Making online journalism — Part 2
User interaction has got to be more than clicking a button or a link. Clicking on the Web is rather like turning the page in a printed book. How interactive is that?
The kind of interactivity we see in video games is rarely part of online journalism (although it can be). So what we usually mean when we discuss interactivity is a two-way exchange between producers and consumers of the journalism content.
What are you asking the user to tell you, and why? Will your questions seem intrusive (e.g., “What is your income?”), irrelevant, or just too time-consuming? An example of good form input is the “Search by exact address” box at chicagocrime.org. Form input can be check boxes, radio buttons, drop-down lists, etc.; the fill-in box is the most open-ended.
Can the users find an e-mail address for you quickly and easily? If they send e-mail, will they get an answer? Will someone read their e-mail, or does it just go into a trash bin? Everyone today wants to avoid e-mail spam. You can provide a fill-in form to allow readers to send you e-mail — the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times does this well. Far too many journalistic Web sites have no easy methods for contacting the producers, editors, reporters, etc. That is just wrong.
Many discussions deteriorate if there is no moderator — but usually it’s not practical to have a moderator (too time-consuming!). Giving users a way to report foul language or even “topic drift” provides a workable compromise. Bakersfield.com is doing a pretty good job with discussions — in the forums, each individual posting includes a link to “Report Violation.”
A controlled live chat in which a special guest answers questions from users can be really excellent. The key to a great chat is to have a human filter between the users’ questions and the live chat interface. Washingtonpost.com has long been the master of moderated chats — here’s an example in which the new D.C. school board president takes questions from the public. To experience a chat while it’s live, see the schedule.
Users’ articles or blogs can be excellent or terrible, much like discussions and chats. Do you edit them or not? Who polices the content, or is it unmoderated? If you have a clear plan, you can make a user-written section of the site vibrant and valuable. What kinds of content should users contribute, and why? At the Bluffton Today site, a user with the handle “2bitsworth” has been blogging frequently for more than a year about real community issues — and getting lots of comments. One post (about the promise and disappointments of the Bluffton Today site) received 110 comments.
Tomorrow: Skill sets.
Yesterday: The five types of online media.
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