Barry Parr just concluded his “Why can’t a newspaper be more like a blog?” series. Over the last week or so, Barry has taken his “deliberately provocative” headline and explored how online news publishers could learn much from blogs.
While he covers a number of different related topics, his main point is that news sites should encourage — not just allow — readers to comment on their content, either through comments on the story itself (just like your standard blog comments) or through TrackBacks (which most blogs offer these days).
It’s a good idea, but it’ll be a hard, hard sell to most newspaper management, the majority of whom are uncertain about how to proceed on the web. Most stick to formats and features that are much (or exactly) like their print product. While there are some legitimate issues about liability involved, I think the bulk of the problem is a fear of losing control. Most newspapers tightly control their content and presentation.
They see news publishing as a one-way street with only the very limited “letters to the editor” section for allowing feedback. But, as I hope most readers realize, letters to the editor are completely under the control of the newspaper: they can (and usually do) edit the letters (and not just for length) and can pick and choose which letters to publish.
Allowing (mostly) unrestricted comments — letting loose of the control over the feedback mechanism — is a very frightening concept for most news publishers. Even by instituting registration or other validating mechanisms, the majority of news publishers would be at the very least uneasy about instituting comments on stories published on their websites.
However, in his post about using TrackBacks, Barry brings up some very interesting points that might go some way in relieving that unease:
Trackback also provides accountability that comments cannot. You can’t get a trackback link unless you have a site that supports trackback and you’re willing to disclose your identity (or at least one of them).
And that’s a powerful motivator for news publishers, because TrackBacks, as Barry puts it:
Trackback creates the kind of context and metadata for each story that you can’t buy at any price.
While Barry presents some powerful arguments for using features like comments and TrackBacks (and RSS feeds, which I haven’t even touched on here) on news sites, he fails to discuss a factor that should heavily weigh in favor of their use: comments (including TrackBacks) will build reader interest and therefore more traffic. Higher traffic can (and often does) result in either more advertising or better (for the publisher) prices for advertising. Not only do you gain all the benefits of having a more open feedback mechanism will bring (increased reputation amongst readers, valuable feedback that will help you improve your web and print offerings, increased traffic due to the community-building effect of comments, etc.), you’ll make more money doing it.
So, why aren’t more news publishers doing it? That is the $64,000 question. My opinion? Fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of the future. How to get publishers to take this step despite the fear? I don’t know. I’m still working on that one.