By Steve Outing
The deal between MediaNews Corp. and Topix.net, where Topix will host the user comments for web articles on MediaNews’ newspaper websites, is stirring up debate in the blogosphere — especially between Howard Owens and Topix CEO Chris Tolles. (Journalism.co.uk report.)
Owens has gotten heated in his criticism of the deal. I understand where he’s coming from, but my own view isn’t quite as harsh.
First, I’ll point back to an article I wrote for the Poynter Institute several years ago: “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism.” In that, I outlined the various levels of user interaction that media sites can pick and choose from. User comments were at the absolute bottom of the list; it’s the very least that any website can do to let the audience into the game.
I would argue that while user comments are essential, they can take up substantial resources if you’ve got a lot of traffic and you’re monitoring them closely. So if you’re going to outsource anything on the “social” side of web publishing, user comments would be it.
BUT, working with an outside vendor, there must be good communication with the editorial staff. The vendor can alert the publisher to problems or user comments that require personal attention. And just because a news website is working with a vendor on user comments does not mean that editorial staff members are off the hook. The system should work to alert them to comments on their stories that require interaction with the audience.
I’ll go along with this idea only if the rest of the audience-interaction or social strategy of the news organization is taken seriously — the other things I talked about in that 11 Layers article (and more; that was written in 2005, and much has changed since then).
If any news companies are looking at the Topix offering and thinking, “Great. We can outsource our audience interaction and get back to the news business as usual,” well, that’s nuts. User comments are just one small element of interacting and engaging with your audience.