Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ask & answer The Big Question

In line with the two posts below about different kinds of campaign coverage, I also should have mentioned Eric Black's pioneering blog/reporting effort at the Star Tribune, called The Big Question.

It's kind of tough to describe (the website's boilerplate is appended below), but it's easy to judge Eric's vigor and to appreciate the robust, mainly civil discussions that it generates. I'd encourage you to have a look, and to share your own ideas and experiences here.

[Remember: anybody can comment here; if you'd like to post -- and please do -- just email Jill Christensen ( for an invitation to "join" the blog.]

What is the Big Question?

The Big Question is an experiment by the Star Tribune and, one based on the belief that our reporting will become stronger and more relevant by inviting you, our readers, to join us in the pursuit.

Whatever the question, our hope is that this blog can serve as a forum for finding and testing facts, with a minimum of rancor or partisanship, in the pursuit of answers, big and small. Despite the often-overheated rhetoric about the mainstream media, it's our belief that those answers will be more convincing and more complete if they are drawn from the insight, expertise and critical assessment of everyone. And that means you.
–Howard Weaver


  1. Great idea, but how does he keep it so civil? It won't remain civil on its own - like a garden, comments need tending, and tone of discussion tends to (d)evolve.

    I did a link dump on civil-comments related info here, and particularly recommend Teresa Nielsen Hayden's rules of thumb ("Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space")

    Some suggestions on The Big Question -
    (all of which are easily implemented if you have unlimited resources)

    1. Keep the comments on track; must be answers to the Big Q. This will go a long way toward keeping the forum valuable.

    Do this by

    a) Reminding people - for ex.,
    - Print the B.Q. obtrusively at the start of each comment in the thread.
    - Print the B.Q. obtrusively right above the "leave a comment" textbox.
    - Put a "My comment addresses the B.Q." checkbox (default is unchecked) above the "submit" button
    (but upon Submit, make their choice blatantly-but-nonjudgmentally obvious and give them a chance to back up)

    b) (in line with the NY Times "Shamu" advice, "reward behavior you like and ignore behavior you don't")
    Shunting off-topic answers to a separate "Big Question Tangents" page, where comments are a little less visible (eg represented by a couple lines, with a link that you click on to get a separate page with the full comment)

    2. Have one B.Q. be "what B.Q.s should we address?" so people can transparently submit suggestions.

    3. (??) Provide a separate discussion area for people who prefer simpler or more emotive comments
    (and is there a word for "civil" that isn't judgmental of its opposite? To get a "civil" discussion area, you really need to provide other opportunities for people with different discussion preferences to post, without feeling 'lesser' for going there)

    4. Have a fixed, reasonable "above the fold" length limit for comments - eg 10 lines or so; after that, you click on a link to bring up the whole comment on a separate page.
    (helps to keep longwinded people from dominating)

    and no, I have no experience to know any of this would necessarily work.

    For general newspaper-comments 'civility' lessons from experience, you might try talking to Howard Owens of the Ventura County Star, whose paper started doing it a year or so back; not sure how their reader-commenting experiment has turned out.

    talk about longwinded...

  2. a weekly Open Thread might be good too.