My timing was not ideal.
Last Thursday, Fortune reported that a number of guest contributors on Forbes.com, Seeking Alpha, Wall Street Cheat Sheet and other sites were allegedly paid by an investor relations firm to write columns as part of pump and dump stock schemes.
That same day, I published an Op Ed on the website of the Observer with a full throated defense of the Forbes’ 1000+ contributor network as a successful example of what I call “social journalism” – a hybrid model of content from professional journalists, paid and unpaid contributors and readers. I’d been the first in mainstream media to bring just such a platform to life when I ran FastCompany.com in 2008 and I’ve remained a big advocate (even though after I left the print editors reverted to a standard journalism site.)
Today, social journalism is popping up everywhere and in many different variations. Aside from Forbes, the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, announced they’d be converting into a hybrid platform. Gawker launched an integrated reader platform called Kinja. And there are the many well financed start ups in the space, including BuzzFeed, Medium (backed by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone) and Vox Media (which lured Ezra Klein from the Washington Post.)
Significantly, LinkedIn has its formidable new contributors network of “Influencers” (Bill Gates! Richard Branson! Jack Welch!), now slickly integrated into its news app, “Pulse”; Facebook has its new media-formatted news app, “Paper.”; and you still have to turn to Twitter if you want the up-to-the-second thoughts of luminaries or famous journalists like David Carr, whose content is paid for courtesy of the New York Times. (Thanks, Mr. Sulzberger, Jr!)
So when USA Today media critic Michael Wolff dismissed the “Forbes vanity model” as devaluing the authority of media brands, I thought I’d respond. I titled my column “Why Michael Wolff is Wrong.” Forbes had tripled their audience to 45 million user visits a month, I argued, replaced their sensationalistic slideshows with meaty content that requires sustained reader engagement, and created tens of millions of dollars in value for the owners. Here then, is at least one way for some journalistic media properties to thrive.
For good measure, I even hip checked the digitally progressive media Mr. Carr for expressing similar doubts about the Forbes model.
Carr gently responded on Twitter: “@edsussman. Open edit platforms seemed less sexy today after Fortune’s story about people using for pump and dump.”
As Carr implies, the mainstream media generally holds itself to much higher standards than social sharing platforms (which are essentially amoral about content ethics or quality – they’ll publish anything) even though it has meant ceding the information revolution — and most digital ad revenue — to 23-year olds in flip flops.
Even putting aside the extreme example of contributors possibly breaking the law (the SEC is now investigating the Forbes pump and dumpers), what about lousy quality of social journalism in general? What about weak writing, factual mistakes, unfettered self-promotion and covert advocacy? Is all social platform content inherently untrustworthy or is it possible to elevate it with journalism’s standards of higher quality and ethics?
We know that traditional methods of screening – e.g. professional editors directly supervising every piece of content – aren’t going to work. Social sites generate too much content for that.
Before despairing the conflict is irresolvable, I’d point out that even some professional journalists rely heavily on Wikipedia, perhaps the best example of generally high-quality crowd-sourced content. With no paid editors and a slew of heavily biased contributors, Wikipedia has been forced to innovate techniques and technology to maximize quality, including pre-screening all articles by curators, tiered user permissions for posting content, and controlled page freezes.
The fact is, there are ways to improve the quality, and reliability of social journalism. As someone who spent many years as a journalist, started the first social journalism website for a legacy media company, and has spent the past five years working on the technology of content platforms, I have a bunch of practical suggestions about how to bring journalistic ethos to the new hybrid models.
Here are a few…
• Label contributors prominently. E.g. Staff Writer. Staff Columnist. Staff Curator. Expert Contributor, Expert Curator, Guest contributor. Reader Contribution. Clue in the audience who’s who.
• Publish staff, contributor and reader credentials as part of a profile linked to all their bylines. I recommend LinkedIn style profiles, with links to articles written for the site or anyone else. Let the audience have plenty of information to decide if a contributor is trustworthy.
• Signing up a guest or expert contributor is a tacit endorsement. It’s different from publishing a reader post. There might not be time to edit most of what contributors write, so do a reasonable background check ahead of time. Or have them fill out a thorough application you can screen.
• Establish clear guidelines on conflicts-of-interest that anyone posting content needs to read through and electronically agree to before they post. Let them repeatedly verify they know they can possibly go to jail, pay steep fines, or be sued by you if they violate these terms.
• Business publication, in particular, should consider mandating that contributors take formal online ethics training. Ethics and compliance training for corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees is common (e.g. Dow) and has been reduced to interactive e-learning years ago. Integrate standards for fact checking, sourcing, anonymous quotes, etc. into the training. If you don’t tell them, don’t assume they know.
• Getting featured on a content channel should require a curator’s approval (paid professionals or expert volunteers), rather than automated inclusion based on subject matter or pre-approval of the author. Contributors can apply to the curator for each of their new posts to be included in the channel. This provides an extra layer of scrutiny, even if it’s not an actual edit.
