In an episode of the 1980’s BBC comedy series “Yes, Prime Minister,” Jim Hacker described the readers of Britain’s various newspapers: “The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The [London] Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”
His cabinet secretary asks: “Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?” Before the prime minister can answer, his private secretary, Bernard, chips in: “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.”
Though played for laughs, Britons will hear a ring of truth in Hacker’s analysis. In Britain, the newspaper people read can say a lot about their political views, social class, and background. Describing someone as a Sun reader implies certain things about them that are very different from the assumptions one would make about a Mail reader or a Guardian reader.
Those distinctions are becoming blurred online. The habit of reading a single newspaper was largely formed by practical concerns: It’s expensive to buy more than one, and they must be carried around with you. On the Web, someone can read several newspapers, and we know that plenty of people do, dipping in and out of different ones through the day. If they prefer the political coverage of the Guardian, the sports coverage of the Telegraph, and the financial coverage of The (London) Times, they can now read all three without having to buy them or carry them around.
This fragmentation has increased as news aggregators, such as Google News, make it possible for readers to click straight through to the story level. Often, after reading this one article, the person moves on. Therefore, in a short space of time we’ve moved from audiences gathering at title level to audiences gathering at section level and now to them gathering at story level.
With this content management system, editors review user comments at My Telegraph after they are posted when users complain. Image courtesy of The Daily Telegraph.
Engaging Readers Online
Audiences are booming at the Telegraph, as 27 million unique users came to the Web site in June. Within this vast audience still lurks our newspaper’s original community—made up of people who we’d identify, and who would proudly identify themselves, as being Telegraph readers. They are enormously important to us, and ensuring that they become engaged with what we do online could be crucial to our success in an increasingly tough environment for news organizations. They are the people who will, for example, join Clued Up, our crossword site, play fantasy football, and will perhaps subscribe to future niche services.
What the Telegraph needs to do is make certain these loyal readers have easy access to the tools that will enable them to participate on our site. Of course, community tools are becoming more common on other newspaper Web sites, and social media are part of the Web landscape for everyone online, so if we want our new visitors to be regulars they’ll need to find these tools here, too, and an environment that welcomes them.
Five years ago there were few places for readers to contribute to our Web site. Indeed, apart from the letters page, they had few places to share their opinions with us, even in print. So we began this ongoing conversation with them by soliciting opinions on the big issue of the day. To do this, we’d write a brief article and ask readers to e-mail us their opinions. Back then, we didn’t have comment boxes. Once we had the ability to add them, we did so at the end of all of our opinion pieces and to selected news stories.
Readers embraced the new tools with enthusiasm. Yet, in the newsroom the cultural shift was relatively small. Most journalists knew of the trend for inviting reader comments to stories. And while they didn’t see the harm in letting readers join in, they weren’t sure of the value of reader comments, and they certainly weren’t about to start replying.
Soon the Telegraph was receiving hundreds of comments each day, then thousands and, when that happened, we had to think about moderation. In handling a couple dozen reader e-mails each day, it was relatively simple to take a look and decide whether they were appropriate for publication. Now, doing so has become a full-time job. For the most part, this change has been a good thing because this kind of attention and focus allowed us to develop expertise in moderating reader comments. It also helped a small group of us get to know some of our readers better. The downside of this approach was that it also kept journalists at arm’s length from comments on their articles; this meant that it remained an option for them to engage with readers.
At the same time, journalist participation was growing on the Telegraph’s blogs, and our best writers quickly realized that blogging works best as a conversation. With articles and commentary, however, journalists seldom engaged with commenters. Still, in this early stage, our plan was targeted to increasing reader participation.
By early 2007, we had created a very active community of commenters in certain areas of the site. Now we decided to go further. We noticed that many readers shared a common outlook as they expressed their feelings that the country had been led in the wrong direction by the Labour Party, which has governed Britain since 1997. Crucially, many of our readers/commenters felt that very few people shared their views. Yet, we could see by monitoring their comments across the Web site that, in fact, many people shared this view. We saw in this moment the opportunity to help them connect to one another.
We did this by inviting some of our regular commenters to come to the Telegraph offices for a tour and to meet some of our journalists. While they were there, we invited them to become beta testers on a new community site we were building called My Telegraph. By working with these community members and others, we were able to build the site very quickly, dropping features that users didn’t like and building new ones based on their feedback. My Telegraph was completed in 17 working days and went live in May 2007. Thousands quickly signed up. Its home page was redesigned to cope with the quantity of content, some features were dropped, and new experiments, such as a mini-RSS reader, were tried.
We heard a common question from other news organizations, media observers, and bloggers about one aspect of our site: “Why would anyone want a blog with the Telegraph?” We knew that plenty of Telegraph readers wanted to identify themselves as such, and they would see value in having their words appear on the Telegraph’s Web site. But the important point was not that we were giving them a blog; we were giving them an audience. Of course, they could create a blog with WordPress or Blogger but they’d then spend months building an audience. With us, they could get a dozen comments from fellow readers within minutes of writing their first post. And the comments almost certainly would come from like-minded people.
The community on My Telegraph came together very quickly, and soon the site offered us new ways to connect with our readers. One reader wrote about his two daughters who were killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. The case was in court, and a story that would have run in brief, if at all, was expanded to half a page including excerpts from the father’s blog. When Islamist terrorists attempted to bomb London, we asked one My Telegraph blogger, a Muslim, to expand on a post that she had written denouncing the attacks as being against the teachings of Islam. Her piece then ran in the newspaper.
Very soon it became clear to us that My Telegraph members saw the site as theirs. Quick to point out faults, they were equally happy to suggest improvements. We now realize there are three spaces on the Telegraph’s Web site: ours—where comments on articles reside, theirs—My Telegraph, and the bloggers’—our blogs. Knowing this, we try to operate the site accordingly.
At the moment, comments on the Telegraph’s areas of the site are pre-moderated, meaning that a moderator reviews them before they are published. However, readers can post their comments without registering with the site. Blogs and My Telegraph are postmoderated, though readers must be registered to comment.
Free speech is important to the Telegraph’s readers so we tried to reflect that in our moderation policy. We’re careful to remove material that runs afoul of Britain’s racial and religious hatred laws, and we have to be careful about libelous material. In premoderation this is relatively simple ,but in postmoderation we rely on our readers to bring inappropriate material to our attention. Only then does a moderator review a comment.
Our journalists are learning to engage. This effort has been helped by the growth of online social networks. With our journalists now using Facebook, Digg and Twitter, each of which is an increasingly important source of traffic, and being familiar with YouTube and Flickr, engagement doesn’t seem as strange to them as it did a few years ago. Still, it is important they have guidance.
Our advice to our journalists is to “play the ball, not the man” when joining comments. By all means say someone’s argument is idiotic, but don’t call them an idiot. Engage with constructive comments, even when they are negative, and ignore those who are being abusive or trying to derail debate. Of course some writers, and some readers, disregard those rules entirely and seem to enjoy it when comment threads turn into an anything-goes fight. That can work, too, as long as everyone understands the rules.
There’s still plenty more to do. This year, having already relaunched our blog platform, we plan to release a new comment tool and refresh My Telegraph. We’ve been doing this for a long time now, so we feel like we know our readers pretty well. But the social media landscape has changed a lot in the past few years—and continues to change at a rapid pace—so we’re eager to collaborate with our readers in building new community tools.
Shane Richmond is the head of technology (editorial) for Telegraph Media Group.
Editor’s note: The print edition of Nieman Reports incorrectly identifies Richmond as communications editor at The Daily Telegraph. He was communities editor at the time he wrote the article. He now has a new job.