabilitate them.

Contributed by Tim Windsor.

2: “The internet can’t replace the work of paid newspaper reporters! If newspapers die, so does democracy!”

The fundamental flaw in this logic is the assumption that citizen journalists are all unpaid.

Many digerati forget to explain, in their rush of cyberenthusiasm, that when we talk about citizens worldwide effectively replacing newspapers, we are talking about thousands of entrepreneurs.

Sure, there are tons of people the world over who snap news photos with their cell phones and send them in to publishers, or occasionally volunteer their time in exchange for what amounts to cheap publicity, but the people that will be replacing the existing establishment are the journalistepreneurs who are willing to aggregate, edit, produce, and publish, in order to run a successful online business.

3: “Never link to your competitors, you’re just giving them traffic!”

In the old world of either-or, this made a lot of sense. Any time you promoted your competing paper, you were essentially encouraging your subscribers and readers to go pick up their daily instead of yours. Which is, of course, completely irrelevant online.

One of the largest problems that people have on the internet is finding things. People love it when you help them get to the good stuff, regardless of who produced it.

This is the logic behind many successful portals such as Digg, Metafilter, and many successful bloggers like Robert Scoble (geek tech blogger) and Fred Wilson (VC & technology blogger). How interesting would Fred’s blog be if he only wrote about his portfolio companies? Not very.

Consistently linking to your competitors best stuff is a great way to become recognized as the leading authority in your space. Ironic, isn’t it?

4: “Social media is a fad. Investing in it now will be a waste of time and money when it all goes bottom-up.”

Get the name of the person saying this. Chances are you can find an email authored by him in 1995 arguing that “cyberspace” was a fad, too.

Contributed by Tim Windsor.

“Social media” is just the latest buzz term … but online communities go back to the 1980s and and BBS systems. If “social media” is a fad, it’s a 30-year-old fad. As long as there have been digital communications, there have been communities of “friends” who connected through it.

The curmudgeon meme also ignores reams of demographic research that shows that millennials are more socially aware and connected than not only GenXers, but even Baby Boomers.

Contributed by Howard Owens.

5A: “There is no online business model.”

5A is from Howard Owens

While there isn’t a profitable online business model for newspapers yet, there are a whole lot of companies that are building big revenue streams online, many of them doing content production.

TimeWarner is making big moves to be in the content business, not in the distribution business.

Newspapers may not have hit the holy grail yet, but there are a number of valid business models being explored, and sooner or later one of them is going to start working.

There are more eyeballs reading your work now, more than ever before, thanks to the Internet. Your work has tremendous value.

There is a business model. The Web site is making money. With all of the people interested in reading your work, there will always be a way to monetize it.

Contributed by Kyle Geissler.

5B: “People should pay; our journalism has value.”

5B is from Howard Owens

Yes your journalism has value, and what’s more, someone is paying: advertisers.

The reality is, of course, that what people have always paid for is a physical good (paper in the hands, book on the shelf, magazine on the table). The fact that the publishing system managed to pay your salary was more or less a side effect.

Fortunately (yes, it is fortunately), you can’t simply scold consumers into paying for your journalism. If consumers think it’s not worth paying for, your options are: change the product until it is worth paying for, or find someone else to foot the bill. There’s no profit in moaning about how ungrateful your former customers are.

5C: “We’re trading analog dollars for digital pennies.”

5C is from Howard Owens

Technically speaking, this is true. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Coinstar built a ludicrously lucrative business by taking a few pennies out of each transaction. PayPal works because every time money changes hands, they get a cut. Google makes bazillions (yes, I meant to say “bazillions”) of dollars every year by shaving a percentage from the cost of each ad they serve.

Advertising online is a volume business, not a margin business. Making “analog dollars” worked well when you had a captive advertising audience and you could justify it with high costs. Those conditions just don’t exist anymore, and that money supply is dwindling.

Personally, I’d rather have 20 million pennies than 100,000 dollars.

6: “Corporations have ruined journalism; newspapers should become charities.”

6 is from Howard Owens

Corporations have done surprisingly little to ruin journalism. The only industry that is under as much scrutiny as the government is the news industry itself, and there are countless barriers that have been erected between editorial and advertising, doing a good job of preserving editorial integrity.

Corporate leadership is another matter. There’s plenty of blame to be shared by the strategic planners in the newspaper industry, but innovation is often spearheaded by the business world, and nobody on Wall Street is going to reward newspapers that continue to roll down the same dead-end path.

7A: “A blog is not a tool for journalism, it is for people in their pajamas writing about their cats from their basements.”

Whoever you are talking to is suffering from a very common misconception about what blogging is. They are conflating the content with the medium.

In other words, a blog is really just a publishing platform that makes it really, uncannily easy to share things on the internet. It can be used for journalism as easily as it can be used for talking about cats or for sharing tips on how to live well.

With the advent of blogging, the definition of a journalist has become rather murky. When anyone can commit an act of journalism at any time, do you really need to be employed by a news organization to be a journalist? Of course you don’t.

That might rankle you a bit. But it won’t go away if you ignore it.

7B: “Citizen journalists suck. They NEVER do any reporting.”

