Enlivening journalism through better online user engagement


The Washington Post’s Director of Digital News Projects Greg Barber and The New York Times’ Editor of Interactive News Marc Lavallee  joined forces to lead a panel focused on The Coral Project, a platform aimed at “creating open-source software to facilitate the importing, storage, moderation, and display of contributions to news websites.”

Lavallee described the relationship between The Post and The Times as akin to “the Montagues and Capulets,” but these two well-established and intensely competitive news organisations are testament to the problems with comment moderation and readers’ engagement that today’s newsrooms are faced with. The papers’ collaboration is also reflective of the ethos behind The Coral Project, a collaboratively-created resource open to all. Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, it can also count on the help of the Mozilla Foundation.

At The New York Times, as Marc Lavallee explained, comments are usually moderated before being put up and, to “maintain a reasonable level of quality,” the Times has had to “really invest in moderators” and – due to the high volume of articles – “only open discussion on a subset of articles that we put on everyday.” At the moment, the paper does not have any other way to maintain the engagement between readers and writers. However  the software is outdated and lacks any real structure, thus it is actually difficult to “convince reporters to use a comment section from the 1990s.”

At The Washington Post, they face “similar challenges although [they] take a slightly different approach,” according to Barber. Comments are allowed on all articles and moderators only get involved “after the fact of commenting.” As he explained: “Civility and quality control is the real challenge,” and he added that, although they have a lot of successful digital communities (e.g. the “weather gang”), they have difficulties “scaling moderation efforts.”

The similar issues faced by The Post and The Times made them realise that, despite often having different angles, they were spending a lot of money and time to still be “unhappy with the results.” Their vision was to create a technology and start a movement that could help journalists around the world by providing them with tools to reinvent their skills. The background idea to The Coral Project was to create “renewed best practices that can help publishers reimagine their communities” with “open source software,” as Barber put it.

Lavallee expanded on this by emphasising that there was an opportunity to engage in a “fundamental shift” in the relationship between news organisations and their readers: as more and more people become comfortable with conversing with their friends and strangers online, there’s now a market to create the “right technology to aid that [conversation].” Both panellists encouragingly added that they had been “welcomed into the newsroom, and talked with more than 300 people, 150 news organisations, and 30 countries.” More encouraging still had been to hear “industry professionals talk openly” about their strategy and ideas.

Later on Lavallee emphasised this further by saying that the industry had become really interested in these developments, and then proceeded to offer some examples of how news organisations and their employees should operate to favour readers’ engagement:

i. Always have a strategy when it comes to onsite engagement –  “You do not have a license to be unhappy with responses if you do no know what you want,” said Barber.

ii. Look at your analytics – “Your commenters, the people who read your comments and people who engage with your websites in other ways (…) are your most loyal users.” Barber insisted that organisations mustn’t ignore them: “The problem isn’t the people. The problem is your strategy.”

iii. Know your people – “Research from MIT talks about a ‘ladder of engagement’: the notion to take from that is that if you bring users into your engaged spaces they will become more engaged, more loyal and support your publication as a business.”

The end goal is to “have a set of tools that publishers can use all together or apart to mediate user interaction,” said Lavallee. The first of such tools, Trust was launched in March 2016 by The Coral Project and will be tested on both The Washington Post and The New York Times: the demo takes “actual user data, not algorithmic projections” to visualise the pattern of users’ history on the website – such as calculating the avarage comment length, total replies received/written, etc. Thanks to these measurements, Trust can be used as a search tool to find pithy quotes or anecdotes, simply by adjusting the word count that one is searching for.

Using these search tools, organisations can see who is “running afoul of [their] discussion policy,” in order to point moderators in the right direction. Alternatively, Barber added, if they “were great and loyal,” they could send them a note when a story goes up by their favourite journalist, or connect them with a reporter. The software, which has a “timeline of engagement” and notes of online involvement, allows you to know your readership and respond to them accordingly.

In a world where news organisation are becoming more anonymised, it is becoming easier and easier to ignore where articles come from. The “relationship cultivation” allowed by new tools could become the thing that distinguishes big organisations. “Some of my optimism on this front is Twitter,” Lavallee interjected,  because it was able to bring a huge number of reporters on board in a relatively short time: “And it actually makes reporting better and you have newsrooms who are far more engaged.”

Lavallee was quick to stress that Trust fits with all the privacy policy aspects of the site already in existence, and that there was “no hosting model that had access to this data.” In fact, almost all configuration is “on the part of the publisher,” and there are several examples when sensitive issues are raised – such as healthcare stories – where “you don’t have to be registered to comment.” As a system, it “should be able to accommodate the you that is public” and the you that is “anonymised”.

“Tools alone won’t do the job. There needs to be a full newsroom approach that helps improve and enliven your journalism,” concluded Barber.