• Unlike social networks, consider only allowing users to follow curated channels, not individual posters. Individuals can only get widely noticed by writing to the standards of curators. Medium.com does this well. (There needs to be a personalized news stream for members to follow channels or this method won’t work very well.)
• Active sharing, liking, voting and following is just as much a social contribution as posting original content. It takes a user less time, requires less thought and will probably constitute the majority of social activity on your site. So don’t treat these activities as minor features to be stuck on articles by the tech people. Think through and measure the user experience as carefully as you do the content. Establish user profiles even for those who only share.
• Consider Wikipedia-like reader tools for suggested changes, ranging from grammar to fact checking (subject to the approval of the writer, curator or editor.) Quora does this well. I don’t think Wikipedia is the be-all and end-all of crowd-sourced content. There’s more to come.
• Band together with the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Online Publisher’s Association to come up with a new ad metric that determines payments based on user time spent actively engaged with content (including scrolling, viewing a video to the end, clicking through to the end of a slide presentation.) The value of CPMs (cost per thousand) and CPCs (cost per click) should be minimized – they are unfair to publisher and advertiser alike. Until the metrics officially change, the incentive to generate page views will overwhelm the incentive to produce quality content.
• Algorithmically determine the best content by tracking time per page, social shares and user ratings/votes, etc. Either automatically promote it as part of recommended content or have it queued up for a curator to evaluate for promotion. Quality content needs to surface from the crowd for social journalism to work well. And make the stats per story public to readers so they can see take these into account as well. BuzzFeed does this well.
• Consistently highly-scoring content contributors (including staff) should be labeled as such, so they can gain a reputation as being trustworthy
• If content has been rejected by curators, or not socially shared, or has poor engagement time and few up votes, screen it for deletion. Provide feedback to contributors facing deletion. Social journalism is not just about increasing the amount of content. It’s about increasing quality of information. I wonder whether a site might work where after a few hours, 75% of contributor content was deleted by editors or algorithm. It would be a badge of honor to survive the cut.
• Have a button on every piece of content to report problems. Don’t just rely on comments or letters to the editor to absolve you. Lawyers sometimes advise digital managers that it’s safest to treat your user content like a public park – so long as anyone can get on a soapbox and speak, the owner of the park isn’t responsible what’s said, even if it’s defamatory. As soon as you start screening what some speakers say, you potentially become responsible for what any speaker says. If this is advice you get, you should ignore your lawyer. Content on a journalism site needs to be held to standards of accuracy and fairness. You should aggressively address complaints and delete problematic content, even if it’s not technically libelous or factually inaccurate.
• Reader participation on a site should require a real name, validated by your own social system, or a Facebook / LinkedIn profile. I know some strongly disagree here. But social sharing is publishing and publishing generally shouldn’t be anonymous. If you want to be The Economist, and as a company, vouch for the integrity of every last non-bylined sentence you publish, then that’s reasonable. But anonymous tipsters, gossips and whistleblowers should be vetted by journalists. The potential for abuse is too great, otherwise.
The recent partnership between BuzzFeed and anonymous gossip site Whisper is bad news for new media. BuzzFeed intends to write stories based on the anonymous postings of secrets and confessions. They are one upping the especially loathsome comments section of Gawker, which is filled with vicious, anonymous attacks. Anonymous postings violate journalistic ethics and responsible media companies should reject this trend. Of course, even NYTimes.com allows pseudonyms on comments. But they vet every comment before publication. Acceptable, but not ideal. It doesn’t scale well and I still want to know more about the background of the commentators. Why not link to a profile with a bio and all their previous contributions?
• Integrate the developers and editors, from where they sit to whom they report to. If you’re going to do social journalism well, you’re becoming a technology platform company. There are vendors who can provide much of the needed technology but even so, there should be at least some engineers on your team. Almost all the important breakthroughs in social media have come from programmers. Media companies usually already have solid in house people but don’t let them lead or partner in product direction. A waste of talent.
• Experiment aggressively with emerging and non-traditional media social formats. Try and fail, try and fail. Just like good tech companies. E.g. The Quora model begs to be integrated into journalism sites. Why can’t readers post questions that staff, contributors and other readers can answer?
Journalists worried about the shift should keep two things in mind. First, social journalism is not a replacement for professional journalism. It’s an addition. Social without journalism is just social. Media brands still need to do interesting, great journalism if they’re going to have an identity as a trusted source. Second, aggressive social content models have already built huge audiences and revenue for several new media companies. You can do the same, smartly, with journalistic ethos as part of the model. Don’t you want to be part of a big success, instead of just writing about them?
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ed Sussman, CEO of Buzzr.com. The post went through PandoDaily’s usual editorial process and Mr Sussman was paid for his work.
About the author
Ed Sussman is the CEO of Buzzr.com, a content management platform. He was previously president of Mansueto Digital where he ran FastCompany.com and Inc.com. Find out more about Mr. Sussman at Edsussman.net
[Image credit: Public domain]