My friend and excellent political reporter Gintautas Dumcius linked to this CJR piece on Twitter the other day, a clever conceit where the author pretends to be a forward-looking CEO of a metro daily, giving an interview on the future of his company.
There’s a lot of good stuff in the interview and I may touch on some other aspects later, but one section really jumped out at me, the idea that journalists should be more connected to their readers.
In response to the (made up) interviewer’s question about community engagement, the author, Stephen B. Shepard, says:
Hell, yes, we’re a local paper … We must have more conversations with our audience. All of our columnists and beat specialists should command a legion of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We should have more of our own blogs on subjects that people care about.
This seems so simple, it’s not even a huge part of the interview. But it’s not as intuitive in big city papers as you might think. (Although more localized outfits like Patch, and independent weeklies, do seem to get it.) But I continue to be amazed at the newspaper’s industry failure to capitalize on technology’s ability to break down the walls between the newsroom and the community.
Frankly, this should have been the biggest benefit of the Internet revolution. If you were a newspaper editor in 1992, and I told you that in a few short years people all over the world would be able to read articles and join in an instant, free-flowing discussion on the topic at hand, you would have heard angels singing. Been to a newspaper’s comment section lately? Those aren’t angels you’re hearing.
People asking intelligent questions are drowned out by a handful of habitual trolls who bash the product even though they always seem to have a comment within seconds of a story being posted. It’s my belief that most of the people who populate comment sections aren’t subscribers.
I don’t want to get too sidetracked with Web comments, that’s a whole issue in itself. But it’s symbolic: a colossal missed opportunity for newspapers to connect directly with their readers. Instead, most journalists I know try not to look at comments under their articles. If anything, it’s driven the newsroom and readers further apart.
That connection should have been the hallmark of how technology changed newspapers. But unfortunately, at the same time technology was providing new tools for journalists, jobs were getting slashed and budgets were shrinking.
Fostering a good discussion takes time and investment, I really think even smaller regional dailies can use a social media person or reader engagement specialist. But it’s tough for the brass to add such a position when the school committee guy or gal just got laid off. So instead we get Web comments, the cheapest form of reader engagement that requires the least oversight and takes the least investment to get a return in terms of page views.
When I was at the Duxbury Clipper, two of my most rewarding and interesting experiences involved reader engagement, and they both happened pretty organically.
The first happened when the town lost power for several days due to a severe storm. Many people in town didn’t have power in their home, so they couldn’t get online.
We had a Twitter feed for the paper at that point, but I had been using it more as a glorified RSS feed to tweet out the latest stories. But I put out a callout to get stories of the storm, and to find out what areas of town had power and who didn’t.
I got a flood of Tweets back. While many people didn’t have access to their computers (we were a weekly but we had a pretty good Web site and I knew people would be checking that for news) they did have their phones, hence Facebook and especially Twitter. I used the responses to identify which areas of town were switched on first, which were the stragglers who had to go days without electricity. We built several stories off tips I got on Twitter, and I had learned the network’s real potential for directly connecting with readers.
This led to the next story. At the 2011 annual Town Meeting, I used Cover it Live to live blog the event. I figured, hey, they have wifi in the auditorium, I’ll have tons of downtime between the few big stories, so why not play around? I even started a #DuxTM11 hashtag on Twitter, which I felt silly about because I figured I’d be the only one using it.
Again, I was blown away by the response. People in the auditorium started actually using the hashtag. Duxbury natives who were in college or other parts of the country followed along with their hometown town meeting. It was fantastic, and a great way to provide live coverage for an important event.
This is what newspapers need more of, a direct connection with readers. It’s needed because it makes the product, the reporting, better – that’s certainly what happened in my two examples. I would have driven myself crazy trying to cover that storm and power outage. And anything I wrote up in a traditional way about Town Meeting would have been old news by the time the paper came out.
Those are examples I had personal experience with, but there are better examples. One of the best is when NPR’s Andy Carvin used Twitter to crowdsource the latest on the Arab Spring uprising. In the linked article, Carvin talks about the important of that human connection between journalist and source.
There’s other ways, even outside the technology arena, that reporters can connect to their communities. At the Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe, journalists and members of the public mingle in a coffee house setting. I love this idea, I think especially in more urban environments it could reap tremendous rewards for papers.
It’s a strange, ironic twist that as media becomes more prolific, people distrust it more and feel disconnected. Whatever newspapers can do to reconnect the newsroom to Main Street will go a long way toward combating that.