What Twitter can often lack is a sense of proportion

On more than one occasion I’ve spoken to people in newsrooms who feel as though something has gone badly wrong because lots of people are criticising their publication on Twitter.

This, I think, comes from the fact that print newsrooms consider complaints to be the exception rather than the norm. One complaint about something is bad enough, but get two or three and it feels as though something has badly gone wrong. And then there’s the day the crossword is wrong….

Twitter, and probably everything from email onwards, has made it easier for people to complain. That’s not a bad thing in itself, and Twitter is perhaps the easiest way to make a complaint. A quick comment and you’re off – hundreds, maybe thousands, of people seeing what you’ve said. They’ll respond, or retweet, and before you know it, if it’s your brand, it can feel like a deluge.

But with that power does there come a sense of reponsibility to check what you’re complaining about first? Regular followers of my Twitter profile will know I’m more than happy to rant about Virgin Trains – but I wouldn’t, for example, have a go at them if the trains were cancelled because it had snowed. Charging £5 an hour for wifi and then saying ‘well, lots of people were on it’ when you complain about how slow said connection is is a different matter.

I bring all this up because of the almost astonishing reaction to a blog post David Ottewell, the Manchester Evening News’s chief reporter, put out there today. (Regular readers of this blog will know this already, but at this point it is worth saying that the MEN is now owned by Trinity Mirror, which employs me as head of multimedia for the regionals division. I know David, but not well.)

David basically posted about hyperlocal news sites in the wake of a decision by Salford Council not to support the Salford Star news site with a grant for a number of reasons. David cites the Salford Star as a hyperlocal site which digs out exclusives, but then makes some broadbrush assertions about hyperlocal sites in general:

Too often, though, these sites disappoint. They end up simply regurgitating press releases, or ripping off stories from local newspapers, because they are one-man bands run by amateurs who don’t have the time, resources, or sometimes skills to dig out the news.

Often you’ll find the authors of these site blur the lines between news and commentary. Instead of finding exclusives, and dealing with them responsibly (by giving right or reply, say, and checking all facts are correct), they simply put their own heavy spin on other people’s stories. This isn’t ‘doing’ news, hyperlocal or otherwise. It’s commentary. And it is far less valuable. That’s what CP Scott meant when he said “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Finding the news is hard. Talking about it is easy.

The problem here is probably the label ‘hyperlocal’ (Philip John explores this here). I know many hyperlocal sites which wouldn’t fall into the description David used.  And many of the people behind those sites have sought to put that point forward. Some have suggested that the elements David describes are also present in the Press too. I think we’ve long since established that in all areas of journalism there are factions we’d rather weren’t there, but the trick is not to assume the worst of everyone.  That said, David set out his experiences, and people were free to reply.

Quite how David then ended up on the receiving end of a Twitterati battering for not posting people’s comments straight away, I don’t know. Actually, I do. Sarah Hartley, former head of online editorial of the MEN parish, (thanks to Sarah for correcting me on the job title) waited an hour after posting her comment on David’s blog before writing a post herself highlighting the fact her comment was still under moderation.

The post was promoted from Twitter as The MEN V hyperlocals: Blogging lesson one: Never walk away from a debate (as it appeared on Twitter from Twitterfeed). [This has since changed to MEN Reporter v Hyperlocal]

Putting aside the issue that one reporter’s blog clearly isn’t ever going to be there to speak on behalf of a newspaper, the main issue here was the suggestion that David/the MEN had somehow walked away from a debate because the comments had been published instantly.

Lots of chatter on Twitter about this (not to mention much misreading of it, not least claims David said hyperlocal shouldn’t do comment) – but it seems no-one actually made the effort to contact the MEN to find out what was going on. Sarah did, in fairness, make the point that David could be on his day off which is why the comments didn’t appear. He could have been, or it could have been something much worse. A simple phone call or email could have answered it, or alerted people to the fact the comments were queuing up in the system.

In that context, I don’t think this is particularly fair:

It’s very possible and reasonable that David’s just stepped outside on his day off  – perhaps he could leave a message to say so. But now the twitterati is somewhat indignant at having the opportunity for response closed off. Only it’s not. Ooops……….

There’s a debate to had around David’s thoughts, but I really don’t think there was any suggestion that the opportunity for response had been closed off. All the comments are now there, in their full glory – and many of them I agree with.

In fairness to Sarah, at least she put a suggestion forward as to why they hadn’t been posted.  Others weren’t so thoughtful. Inside the M60 [a local site in Manchester] co-founder Louise Bolotin put forward the idea that ‘Ottewell had gone to ground’ and suggested:

Just why has the MEN gone so silent? Surely it can handle a bit of criticism?

I shall, of course, update this blog post if the MEN ever does approve its backlog of comments on this…

Moments later, Louise did update to say the comments had appeared. But why blog about a perceived problem rather than actually try and find out what is going on?

How can you criticise without knowing all the facts?

As it is, it’s totally unrealistic to expect bloggers to monitor their comments 24/7. It’s also unrealistic to expect bloggers to say when they won’t be around to moderate comments. Why moderate comments at all? In one word: Spam. Mike Rawlins from Pits and Pots told a conference last week something like 85% of the comments posted to his site were unsuitable or spam.

