Monitoring Web Users' Whims at CSMonitor  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1998

Monitoring Web Users' Whims at CSMonitor   

The Christian Science Monitor's Web site asks its readers what they want to see on the site.

By Dianne Lynch
Dianne Lynch, who teaches journalism at St. Michael's College.     


The Christian Science Monitor's Web site asks its readers what they want to see on the site.

Tom Regan, editor at the Christian Science Monitor Online ( www. csmonitor.com ), asks his readers what they want him to do. And then, usually, he does it.

Take cookies, which allow Web sites to count visitors and trace their online steps. CSMonitor's advertisers wanted more data about their banner ads. Cookies and registration were obvious solutions — until Regan checked with the site's visitors.

"About every two weeks, I write a note to readers, telling them everything that's going on, about the problems we're having and what we're doing," he says. "So I wrote this note and said, 'Hey, we're thinking about using cookies, here's why, what do you think?' The answers came flooding back in: 'No cookies,' they said. 'We hate them.' "

So Regan wrote back. "I told them, 'We won't use cookies, but we're going to do a survey,' " he says. "We told them it would take them awhile to fill it out, that we would only use the information in the aggregate, that we wouldn't sell it to anybody else, and that if enough of them were willing to fill it out we wouldn't have to use cookies."

The site posted its cookie survey last spring, hoping for 400 responses in a month. Within three weeks, it received more than 1,100. Dozens of readers e-mailed Regan in appreciation. "We got lots of great data," says the 41-year-old Regan, "and our readers said, 'Thanks for giving us the choice. We're so tired of being dictated to.' "

Despite the positive response, CSMonitor recently had to succumb to the cookie monster — at least partially. To balance conflicting demands for more accountability in chat rooms and less tracking of activities on the site in general, Regan says CSMonitor recently installed software requiring chat room visitors to register and therefore to accept a cookie.

Though Regan didn't check with users beforehand, he offers them an explanation. "We're going to say, 'Look, we understand some of you may be concerned about this, and if you really object to it, you just don't have to go into the forum,' " Regan says. "We won't have cookies on any other part of the site; the new software won't affect their ability to read the Monitor."

To stay accountable to readers, the site answers all of its e-mail within 24 hours. "We only have five people on staff, but we insisted that one of them should be a customer response person," Regan says.

Enter customer service maven Denise Dwinnells, who spends some mornings dealing with readers. "We wanted them to know they were communicating with a real person," she says. "They know me; they know my name. There's a certain amount of trust we've created."

It's worth the effort, she says. Users see firsthand what works — and what doesn't. "I'm the first one who finds out if something is broken," she says.

Another way the site keeps abreast of its audience's desires is by publishing reporters' e-mail addresses next to their stories. Some sites shy away from doing so for fear of reporters being inundated with readers' e-mail (see The World of New Media, page 52). "I say, if that happens, that's great," says Regan.

CSMonitor's dialogue isn't just with its audience — it's also internal. In a break with journalistic tradition à la Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark H. Willes, CSMonitor's business and editorial sides work closely at regular brainstorming sessions called by Regan and Publisher Dave Creagh.

"There's this old fear that the editorial content will be overwhelmed by the advertising, so things need to be adversarial. That's just crap," Regan says. "We solve problems in minutes that in some places would take days to handle — and it's because [Creagh] and I came to this project and said, 'Hey, let's do something really different; let's not be afraid to cooperate.' "

Regan hopes cooperating with the audience will pay off. By using technology to connect to readers, Regan says, the site's more likely to keep them coming back. "That's one of the things I think some of the bigger sites don't understand," he says. "The key to the Web is interactivity.... Each of our readers can have a conversation with us in an immediate way. We're responsible to each of them.

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