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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

An Online Political Venue for Conservatives and Liberals   

Politix wants conversations that include many views—and are civil. Wed., August 8, 2012.


By Michaelle Bond
Michaelle Bond (mbond@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

It's an election year, and people across the country have plenty of opinions they'll share with whoever will listen. Politix welcomes them with open arms.

David Mark, recently named editor-in-chief of Politix―a political discussion Web site that aims to be part political news venue, part social network―says he thinks there's a market made up of people who want to have civilized debates about politics.

"This is the kind of thing people talk about over dinner or at a ball game," says Mark, a former senior editor at Politico.

Politix spent months looking for an editor-in-chief. The site was looking for the right one to come along―someone with experience in both political news and community involvement.

"It's an interesting skill set that we were looking for and one that is hard to find," says Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, a forum for local news and community discussion that launched the national, politically focused community in March.

As the former head of The Arena, Politico's opinion and debate forum, Mark is perfect for the top job, Tolles says. For the past three years, Mark has been stirring up discussion among the members of Congress, political consultants and other political junkies who regularly participate in the forum.

One challenge in Mark's new gig is to find a way to spur interest from the general public.

"We want people who are not political professionals, don't work in Washington," Mark says. "People who have families and have other things going on in their lives, but are interested in politics and want to have their say."

Says Tolles, "I think there's an opportunity here to build a new place to go online or on the mobile universe so you can have a daily interaction with the issues."

The site has an iPhone app and is working on iPad and Android apps.

Tolles wants Politix to capitalize on the digital opportunity to "integrate your audience―those formerly known as the audience―into what you're doing."

In addition to Mark's community interaction savvy, a big selling point for Tolles was the new editor in chief's political reporting experience, including his time as editor in chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine and as a political reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

Tolles says Mark's experience in traditional journalism bolsters the credibility of the Politix site, and his experience dealing with commenters is invaluable. While many news sites allow comments, Politix totally loves them.

Stories on the site are short―about 200 words―and actively seek readers' opinions. With an editorial team of about five people, Politix isn't trying to blanket breaking political news. The goal is to "just summarize the news of the moment and try to write a punchy question at the end," Mark says. And he says his time at The Arena was great preparation for his latest challenge.

Former U.S. Rep. and current Arena contributor Artur Davis, who says he sees a liberal slant to Politico, considers its Arena forum to be balanced. "I think it is one of the few spaces on the blogosphere that all views are welcome," says Davis, who has been commenting on The Arena since June 2011.

Davis, who represented Alabama for four terms as a Democrat, has said that if he were to run for office again, he would run as a Republican.

Davis doesn't know much about Politix but says he's a fan of David Mark. "He is someone who I think added a lot of integrity to The Arena site, and I'm sure he'll bring that to Politix as well," says Davis, who adds that Mark made sure discussions were politically diverse.

"There should be a place where a hardcore conservative and a dedicated liberal can go and you can see how they engage issues," Davis says.

Politix wants to be that place. "We want to be taking apart all the different views on the story and then distilling that for the readers," says Mary Noble, senior editor at Politix.

While Politix officials say the site's audience is split down the middle, it has a more conservative flavor because the most vociferous commenters tend to skew right. One reason: Politix has advertised on its mother site, Topix, which Noble says is popular in the relatively conservative Southeast. That's where much of Politix's comment traffic comes from. Politix is expanding its marketing and has run one test ad on the social news site Reddit.

In addition to trying to be politically all-inclusive, the site aims for interactivity, "instead of giving people a huge dump of static content," Noble says. Debate maps showing user votes on issues by region are popular on the site, she says. Readers can endorse each others' statements on the map, similar to retweeting on Twitter or "liking" a status update on Facebook.

Curating and creating content is a lot of work, says Politix staff writer Dain Fitzgerald, but crafting a question that will spur the level of discussion Politix aims for often takes more finesse.

"What we try to do is think, 'If my friends were talking about this, if my parents were talking about this, what questions would they want to answer?' " Noble says. "Sometimes you get the most visceral response when you relate something to people's everyday lives."

For example, for a story about a political scandal, Politix might ask readers how they would react if they were in same position. The goal is to come up with simple, thought provoking questions and avoid inflammatory ones.

"There are questions you can ask that would get a lot of responses, but not in a good way," Noble says.

Another challenge is coming up with questions that don't specifically appeal to one side, Fitzgerald says.

The right question can make or break the discussion. And "if you pose the question the right way, you can really draw a lot of expertise from readers," Mark says. "You have to take it with a grain of salt, to be sure. But you can get a lot of information that you may otherwise not have had."

Welcoming comments allows Politix to "get an interesting cross-section of voices," Mark says. "As opposed to a traditional op-ed piece where it's this 'voice of God' thing―not a whole lot of interaction."

Much like LinkedIn creates professional profiles, Politix wants to be a place for people's political profiles. Readers' voting records on the site's polls shape their profiles, which allow users to learn more about their fellow commenters.

"We want to make it like a political social network, where people can follow each other and kind of become friends―or adversaries," Noble says.

Moderators are on the lookout for commenting behavior that violates Politix's "Engagement Etiquette," like the use of profanity, personal attacks or off-topic commentary.

These bans are standard among news sites' commenting policies. But Politix also suggests that commenters cite their sources and help "show people the ropes." Under the "No One Likes a Spammer" guideline are only two words of explanation―"True story."

"There's a core of users that are very civil and are having exactly the kind of debates we want them to," Noble says. But every so often, the site's moderators have to ban people who aren't playing by the rules.

"But, on the whole, I would say the level of people insulting each other is very low for a political site," Noble says.

Commenters must sign in through Facebook or with their Politix accounts, which ask for some personal information. "In my experience, if you force people to give their real name or a pseudonym or at least a name and some identifying information, like their state or a valid email address―that weeds out about 85 percent of the crazies," Mark says.

But vigilance is key.

FenceSitter, the site moderators' username, is on hand to give commenters a gentle push toward civility as a "Politix Diplomat." In a debate related to the site's story "Should the US Intervene if Israel and Iran Come to Blows?" that was getting heated, FenceSitter wrote, "Nice conversation here... Hope you two can keep it that way ;)"

Politix's future plans include increasing the number of ways users can interact with each others' comments, adding political knowledge quizzes and strengthening users' ability to message each other.

"I think this is kind of the direction where political news is going right now―making it more interactive and giving people a say in stories," Mark says. "There's not a whole lot of spaces like that on the Web today."