Anyway, is it really so bad to have to wait a few hours (or about two hours in this case) for a comment to be posted? I posted on Marc Reeves’s blog the other day, and it was several hours before he approved it. I assumed this was because Marc has a life – and David makes a similar point in his subsequent post. Perhaps I should have posted my thoughts on my blog, safe in the knowledge that people therefore knew what I thought, instantly. Hardly the principle for an engaging debate online is it?

Not only has David published all the comments, and responded to many of them – he’s also done a subsequent post explaining why he doesn’t moderate comments around the clock. As examples of print journalists ‘getting’ blogging, I think you’ll struggle to find a better example.

A little bit of fact checking could have spared an awful lot of hot air on Twitter today. With the power of the social media, surely there comes a responsibility to make sure you’ve got all the facts. Twitter is a wonderful medium for communication, but it doesn’t come with a sense of perspective and proportion built in. As journalists, we should bring both to the party.

Footnote: Thanks to everyone who commented on this – your comments have also been republished on Louise Bolotin’s blog (Louise is one of the commenters below). I’m not sure why – but you can go there to see the context they’ve been used in.

27 comments

  1. I was amongst the people who waited a while before getting a comment published.

    While I took issue with the tone of the initial article, I wasn’t too bothered by mine taking a while to appear. If it still hadn’t appeared a few hours later, there may have been an issue, but otherwise not.

    I think one of the weaknesses of Twitter is the immediate discharge of reaction. What you may otherwise regard as a throwaway comment to your friends is suddenly made public, one of the reasons I can never bring myself to join in with the often asinine Question Time hashtag. This seemed to snowball quickly and get all out of proportion in a very short amount of time, which wouldn’t have occurred pre twitter.

    1. Hi Joseph. Good points. To me, if you’re a journalist, you’re a journalist on Twitter. so you remember the basics: Libel, accuracy etc

  2. A nice post David. A few bolshy bloggers venting righteous indignation isn’t the Twitterati, or maybe I was missing something.

    1. Hi Michael. Perhaps the use of the Twitterati was wrong, but it certainly seemed to stem from chatter there.

      1. Does being a hard-working journalist exclude you from being a bolshy blogger? Not if you fail to stick to some of the main rules of journalism. Fact checking was missing from Louise’s post on this. So was the need to remember that that not everything is about you – David O never mentioned Louise or her site. And the need to avoid sweeping generalisations – her point about press releases. And what about the need to correct facts when you get it wrong? Have any of these bolshy bloggers updated to say David O has posted all the comments and replied to many of them? So journalism is only a defence if you stick to the rules, surely? I’d have posted this on Louise’s site if the comments were working. Seems like a big row about nothing overegged by people who like the sound of their own voices.

  3. In fairness, after waiting well over an hour for my 3rd comment to be approved I did tweet @MENnewsdesk to ask why the silence, because having by then seen Sarah’s blog and concurred that perhaps David Ottewell might well be busy with something else, it seemed sensible to pose the question to the paper itself. I didn’t receive a reply though. It would have taken seconds for someone at MEN to tweet back and say “sorry, David’s busy just now but I’m sure he’ll sort it soon”.

    That, to me, made me wonder far more if there was some element of censorship going on than David’s temporary absence. Especially because I strongly suspect that the hyperlocal site I co-run was one of those being anonymously slated by David. The amount of attack Inside the M60 has endured on Twitter and blogs by other local journalists over the past 4-5 months has been extraordinary, so perhaps I’m being a tad sensitive but under those circumstances it does rather feel as though this was yet another veiled assault on us.

    1. Hi Louise. I’m afraid I’ve never seen any of the negativity you’ve talked about. While it’s good to hear you actually tried to contact the MEN, I still think there was a fair bit of assuming the worst going on.
      That said, I’d be interested to talk to you about the problems you’ve encountered.

  4. David, I’d be more than happy to chat to you. In fairness to MEN, none of the slatings we had even prior to launch came from MEN staff. But it’s a bit much for MEN, via David, to accuse hyperlocals of ripping off content when we’ve experienced exactly that by the MEN itself!

  5. I made my own jokes and laughed with others on Twitter about the comment moderation but saw it all as light-hearted. I understand, being largely in charge of comment moderation myself on The Lichfield Blog, that sometimes comments just have to wait. There are far more important things than seeing who’s trying to spam you (as is mostly the case).

  6. A point I made on my blog was that David sparked an interesting and realtime debate which continued even when he wasn’t there – on Twitter, blogs (and now here).
    While the initial conversational space was halted, others opened up. That’s the nature of social media.
    David’s posting entered an already ongoing debate about the nature of hyperlocal news sites – one which will carry on and which I hope he continues to participate in.
    I was pleased to see David’s views. No, I don’t agree with him but, in my experience, it’s a view shared by quite a few journalists and one which needs to be debated.

    Btw, my title when I worked for MEN Media was head of online editorial if you wouldn’t mind correcting.

