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when i thought about the future-proof newspaper it became clear that there’s a need to integrate readers’ views into the newspaper, both printed and online, and to create a community of readers online. many newspapers have tried to create online communities, most have created spaces for discussion and feedback with the help of discussion forum and chat room software. that mostly led to communities where chit chat dominates most of the time and omnipresent minorities create an environment that is mostly busy with itself. advertising customers tend to avoid such spaces and click rates are low.

some online media, in austria e.g. ORF ON (at least partially) and, opened up their articles for reader comments, creating a thread-like environment with the article as the starting point. this has worked clearly better in avoiding social ghettos and keeping readers’ contributions on-topic of the articles, yet leads to flames and insults whenever controversy or banal issues are raised. articles about car accidents, robberies, etc. on local pages of ORF ON are dominated by comments of the quality of “the bitch deserved to die if she doesn’t know to drive”. also that form of community-software doesn’t trigger stand-alone or in-depth analysis by readers and it doesn’t reward them for their contribtions.

in the meantime an independent form of text contributions by the (more or less) broad public has appeared: the blogosphere. ownership of the spaces by weblog authors lead to a social environment that is much better able to deal with flames, insults and banality than the two models mentioned above. a commenter knows that he is only a guest on my weblog and that he’d better behave like one. if he doesn’t editing/deletion is easy and transparent. also weblogs are more likely to trigger original pieces of thought than comment functions below newspaper articles. as a third plus authors are rewarded for their contributions by a permanent virtual home that features their entire archive of posts, enriched by their readers’ comments and references from other blogs.

following this notion some newspapers have started to implement weblog solutions, as did austria’s kleine zeitung (using the fabulous twoday backend and a less fabulous webdesign).

my vision of reader participation is a combination of those models:

  • a full-featured, yet untechnical weblog community for readers
  • an integration of reader’s comments into articles that goes beyond trackback (i also think trackback is too technical for normal users): auto-trackback from within the internal system. weblog entries referencing an article would be automatically quoted and/or linked. such lists would be reviewed regularily by a staff member (at least in the beginning) who would be able to label users (invisible label) “trusted sources” and “untrusted sources”. however the ecosystems develops settings can be changed from “have all untrusted sources go through moderation” to “have all but trusted sources go through moderation”, etc. ok, maybe i’m getting too specific now.
  • the internal content management system would (help staff to) query engines such as google news, technorati and bloglines citations for references of relevant topics. a semi-automatised system selects the best external weblog entries referencing either the article or an article from another source (!) on the same topic. the links (say five) to those weblog articles would be displayed equally below. again sources could be labeled regarding their trustworthyness/usefulness, so that it would be a learning database.
  • the same system could be used to propose internal and external weblog articles for print-publishing.
  • another form of content rating is “most emailed” as yahoo uses it successfully. the challenge here is to implement a proper “email to a friend” solution that attracts usage, as usual.

those are just brainstorming ideas. yet i believe is is essential for newspapers to find ways to integrate their readers into publishing. old-fashioned community solutions were yesterday, it’s all about social software now.

ps. forgot to mention: of course cooperative tagging (“folksonomy“) would play a major role, too. but that’d be a separate story.


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