The Knight Foundation announced funding Thursday to build a free, open-source tool to help newsrooms “turn comments into community,” in partnership with the New York Times, Washington Post, and non-profit Mozilla.
This might matter far beyond news organizations. Townhalls are vital to democracy — and are sorely lacking.
“This isn’t another commenting platform for publishers; it’s a publishing platform for readers,” Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at The Washington Post, said in the release.
News media once served, albeit inadequately, as platforms for debate in our global villages, providing op-ed pages, letters to the editor and call-in radio and TV programs. Many of those platforms vanished as outlets moved online, and were replaced with comment sections. They’re not nearly enough. The New York Times‘ moderated comment section is, almost uniquely, superb. Most media comment sections are virtual versions of cage fights, infested with anonymous trolls. Without resources to hire moderators, many media outlets have resorted to Facebook, insisting that commenters identify themselves with Facebook accounts and — bizarrely, in my opinion — turning control over to one massive American company and creating a host of accountability, censorship and privacy issues.
I think the promise of social media for “townhall” sharing of information and discussion has faded. As the companies that own the platforms have become publicly traded they are — no surprise here — aggressively commercial. Not only have ads become pervasive but, as our ProPublica post yesterday explained, the privacy of citizens is compromised. In addition, some social media companies now not only charge journalism outlets to share posts with users who “like” pages, but they now essentially compete with journalism Pages with their own news feeds, like Facebook’s “FB Newswire” which shares content posted publicly by Facebook users.
The joint project announced today cannot meet all needs, and it will not replace massive social media — but it could play a major role in raising the bar or, as Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of KnightFoundation said, “elevating civil discourse.”
“The Web offers all sorts of new and exciting ways of engaging with communities far beyond the ubiquitous –and often terrible — comments sections at the bottom of articles,” said Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla Open News initiative.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will donate $3.89 million to the online community platform, which aims to be freely available to any and all news organizations. The design aims to allow “readers to submit pictures, links and other media; track discussions; and manage their contributions and online identities. Publishers will then be able to collect and use this content for other forms of storytelling and to spark ongoing discussions by providing readers with targeted content and notifications.”
An excerpt of the release:
As a starting point for the project, Knight recently funded a human-centered design study to build a plan for the platform that centers on audience needs. The study revealed that readers do turn to comments for cues on how to react to a story, that they like reading feedback from experts in the comments, and that they are more careful about their own comments if they are permanent and attributed to them. These early findings will be used to guide production of the community platform. Ultimately the project aims to improve the relationship between users and publishers by:
● Making user-generated contributions easier to collect and package.
● Helping news organizations produce immersive, user-driven narratives typically only seen in large newsrooms.
● Giving journalists a platform to discover unique voices within their communities.
● Reaching experts to increase content quality and create value for readers.
● Changing the way journalists and users interact by shifting the relationship from comments to conversation.
— Deborah Jones