How to do article comments, make UI decisions. Firefox style.

Data — which were once know casually in newsrooms as “facts” — are invaluable when making decisions about your site’s user interface, and when explaining your decisions to an often impolite customer base. Here’s a great example from Alexander Limi of the Firefox Web browser’s user experience team.

I’ve been wondering why Firefox 3 doesn’t have that cool little RSS subscription button in its address bar anymore. It used to be there. Now it’s gone. A quick search for rss address bar firefox 3 brought up a link to the Firefox support site. There another Firefox user had posted an obscenity-laced version of the same question I had. And the question yielded this reply from Limi:

“Because the RSS button is the least clicked button in our UI. When you want to use it, you know that you want to use it, so we don’t need to show it all the time. It’s still available, but in the bookmarks menu instead. Unfortunately, most people don’t use RSS. I am a big RSS user myself, but I’m in the minority. — Alexander Limi, Firefox UX Team “

Brevity. Politeness in a response to rudeness. And… facts. (Alexander: if that whole “working at Google/Mozilla/creating your own internationally known open-source CMS thing doesn’t work out for ya, you’ve got a job in my imaginary newsroom anytime.)

1. Unlike too many newsrooms I’ve seen, Mozilla appears to be making user-interface decisions based on … well, data about the users’ experience. If you’re making decisions in your newsroom based on an editor’s war stories, a designer’s favorite color palette, or even an expert’s advice, then stop. Use smart guesses for decisions that can be easily reversed, but base your big decisions only on cold, hard, relevant, current data.

2. Note the empathy. “Brother, I’m with you on the RSS thing. But you and I are weirdos and/or not everyone is as smart as us. So, we do things for them.” I tell my students that newswriting isn’t about self expression; it’s about selfless express. Same with user experience.

3. This should be point 1. But this is a real response, from a real person, with a real name, and with some level of authority and responsibility. This isn’t from the “Department of People Who Deal With User Complaints”. So I trust it, and am more likely to trust the brand.

4. No whining. There’s no “You get the dadgum browser for free, so eat your vegetables and like it. “There’s no deleting the obscenity from the original question. No scolding. Just a factual, brief and polite response. And all of those things increase my trust in Limi. He’s a social Big Boy and that causes me to presume that he is a Big Boy in his work product as well.

If comments aren’t working on your news site, following Limi’s formula will start you back on the path to success.

Article Comments Are Alienated Experience

Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, once kindly said — I guess — that I often use when thinking about or speaking about online journalism: “Information is alienated experience.” A blog post from one of my students at UNC has done a nice job recording an anecdote from the 2010 Online News Association conference that I think brings into focus the role of comments as form of alienated shared experiences.

Michelle Cerulli, a second-year MA student, told me this story and I encouraged her to blog about it. The short version is this: While attending a session about article comments, she watched a mild-mannered man use Twitter to quietly excoriate one of the speakers. This man didn’t stand up and confront or question the speaker in person. Instead he used this virtual soapbox to disagree with her — in what Michelle described to me as incredibly rude terms — about the role of comments on online news articles.

What was his beef with NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard? She was saying that online comments tended to be more vitriolic than you hear in “the real world.” His words on Twitter said that Shepard was wrong. But his behavior said that she was dead on. And, according to Michelle, he appeared to be oblivious to the irony.

And while this story so far might seem to some a perfect set-up for a conclusion in which I rail against online comments, that’s not where I’m heading. Online comments are important because it is there that our collective id gets revealed. Many of us reveal in anonymous or pseudonymous comments our fears and hopes n ways that most of us would deny if we were ever confronted with them. Online comments show how us — or at least some non-representative sample of us — experience the world in a way that we alienated from ourselves and the polite company around us.

And that unfiltered id — that alienated experience — is a happy hunting ground for a reporter who hopes to more clearly explain to his readers our increasingly complicated and interconnected world. The problem with comments is not that they are mean. The problem is that there are too few people mining them for hidden hopes and fears and too few people willing to patiently ask probing questions of the crowd.

More and more news organizations are hiring “social media producers.” I hope they’re given the challenge of not just distributing the news to the crowd, but also diving into it and finding individuals who are able to articulate why they’re much more scared, angry or jealous than they are willing to admit in a room full of their peers.

Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation

Handling errors and corrections online is good topic for newsroom debate. The dual challenge is that online text can be updated/fixed/improved/corrected at any time and it’s also always available. That means errors can get corrected quickly, but those that don’t can damage credibility long past the daily print edition.

In a world where anyone can publish a blog, professional journalists need to emphasize accuracy and credibility even more. But the reductions in staff at almost all newsrooms in America is putting a squeeze on quality control.

This story from last week’s News & Observer provides an interesting case study. The piece quoted me, but mistakenly said I had worked for USA Today. When I saw the error, I emailed the reporter and used the article’s comments section to quickly post my own correction.

In the last week, though, I never heard back from the reporter. It turns out he was on furlough. He sent an apologetic note once he got back. That said, the fact error remains online.

So, let’s walk through what’s wrong (and right) with this picture:

1. Error gets in the news article. Yes, this is an automatic F in my introductory newswriting classes, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Many people would wisely artgue that these kinds of pernicous little errors are going to become more common, though, as reporters take on the work of departed colleagues and stories get fewer reads by editors before they go to press.

2. Vigilant sources can use comments to correct errors in the article. This is incredibly empowering and could go a long way to increasing trust in journalism. You often hear sources say they spot errors in reporting but never bother to ask for a correction because they figure the reporters and editors won’t care anyway. For the most part I think that’s the opposite of true. But it also doesn’t matter now — sources have the ability, and even the obligation, to correct errors of fact. To not do so is to complictly accept and tolerate inaccuracy.

3. Someone at the N&O should have been monitoring these comments and alerting the appropriate editors to corrections. The primary reason the comments section on newspaper articles are so low-brow is because the (already thinly spread) staff is not participating in them. Which leads us back to the old sentiment among sources and readers — that newspaper editors just don’t care about what I have to say.

This example highlights the two key components to success in the future of news — high levels of accuracy and engagement. Journalists who don’t pursue both are in danger of becoming quickly irrelevant.

Leaders — Political and Editorial — Need to Work the Network

The News & Observer in Raleigh today picked up an op-ed I wrote about the need for winning political candidates to follow through on their gestures of online community connectivity. (Hat tip to WCHL for the idea…)

But this challenge isn’t unique to political leaders, it’s also one that journalists must meet and a gesture on which they are following through even less.

Hooked on the promise of the free advertising inventory generated by online comments, more and more newspaper Web sites are deploying  some type of online discussion technology.  What they aren’t deploying is the kind of human  resources that are needed to foster and develop online conversations. Why do most comments on news articles follow Godwin’s Law? Because there is little or no authentic conversational leaders. There is no human being making connections between people and ideas and, um, fact.

Just look at this recent survey of online journalists in North Carolina — online community management ranked as the skill that these editorial staffers said was least important to their jobs.

Here are my quick thoughts on how news organizations should begin to approach online comments.