Out there in cyberspace, insiders seem to be doing some fresh thinking about their love-hate relationships with their regular readers and frequent comment-part writers (including trolls). I took a stab at that topic the other day here at GetReligion, so you can click here if you want to see that. Why does this matter?
Actually, a very serious journalistic subject is looming in the background.
Editors, advertisers and other principalities and powers are starting to judge the worthiness of weblog work (and ordinary online journalism work, as well) by a new standard -- the number of comments that a post receives. In other words, a post that gets 193,290 comments on the faith journey of Britney Spears is much better, much more worthy of financial support even, than a nice essay on the future of ancient Christianity in war-torn Iraq, which received 4 comments. Make sense?
At the same time, high comment counts are not everything. I mean, many of those Britney comments probably focused on Madonna, elective surgery and, well, never mind.
Meanwhile, the online "commentocracy" is also a major force in the world of American politics, especially, at this point in time, on the left. But the dynamics between editors, the world of online statistics and the realities of bomb-throwing fans and trolls remains the same. Here's an interesting passage in a piece by Daniel Libit at The Politico. In the first sentence, add the word "religion" right after the word "culture" and you can see what I am thinking.
Across the Web, political sites (along with those dedicated to other mainstream distractions like music, culture and sports) are accumulating such a mass of reader responses that it is changing the very nature of the online exchange. Unique commenting communities, cultures and hierarchies have formed at various sites, distinguished from one another by the province's ideology, protocol and professionalism.
Web sites ranging from the smallest of blogs straight through to The New York Times are struggling to discourage spammers and bomb-throwers without tamping down the larger, productive give-and-take.
Writers and editors have become obsessed with comment tallies (even if many don't deign to read the comments themselves), which have become a favored, albeit unreliable, barometer for determining editorial success and tapping into the political zeitgeist.
"I've seen great blog posts and great articles that get zero comments, and some of it is the writing," says LATimes.com Executive Editor Meredith Artley. "I also see people try way too hard to get comments. I think it's nice to engage at every turn but the number of comments you get on a story and blog post isn't everything. We have to tell a lot of new bloggers that here. They get upset after a month or two that they are only getting a handful of comments a day."
Here at GetReligion, we are well aware that certain subjects cause more comments than others, including the work of trolls that like to set straw men on fire -- thus driving up comment-page statistics. Some cynical readers out there may even believe that this leads to lots and lots of GetReligion writing about clashes between lesbigay Episcopalians and conservative believers in California. If Mormons are involved, that's even better.
Trust me, we would avoid some of those stories -- if the mainstream press didn't devote so much ink to them.
We also know how to avoid receiving comments on GetReligion posts and what we have learned, frankly, often makes us depressed. We realize that this is a comment on the nature of cyberspace communities, but all we have to do to avoid comments is write posts that:
* Praise the work of mainstream journalists. Negative writing inspires more debate.
* Focus on trends in Judaism, Islam or other faith groups that (in U.S. media) are not all of that powerful or viewed as out of the mainstream.
* Try to call attention to journalistic issues linked to foreign-news coverage about religion.
* Openly seek calm, informative feedback from readers about how to solve a journalistic puzzle that really needs to be solved.
So if you want to throw cold water on a comments board, all you have do is write a post that praises a mainstream news organization for its insightful coverage of an important event on the other side of the world, while also asking for feedback about the issue that's involved.
So, what can editors in cyberspace do to improve their statistics, while covering the hard-to-cover subjects that we all know are important, but are not as sexy as, oh, stories that are about Britney or other easy subjects?
Right. Sorry. I just asked for feedback again about how to improve coverage of crucial religion issues on the other side of the planet. My mistake.