To conveniently counter this claim, you need to rely heavily—oh hell, you need to simply print out—Rosen’s piece from the LA Times titled The journalism that bloggers actually do. At the tail end of that article you’ll find a convenient and lengthy set of links that point you to all kinds of journalism happening in the citizen-blogosphere.

Of course, citizen journalism isn’t all about reporting and fact-gathering, either. I don’t think that citizen journalists are out to get traditional journalists; in fact, the vast majority of citizen journalists are probably better at interpreting news than uncovering it.

Reporters who are well paid to do the difficult digging should see citizen journalists as a resource and a boon, not a threat.

7C: “Citizen journalists suck. They’re biased! They have opinions and everything. Act like they own politics.”

7C is from Jay Rosen on Twitter.

What? Opinions? How dare they!

The advent of blogging has allowed—probably encouraged—the conflation of factual reporting and opinionated pontificating. The internet is a far more personal publishing platform than its standard ink-and-paper predecessor in that an unedited writer is free to provide both their reporting and their opinions.

Columnists often mix their reporting in with their opinions. It’s their job, after all. Citizen journalists are successfully challenging the notion that an accurate reporter needs to be publicly unbiased.

Everyone has opinions, and no matter how hard anyone tries, it is virtually impossible to prevent those attitudes from having an effect on their writing. One might argue that publicly stating your opinions acts as a helpful and appreciated disclaimer for the increasingly skeptical consumer.

8: “I don’t need to learn anything about online because the fundamentals of journalism are about good reporting and good writing, not which social networks I join.”

8 is from Howard Owens

Good reporting means good listening. And good listening means being connected online. Real world engagement without online engagement is no engagement at all.

The online conversation is not limited to certain areas or certain people. It is not inferior. It is illuminating. Ignore it, and as journalists we secure our path to antiquity and irrelevance.

Contributed by Mónica Guzmán.

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{ 18 comments }

1 Bryan Murley 08.01.08 at 7:05 pm

Funny list.

7A: “A blog is not a tool for journalism, it is for people in robes writing about their cats.”

One should be clear about this: it is for people in their “pajamas” in their basement writing about cats – a reference to an early newspaper curmudgeon, Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Search “pajama-clad bloggers and Nick Coleman” for the reference, since the S-T has a paywall up around their archives.

2 Jason Preston 08.02.08 at 10:17 am

@Bryan – Thanks! I’ve updated talking point 7A ;)

3 Damon Kiesow 08.02.08 at 5:38 pm

1D: “Moderating comments opens newspapers up to legal problems that blogs don’t have to worry about. We will get sued.”

Do people actually believe/argue this one still?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230_of_the_Communications_Decency_Act

4 Tim Windsor 08.02.08 at 5:44 pm

Some suggestions:

1C – Yes you do. It’s called your readers. If you have an active and engaged community, and you have easy-to-use tools, your readers will alert you to comments which have gone off the rails. When a post is flagged, that email should go to all your on-duty producers, one of whom will handle. It’s not perfect, but it will catch the most egregious problems 99% of the time.

1D – The general legal consensus is hat moderating’s no problem. Editing, however, could bring legal exposure. So the answer is: don’t edit, moderate. Kill problem posts, don’t try to fix them. Boot problem users, don’t try to rehabilitate them.

4. Get the name of the person saying this. Chances are you can find an email authored by him in 1995 arguing that “cyberspace” was a fad, too.

7C. We’re all biased, like it or not. Bloggers admit this freely and wear their affiliations and their passions on their sleeves in a regular disclosure that we somehow gave the fancy name of “transparency.” We, on the other hand, pretend that there is a state called “objectivity,” in which all personal bias disappears when we sit down to write. Which do you believe? This is not to say that the pursuit of fairness and objectivity is doomed to failure – it’s not. It’s what makes a great journalist, along with tenacity, curiosity and, occasionally, a way with words. But to pretend that objectivity is granted, like some super-power, when the cub-reporter is first tapped on the shoulder by a wise and grizzled editor, is the stuff of fantasy.

5 Howard Owens 08.02.08 at 6:18 pm

You left out, “people should pay; our journalism has value.”

And, “video is a waste of resources.”

And, “We’re trading analog dollars for digital pennies.”

And, “There is no online business model.”

And, “Corporations have ruined journalism; newspapers should become charities.”

And, “I don’t need to learn anything about online because the fundamentals of journalism are about good reporting and good writing, not which social networks I join.”

As for #4: “Social media’ is just the latest buzz term … but online communities go back to the 1980s and and BBS systems. If “social media” is a fad, it’s a 30-year-old fad. As long as there have been digital communications, there have been communities of “friends” who connected through it. The curmudgeon meme also ignores reams of demographic research that shows that millennials are more socially aware and connected than not only GenXers, but even Baby Boomers.

6 Kate Martin 08.02.08 at 6:45 pm

These are great, but is there any advice for a lowly reporter who works for curmudgeons? Especially with the comments and blogging issues, my editors say we cannot moderate comments because it opens us up to legal challenges. When I ask for specifics as to why that is, they say “that’s what the lawyers tell us.”