    1. Hi Sarah, more than happy to change your old job title.
      There are things here we’re just not going to agree on, the first being the suggestion the MEN/David Ottewell was walking away from a debate. That was far from the case, and the delay in comments being posted could easily have been cleared up if someone had contacted the MEN. Surely that would have been better than just speculating on the delay? It quickly grew elsewhere to become an ‘MEN stifling debate’ issue which simply wasn’t the case.
      Blogs often spin off into online discussions elsewhere, regardless of moderation times, and it’s not as if the delays in moderation stifled the debate on his blog, or elsewhere.
      David’s reaction, as I expected, has been superb. He’s interacted with many of the comments, published them all and written a follow up post. Given the the over the top reaction to a delay in publishing comments, I hope he gets the due credit for what he has done since.
      That all said, you’re right about it being a debate that is worth having.

      1. “and the delay in comments being posted could easily have been cleared up if someone had contacted the MEN.”

        I refer you back to my earlier comment that I had indeed contacted the MEN via Twitter. No one replied.

      2. Hi Louise. Tried to post a comment on your blog before but it kept coming up with an error message, so apologies if you got it two or three times.

        I’ve tried thinking about this as a news editor. If I was being asked to publish something which was suggesting that someone had perhaps gone to ground, or suggesting an organisation was seeking to stifle criticism, I’d want to be sure that every possible effort had been made to contact those people.

        Social media is one way of contacting them, but is not hearing back from them after just trying that medium enough to justify the suggestion that someone had gone to ground (which we now know not to be the case) or that the paper was blocking criticism (which we also know not to be the case)? I’m not sure I know the answer to that.

      3. To anyone who’s tried posting comments on my own blog, there are some technical problems since it was moved to a new server last weekend. David H’s comments went to straight to trash for some reason and he got error messages. I did manage to retrieve them and approve them, so do please try again. In the interim, I’m trying to get the problem fixed.

  7. David,

    Would agree with all the comments on here apart from ” few bolshy bloggers venting righteous indignation” once again establishing that the traditional media seem unable to comprehend that the playing field is changing.

    Let’s have that meeting soon

    1. Hi Nigel. You clearly know more than me about the author of that comment. Always happy to meet.

      The point of my post was that the instant nature of Twitter means people often get carried away – as was the case yesterday when the assumption was that people were being censored. Credit where it is due, David has done a excellent job responding to people and getting stuck into a debate.

  8. Spot the irony of the person who built up a conspiracy theory about comments not being published on the MEN site then having people say they find the comments section on her blog broken. Leave them to it Dave, they’re just trying to draw attention to themselves. It’s too easy to shoot holes through some of the arguments used to drag it out
    Louise quote: “Where did I say the MEN relied too heavily on press releases” was on comment on Twitter. Er, how about on your blog?. At the end of the day, it’s one person who expressed an opinion and lots of people who got upset because their oh-so-important opinions couldn’t be displayed to the world instantly. Shame none of them have corrected their suggestions that they were being denied a voice. Ignore ’em.

    1. Sorry Pete, but I did only find out yesterday that I have a technical issue with comments since the server switch! And I only found out because David H had mentioned here that he’d tried to comment on my site. No conspiracy.

      My blog does not say MEN relies too heavily on press heavily on press releases. It says: “Surely Ottewell is not suggesting that the MEN never uses press releases? Pretty much all newspapers rely heavily on press releases for content these days”. If you’re going to quote me, please quote me accurately.

      1. Here’s what you said:
        Indeed, while the MEN has a good track record in digging out exclusives, a glance at the paper any day of the weeks shows that a lot of content does derive from press releases.

        Play with semantics all you like, but you were chucking the accusation around that a lot of content is derived from press releases.

        Twitter is full of people who like being offended, and it looks as though you fell into that category.

      2. No conspiracy, but it is still funny that someone who spent Friday building up a case for foul play on Twitter when comments weren’t published instantly then has problems publishing comments on her blog. And it wouldn’t hurt to say on your blog next to your wrong claims that you have been proved wrong and they no longer stand. That’s what journalists do when they get something wrong – they correct.

  9. Twitter brings people together, and in this case it brought together people who like to knock the MEN and have a track record of doing so. Twitter makes them think they have an important voice. I’d also just ignore them in future.

  10. A reply to Jonno, as I can’t reply directly underneath his comment:

    David O’s blog did not mention my site, but as co-owner of a hyperlocal venture why shouldn’t I respond? He made some pretty harsh sweeping generalisations about hyperlocals to which several people, not just I, responded to correct his impression. And if you go check my blog, you’ll see that I did correct it, within about three minutes of posting, to say that David had published the backlog of comments to his post.

  11. Chaps, at the risk of being accused of running away from a debate, I’m going to suggest we end this now. I think David Ottewell’s active presence on Twitter and the follow up post he did suggests he’s more than happy to have a debate with people, but, as he rightly says, he’s not going to be moderating comments around the clock. That was the point of my post – because we talk in real time on Twitter, things can get blown out of proportion. The conspiracy theories which grew out of the fact comments weren’t published at the drop of a hat prove that. A bit like 24-hour news channels in that respect.
    David has started a constructive debate which has gone on elsewhere, and I’m not sure the ‘he said, she said’ stuff is very useful now.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

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