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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

News can learn from WoW, but not TMZ

I’ve had a long, but fun day (more on that tomorrow) so I’ve got a couple of quick hits tonight.

  • First, a melding of two topics I know well: Journalism and World of Warcraft.

Thanks to Carrie Brown-Smith for linking to this PaidContent article on Facebook, where Patrick Smith, who calls himself a reformed gamer, says news organzations thinking of establishing paywalls could learn a thing or two from the most successful paywall out there – World of Warcraft. Thanks for raising the flag Patrick, because there are a lot of us who will rally to your cause. I have yet to reform my gaming habits, even though I’m on a two-month WoW hiatus, but I can still speak to the powerful interactivity the game creates. Just this week, I subscribed to the Instance, a weekly WoW podcast, to try to fill the void not having time to play has left. In the most recent show, the hosts, Scott Johnson and Randy Jordan, discussed what keeps them coming back to WoW over and over again. It’s not the game, even though both agree it’s probably the best MMO out there, but it’s the people they play with. And what I would add is the way the game facilitates that interaction. Playing it by yourself just isn’t the same experience.
To second what Smith said on PaidContent, reading the news by yourself isn’t the same experience either. In fact, we want to talk about the news. That’s one of the big reasons we read it, but I can tell you from my research that news organizations aren’t doing enough to facilitate that discussion. I find it baffling how many news organizations, for example, accept coments but rarely read them. One of the biggest lessons of WoW is people will pay for interaction.
Smith is also genius for taking this argument to the next level. People will pay for interaction, he says, as long as they can create the content themselves. I love this quote.

Sure, there’s MySun, MyTelegraph and “tell us what you think in the comments below”, but that’s a marketing ploy to drive page impressions and encourage more content consumption. The lesson from gaming is that people won’t pay for content they can’t help shape themselves—or project their own personal narrative onto.

In other words, allowing comments isn’t enough. True interactivity lies in starting and maintaining a conversation. If that sounds familiar, it’s what I and several colleagues have been saying a while.

Finally, he asks if news organizations could adapt WoW’s leveling system to encourage readers to “unlock different ‘levels’ of membership, each with its own unique rewards.” I don’t like this idea much. The news should be democratic and available to all. However, news organzations could adapt WoW’s reward system. My colleague Bob Britten has a great post about how collecting stuff has become engrained in people since the first Mario game came out. Why not create medals or badges readers could earn for say referring 20 friends to a story or posting 25 comments or submitting a news story that is used on the front page or providing 5 solid news tips. It seems silly, but if done right could provide a substantial reason for people to actually read the news without detracting from the news’ value or truth.

  • Next, my take on Tiger Woods, truth, and journalism thanks to Bill Simmons.

I wanted to be the last blogger on earth to write about Tiger Woods. I really did, but Bill Simmons, a columnist for ESPN and editor of Page 2, got me too fired up yesterday. Simmons doesn’t profess to be a journalist, but his understanding of how the news process gets derailed by gossip and rumor is spot on. Simmons writes:

On Thanksgiving night, the superstar who controlled everything suddenly had something he couldn’t control. The subsequent two weeks illustrated, in ugly detail, every problem with journalism right now. There are no lines anymore. There is no middleman or filter. Stories change constantly, sometimes four or five times per day, and the accuracy of those stories doesn’t totally matter as long as there’s a story in the first place.

I couldn’t agree more. When did journalism become so fixated on the subjects of the stories that it forgot to research if they were true. You could blame the Internet, the blogosphere, citizen journalism, or TMZ for this if you want. You can’t just blame the national media either because as Jeremy Littau pointed out, even local news organizations are jumping on the Tiger attack wagon.  Regardless, mainstream journalism that’s quoting the rumors, no matter the source, without independent verification. Simmons makes this point so clear later on.

(On the other hand, it’s TMZ. With all due respect, TMZ isn’t exactly operating under the same rules as Woodward and Bernstein in the mid-’70s.)

In fact, the only point of the modern media is to entertain, Simmons says.

In the pre-teen double-zero aughts, these mega-stories are like Maximus in “Gladiator,” covered in blood after a fresh kill and screaming at everyone sitting in the Colosseum, “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?” We don’t want to be crammed into the Colosseum, but we can’t help ourselves.

Bill, it doesn’t have to be this way. When will the mainstream media stand up to the rumor-mongers. When will the editors and producers and station manager say enough is enough. We are not in the business of trusting all sources. We learned in journalism school to verify information. Let’s do that before we run something. Sure, we might get scooped by Twitter (scwittered? twooped?) but the scoop doesn’t matter as long as journalists deliver the most precise and factual story. This should be journalism’s focus. Leave the speculation to TMZ, or better yet, create a real conversation about the topic on your site. Maybe readers won’t visit your site first, but they might be willing to spend the most time there. Heck, they might even be willing to pay for it.

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6 Responses to “News can learn from WoW, but not TMZ”

  1. Bob #

    When Carrie first put up that WoW link, my first thought was “I wonder if Hans, Jeremy, or I will be the first to post on this?” Looks like the nerd crown passes to you this week. This idea of embracing the game-nature of online communication could be a powerful way to engage audiences – done properly, it’s not a gimmick, it’s recognizing how people interact in the medium.

    I think I agree about “leveling” maybe being a problem, but what you suggest sounds almost more like an “achievement” system, which is like leveling for casual gamers (which is many of us these days, so a good target). Also consider the karma or star systems you see elsewhere, which are democratically based commenting achievements.

    Now I gotta go write my own post.

    December 13, 2009 at 11:36 am
  2. I never played World of Warcraft. I’m pretty sure the last thing I need is a time suck, no matter how entertaining.

    One thing I’m wondering is how much automation someone like me or another independent publisher could build into a badge or reward system.

    The idea is great. How do we implement it?

    December 13, 2009 at 12:48 pm
  3. Hans #

    Automating would be easy actually. After five comments, the computer sends you a badge you can place on your home page. iReport is already sort of doing this with their “Superstars.” I’m thinking more extensive than that. I’m wondering if we could implement something like Farmville or Mafia Wars where the only way you could get certain things is if your friends or your readers send them to you. What about a credibility badge? I wonder if News Vine already has something like this.

    December 13, 2009 at 9:17 pm
  4. Hans #

    Oh, and World of Warcraft is fun, but it is a time suck. If you don’t spend enough time, it sucks! Blizzard, the maker, really tries to balance it for casual gamers, but they can’t please everyone, and I’d focus on the hard core fans every time.

    December 13, 2009 at 9:19 pm


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