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Issue for August 2016

Reader Comments: Are They Worthwhile?

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 10:17 PM

Do reader comments on articles pay off?

By William Dunkerley

National Public Radio just dumped the comments section that followed its online articles.

Do you carry reader comments at the end of your articles? If so, how's that been working out for you? Is the feature worth the effort of maintaining it? Do the comments add to the total reader experience, even for those who choose not to post comments themselves?

This might be a good time to take stock.

Do Comments Boost Reader Engagement?

Reader comments have always been a part of publications, dating way back. In the print era they took the form of letters to the editor and were carefully edited. In the online environment there has been a range of approaches. Some comments are closely moderated by staff, others rely upon volunteers to do the housekeeping, and still other publications just let readers freely post what they want. Sometimes it's necessary to remove offensive comments in response to complaints.

The rush to open up comments online has been done largely in the name of reader engagement. One popular viewpoint is that an engaged reader will be a more satisfied one, and one more inclined to renew.

NPR couches its changed policy as a move forward. The announcement claimed that "the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, rather than in the NPR.org comments section."

In all candor, that sounds to me like an attempt to put a positive spin on something that many readers might view as a turn away from audience centricity.

But there might be some substance to NPR's contention. Elizabeth Jensen, ombudsman/public editor, presented reader support for dropping the comments:

"Mike Durio, of Phoenix, seemed to sum it up in an email to my office back in April. 'Have you considered doing away with the comments sections, or tighter moderation?' he wrote. 'The comments have devolved into the Punch-and-Judy-Fest of moronic, un-illuminating observations and petty insults I've seen on other pretty much every other Internet site that allows comments.' He added, 'This is not in keeping with NPR's take-a-step-back, take-a-deep-breath reporting,' and noted, 'Now, thread hijacking and personal insults are becoming the stock in trade. Frequent posters use the forums to duke it out with one another.'"

Which Readers Are Being Served?

It doesn't take much looking at the comment sections of online publications to see the problem. Not only can you readily see morons trading insults, but there is also plenty of blatantly offensive language, denigration of certain religious or ethnic groups, and even plainly libelous statements.

It all makes you wonder who is being served by these reader comments. Jensen examined that angle and added:

"I did find the numbers quite startling. In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Scott Montgomery [managing editor for digital news] said. That's 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.

"When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all NPR.org comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR's commenting system -- which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted -- is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience."

So the cost-benefit equation for reader comments may not favor the practice. Nonetheless, I'm not so sure that NPR's tactic of simply referring commenters to Twitter and Facebook is the ultimate answer.

An Alternate Approach

Perhaps something like a "discussion club" might be a better approach. What I mean is some kind of online forum that is associated with your publication but separated from the articles. Readers could go there to post threaded comments.

If you make this available only to subscribers or registered readers, require that participants use their own verifiable names, and perhaps put in place some kind of posting quota, a lot of the objectionable behavior could likely be minimized. And it would keep the discussions out of the immediate view of readers who might not find them to be exactly their cup of tea.

But then there's still the question: Is it worth it?

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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How to Help an Editor Who's in a Slump

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 10:12 PM

Do you have an editor whose performance has gone from good to less than good?

By Robert W. Bly

[Editors' Note: There's the mid-afternoon slump. And there's the mid-career slump. But what if you have an editor who's just in a slump, period?

In sports, athletes sometimes go into a slump, too. According to SportsPsychologyToday.com, "Athletes are unable to break free from a slump because they become frustrated, play tentatively, and lose confidence in their ability to succeed."

The ever-changing digital reading preferences of today's readers have disrupted the entrenched work routines of many editors. That can be a significant cause of workplace frustration and might lead any editor into a slump.

Regardless of the cause, it is important to help an editor to break free of his or her slump. What advice can you pass on? Author Robert Bly offers the following tips for overcoming a slump.]

Getting out of a slump is not difficult, though it often requires persistence. The problem is that most people either don't realize what they have to do to reverse a slump, or they are not willing to do it.

I have developed a 3-part strategy for overcoming a slump that works for both business and personal setbacks. The problem is that the formula is so simple (it contains a total of only 7 words) that you may be tempted to dismiss it, even thought it has worked for me and hundreds of other individuals.

Here is the formula for getting out of a slump:

1. Do something.

2. Do more.

3. Keep doing it.

Let's examine the 3 parts in more detail:

Step 1

Do something. Do I mean do anything, no matter how random? Well, no. But almost. Here's what I mean...

Most people in a slump spend most of their time worrying, ruminating, and planning. They suffer from "analysis paralysis." They become so obsessed with making their next step perfect that they never take it.

You can only reverse a slump through action, so you've got to act -- now! Not sure whether Idea A makes sense? Do it anyway. Not sure whether to take Path X or Path Y? Pick one and go forward.

