Wednesday, 2 July 2008

What makes a good newspaper forum?

Are forums the best way of interacting with online users? A quick glance at most newspaper websites would indicate the answer is... no.
Frits van Exter, former editor-in-chief of Trouw newspaper, in the Netherlands, told the World Editor's Forum earlier this year that such interactivity was an 'open sewer' on a newspaper's website. I wouldn't go that far, but I'm constantly taken aback by how unpleasant some posters are on newspaper forums - the bullying that goes on in some of them is worthy of the Big Brother house - and it's easy to see why some new users never log in again after being flamed for voicing an opinion that runs counter to the mob.

What would a new forum member think of this post on the Liverpool Echo Short Points forum, for example?
Would you hang around to see what the existing posters had in store for you? probably not. If you're wondering, this has provoked 17 other comments - exchanges which became increasingly nasty until everyone seemed to lose interest and went on to find other threads to row on.

Then there are the newspaper websites that say they want to interact while giving out every signal to the contrary.
Click 'interact' on www.thisisbristol.co.uk and you're met with a list of how you can do things... once you've filled in forms with several fields. And that's just to write a letter to the editor. I know data capture is important, but my God, can't we make it any more subtle than this? Or at least break it up a little? Getting into the site and becoming involved should be easy; after building some trust we can start to ask for more information. Sorry Bristol Post, I'd have to be pretty committed to interacting with my local paper to do this - especially when I could get into a debate with members of Bristol's Facebook group without going through half the rigmarole

So what makes a good newspaper forum? Personally, I think time, effort and attention are key factors here - too many forums are set up and ignored by newspapers, other than checking for potential stories or libels.
I also reviewed my Delicious bookmarks to see what some of the experts, among them Mark Commerford, Rob Hamman, Chris Brogan and Adam Tinsworth, thought of the subject.
Conclusions? Well, here are some observations:
1. A successful forum is one that the members care about - it feels like a valuable and valued community. Yoliverpool.com is a example of how a successful online community operates and co-operates.
2. Posters need to know the boundaries; post-moderation only works if there is care and consistency.
3. Moderators should be familiar, via bios and links, to the users. They should join threads as participants, point users at interesting or relevant links and seed comments. They should not be intrusive or over-bearing. The 'Trusted User model, where certain forumites are given moderator status, is a good way of ensuring the sites are not just the responsibility of the paper's digital team.
4. Where offensive posts are deleted, a reason for the action should be given - transparency avoids conspiracy theory side-threads. For an extreme example - not necessarily recommended - see this.
5. Encourage forum users to own the space and feel responsible for it - plastic.com has a rating system for readers which filters out posts that consistently fail to make the grade. A flagging system can also encourage a commmunity spirit.
Put posts flagged three or more times as inappropriate in a moderation loop so it drops off the site til an official moderator can look at it and decide whether to re-instate it (with an explaination)
6. Reporters should interact on forums - crowdsourcing, replying to posters, starting their own threads; these are all quick, easy ways of building engagement with the wider online community.
7. Have a newbie thread so people can introduce themselves and get used to posting on a fourm. Make it welcoming -it should have a "Hello and welcome to our forum" post before the 'code of conduct' post!

These are so many opportunities to make forums more attractive for users; it would perhaps be an idea to have a 'best practice' guide or a wiki so people can feed in ideas and share experiences. What do you think?
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