Trust me, I believe in the value of blogs and commenting to build a community, though honestly I am still waiting on a valid business model to save us all. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a curmudgeon.

7 Jason Preston 08.02.08 at 8:49 pm

@Tim & @Howard – brilliant! I’ve worked your stuff into the main post…I’ll take a swing at some of the new curmudgeon points myself.

@Kate – you’re right, that needs to be dealt with here, too. I’ve been talking with Kevin O’Keefe of Lexblog about the legal situation around comments, and I’m hoping to get a post up in the near future that explains what newspapers can and can’t do, and what (if anything) they have to worry about legally. That should give us all some ammo when talking about comments.

And as for the business model, it’ll happen. There are a whole lot of smart people talking about it, events like The Pitch designed to look at possible answers, and a whole bunch of smart journalists who are trying things in the newsroom.

The big question that needs to get answered soon, IMHO, is whether or not readers should be paying for anything. I used to think I knew the answer to that question, but now I’m not sure I do.

8 Bryan Murley 08.03.08 at 5:15 am

Especially with the comments and blogging issues, my editors say we cannot moderate comments because it opens us up to legal challenges. When I ask for specifics as to why that is, they say “that’s what the lawyers tell us.”

The lawyers are mostly correct (although the editors are probably reading more into it than the lawyers are saying) and their interpretation centers around section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. I wrote about it here, and judges have consistently held that online publishers are not liable for the defamatory comments left on their sites, unlike letters to the editor published in the newspaper. And, at least from legal minds I’ve heard, this is really a uniquely U.S. legal feature.

Now, having said that, this one: ““Moderating comments opens newspapers up to legal problems that blogs don’t have to worry about. We will get sued.” is only half stupid. The legal problems are the same, whether blog or paper, because anybody can be sued. iBattlboro.com was sued for a comment someone left. But papers are probably more likely to be sued because of their deeper pockets.

And, FWIW, “moderation” means a whole lot of things. I prefer using an adjective to modify the term – “passive moderation” – for when comments are posted immediately and the users flag those that are inappropriate, as opposed to “active moderation” where someone is paid to wade through a bunch of comments waiting for moderation.

9 Howard Owens 08.03.08 at 5:21 am

On the post editing issue: You can moderate comments; you cannot edit comments. Essentially, let a comment go or delete it, but don’t touch it.

10 Jason Preston 08.03.08 at 7:42 am

@Howard – you’re absolutely right, that is a KEY distinction, and from what I understand, editing comments is what will get you into bucketloads of trouble.

11 Damon Kiesow 08.03.08 at 7:50 am

To Brian’s point about iBrattleboro – they were sued for a comment and it probably cost them some money to fight it – but the charge was dismissed early on because of CDA 230.

Newspapers get sued for something every week – but restaurants also get sued for serving hot coffee – so go figure. We certainly can’t stop allowing comments, or stop moderating them for fear of winning lawsuits.

Damon

12 Monica Guzman 08.03.08 at 6:13 pm

Kate,

My editors say the same thing. I understand the difference between moderating and editing, but here’s the policy I don’t get: according to my editor, we cannot go in and delete bad comments on our own, when we read them, but have to wait until someone in the community flags the comment. I took my editor at word when he said that’s what the lawyers demand; now I’m not so sure. Anyone know whether this is valid?

As to your question about how to deal with curmudgeons in the workplace, I recently gave a talk about that in Seattle. I’ll see if I can post the text somewhere and narrow it’s focus to journalism.

13 Howard Owens 08.03.08 at 6:18 pm

Monica, Your editor is wrong. Let’s hope your company’s lawyers aren’t that dumb. Your editor should double check to make sure he/she understood correclty, or find smarter lawyer.

14 Jason Preston 08.03.08 at 6:24 pm

@Monica you’d be more than welcome to make that talk a guest post (or better, a series of posts) here on Eat Sleep Publish ;)

and @howard is right about moderation – see the wikipedia article that Damon pointed us to above.

15 Bryan Murley 08.04.08 at 11:22 am

I agree with Howard. The lawyers are wrong about moderating after the fact, even if you make the judgment instead of the “crowd.” Although I’m not as comfortable with preemptive moderation.

A final note about comment moderation and CDA 230: this is not a “free speech” issue in the sense of the First Amendment. It’s something Congress gave and Congress can take away.

16 Monica Guzman 08.04.08 at 12:32 pm

Turns out independent moderation may not be what the “lawyers demand,” but rather an internal policy based on the limitations of our small staff and a desire to avoid being pinned to the expectation that we police the comments 24-7.

17 Matt Wardman 08.06.08 at 9:15 am

Love it.

Janet Street-Porter:
“Just blog off. And take your self-promotion and cat flap with you”
“Blogs are surely the musings of the socially inept, those people you sidle away from at parties after a couple of stabs at conversation.”

The irony is probably unintentional. Fisked: here

18 Ryan Graves 09.12.08 at 4:35 am

Jason – Great post. I can’t wait for these big papers to realize the power of what you say here, the experience will improve SO MUCH. Keep the good thoughts coming!

http://ryanagraves.com

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