The very fact that you are taking action -- instead of getting stuck in inaction -- will automatically start you on the road to recovery.

Step 2

Do more. There are two common reasons why people fail. One is that they don't do the work required to get the results they want.

Putting into action just one or two ideas may help, but it's probably not enough to totally solve your problem.

To get out of a slump requires that you take what motivational speaker Tony Robbins calls "massive action."

How to implement this strategy: Decide how much activity you think you really need to get fully out of your slump. Then do at least twice that amount.

Step 3

Keep doing it. The second reason people fail is that they give up too early.

Not everything you try will work. If you try one thing, then a second, then a third, and they all fail, do you give up? No. You try something else. Eventually one thing works okay. Another works better. And before you know it, you're well on the road to turning your situation around.

But don't just forge ahead blindly. Evaluate the results of each effort. A corollary to step 3 is: do more of what's working, less of what's not working.

There you have it: 3 steps, 7 words. Simple? Yes. Do the work? Absolutely. Try it and see for yourself.

Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 50 books. You can contact him at 201-385-1220.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 10:10 PM

Assessing the readability of a Mashable.com excerpt.

This month's Fog excerpt comes from an August 29 article on Mashable.com ("Hospitals Try Giving Patients a Dose of VR" by Ian King and Caroline Chen for Bloomberg). Here's the sample paragraph, with longer words italicized for reference:

At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Ronald Yarbrough is waiting in a room that overlooks the hospital's landing pad, hoping to see [a] helicopter bring him a donor heart. He needs a transplant after his artificial one failed and is being kept alive by a machine. He has been trying a Samsung Gear VR headset and specially created software from a startup called AppliedVR. It helped take his mind off the fact that he's confined to a small hospital room that can feel like a jail cell. When his muscles relaxed, his pain receded, he said.

--Word count: 94 words
--Average sentence length: 19 words (27, 17, 18, 23, 9)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 4 percent (4/94 words)
--Fog Index: (19+4)*.4 = 9 (9.2, no rounding)

This is one of the lowest raw Fog scores we've seen over the years. In the past, we've taken pieces that were borderline and made some cosmetic changes to get the score into ideal range. This time, though, we don't want to edit further. (Exception: We've added the missing "a" in the first sentence above, in brackets.)

One might edit the second sentence to clarify that it's the subject's heart, not his transplant, that is artificial and being kept alive by a machine. (Our version: "He needs a transplant because his artificial heart failed and is now being kept alive by a machine.")

To cut average sentence length, we could recast the "hoping to see" clause as a new sentence, but it isn't necessary. The longer sentence at the beginning helps to offset some of the shorter sentences that follow. There are so few longer words that we don't need to simplify the language as we often do.

In other words, there's not much Fog to cut through here. So we won't fix what isn't broken.

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New York Times Magazine Breaks New Ground

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 10:08 PM

In the news: Experimenting with the format of a longstanding brand.

The New York Times tried something new for the August 14 edition of its weekly print magazine. Reports Liz Spayd of the NYT, "It has been completely turned over to a single narrative by Scott Anderson about the forces that unraveled the Arab world since the United States invaded Iraq 13 years ago. It is written by Scott Anderson with photography by Paolo Pellegrin, and clocking in at 40,000 words, it's less like a magazine piece and more like a small book." The online edition, available through the NYT VR (Virtual Reality) app, is enhanced with video content that immerses the reader in the unfolding narrative.

Spayd discusses the groundbreaking edition with editor Jake Silverstein. Read the article and her brief interview with Silverstein here.

Also Notable

From Print to Digital: One Editor's Story

This week, magazine editor Joe Hebert of Skyword.com discussed his personal journey "from print publishing to digital storytelling." The article traces his evolution as an editor as he transitioned from print newspaper publishing to digital content services. However, he reports that he's learned universal lessons along the way: "In print, I learned the necessity of really reading the content you're editing. In digital, that necessity is doubled -- depending on the error, your client may be angry enough to walk away." Read the full article here.

Executives Talk About Industry Changes

Foliomag.com has interviewed 17 magazine executives about how their companies are dealing with widespread changes in the way media brands are doing business. The first article of the two-part series, featuring 8 of the interviews, came out this week. Topics include sought-after skill sets, technology, online archives and databases, and sales strategy. Read Part 1 here.

Common Job Application Mistakes

Rachel Gillett of BusinessInsider.com talked to magazine editor Bill Phillips (former vice president and editor-in-chief of Men's Health) last week about common mistakes editors and writers make when applying for positions. Read the article here.

Fashion Magazines Capitalizing on Instagram Stories

More and more magazine brands are diversifying their social media portfolios and exploring Instagram. Now, with the Snapchat-inspired "Stories" feature, users can post photos that eventually disappear. According to Lindsey Ellefson of Mediaite.com, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Allure, and GQ are all exploring ways to deliver content via Instagram Stories. Read more here and here.

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