Readers, we want your opinion, just don't get too close

By Joy Mayer on January 17, 2011 15 Comments Ideas

joy_0_0.jpgJoy Mayer, 2010-2011 Fellow

Many journalists have come a long way, but it's important to remember how far some of us still have to go.

You've perhaps read about the transformation happening at the Register Citizen in Connecticut. The newspaper is inviting the public in (literally and figuratively) in envelope-pushing ways. You might call it extreme engagement (like extreme sports, but less dangerous). I haven't interviewed the folks at the Register Citizen yet — I thought I'd wait until they've had a chance to see what's working and what they're learning. But I'm excited about what I hear and see coming from Publisher Matt DeRienzo and Community Editor Kaitlyn Yeager.

An editor at a nearby weekly newspaper, The Valley Press, has published her opinion of the project in an editorial. DeRienzo mentioned it on Twitter this morning, then shared it with me when I asked for it. I'd link to it, but it doesn't seem to be online. Click here for an image of it.

Allow me to share some highlights of the piece, written by Editor Abigail Albair.

"You, our readers are of incredible importance to us and we welcome your story suggestions and your thoughts and opinions on our work and the subject matter which we present to you."

"If you have a suggestion to offer, we welcome it, though there is a time and a place for it."

"Everyone needs some perspective and guidance at times, but the fact that other organizations are inviting this into their newsroom on a daily basis suggests to me that they have lost all faith in themselves to adequately fulfill their obligations to the public."

"You can be the source of some of our best topics, but there always comes a point where we can 'take it from here.' "

"It is upsetting that some news sources are eager to turn to gimmicks rather than solid, old-fashioned reporting and hard work to sell their product."

(I'm not sure with that last one if she really means sources? Or advertisers? Or journalists?)

She also says there should be no need for an invitation to submit corrections, because there should be no corrections. (I'd love to hear Craig Silverman's response to that.

My slightly flippant translation: You're important to us, readers. And we value your input. Really. As long it's on our terms, and as long as you don't overstep your bounds. When we want your opinion, we'll ask for it. And when we don't, butt out.

If I ever needed an example of Wizard of Oz journalism, this is it.

This editorial so neatly represents the threat many journalists feel, as if readers are going to edit over their shoulders. As if inviting "help" implies we've lost confidence in our own ability to practice the craft of journalism. That's just not what the engagement movement is about.

I recognize that there aren't one-size-fits-all solutions. Not every newsroom should invite readers to roam the halls. And many real community news organizations have engagement naturally, without even trying. One of the most enlightening days I've spent on this fellowship was at the Gasconade County Republican. The editor there, Dave Marner, seems to have almost effortless connection with his community because he's such a part of it. That day lead me to ruminate that we talk about engagement only if we don't have it. Perhaps that's the case for the Valley Press — perhaps the paper's relationship with its readers needs no improvement. I don't know a thing about Albair, her newsroom or her community.

If editors like Albair don't feel the need for a more collaborative relationship with their communities, that might still work for them. But if they don't even attempt to understand it, they're going to find themselves left behind. And stomping on the efforts of others highlights the separateness, rather than connectedness, that journalists have nurtured for far too long.

Joy Mayer is a 2010-2011 RJI fellow working on a project called “Ditch the lecture. Join the conversation.” Read Joy's other blog posts here, and talk back at mayerj@missouri.edu and @mayerjoy on Twitter.

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Interesting. One of our

Interesting. One of our old-media competitors decided two years ago that they'd had just enough of us and our (now award-winning, thank you, ONA) community collaboration, and wrote and published an editorial dissing everything from live updates (to paraphrase, "wouldn't you just rather read about it when it's over?") to reader-submitted breaking-news photos (to paraphrase, "cameraphones? how UNPROFESSIONAL!").

Didn't fool anyone, and only made it worse for them when, shortly thereafter, they decided they had to get into the 20th century and beg for news tips. (Something we never begged for ... they just happened. And we thanked people for them. Profusely. Still do, probably need to do more.) I shouldn't be surprised, but am, that this sort of attitude still exists.

Some people seem to be very

Some people seem to be very "thin skinned", or have a bit of a guilty conscious. I read Abigails editorial entirely differently.

The underlying point of the article is this. Selling "reader contribution" as the end all be all solution to the content is a joke, and insulting to my intelligence and many others. These "competitors" aren't trying to upgrade their content, they're trying to fill their products on the cheap. They have already reduced staff to such appalling levels, there is no place else to go. In addition, though not all reader input would be self serving, much or most would be (see politicians) in a very short time when they realize they have such access. I knew more than a few old journalists my self, and they are rolling in their graves right now over what the possibility of what they worked so hard at for many years turning into one big blog.

2004 Register Citizen

2004 Register Citizen Newsroom Staffing: 15 FTEs

2008 Register Citizen Newsroom Staffing: 14 FTEs

2011 Register Citizen Newsroom Staffing: 18 FTEs

2004-2011 Register Citizen Freelance Budget: Quadrupled

Let me couch these stats by saying that we now produce six community weekly newspapers in addition to the daily.

But if you're talking about our paper "reduced staff to such appalling levels," I don't think that fits with the historic trend in Torrington or in light of what has happened to the industry as a whole. Rather, we've bucked that trend in recent years.

Granted, we publish

When I start to get excited

When I start to get excited about change and innovation, I have to remind myself how far we have to go.

By the way, Tracy — you were one of my first interviews this year, and I still haven't found any news site that can top your constant community conversation and collaboration.

Joy- The editorial which

Joy-

The editorial which you've excerpted is mine, and I very much appreciate your comments.

I feel my underlying point was missed, however. We do have, at least in my opinion, a great relationship with people in the communities we cover, and news tips and dialogue are at the center of how we produce our papers.

My concern is that some publications are starting to let their readers do all the work for them. Instead of starting a dialogue with readers and then using their skill to develop a story from the information they gather, they take anything and everything submitted to them and print it, often I think to fill space. When things are submitted to our papers, we use it as an opportunity to open the lines of communication, we don't just take it as a chance to print what we've been given and now write one less story this week.

I think it's a wonderful thing to get tips and sources from the community, but if the reader starts writing the entire story, what is there left for us to do? It should be just what you are describing, a process of engaging the reader into a symbiotic relationship, but not one that shrinks our own role to a point where we aren't needed.

As for corrections, it is not that their should be no corrections, it is that our goal is to not make mistakes, and of course we realize that is not possible all of the time. We know there always will be errors and corrections to them, and we always print them and are eager to quickly address our mistakes. We just do not feel the need to remind our readers at the end of each story that it may have contained inaccuracies almost as if we are guaranteeing it. Of course we invite corrections when they are needed, we just don't want to use the fact that our readers will catch errors for us as a cushion for checking our own work.

A relationship with our readers is the most important thing we can have. We have just chosen to build a mutual one. We love to listen to suggestions and engage in conversations and report what our readers are looking for, and though we depend on our readers to a high degree, we are proud that we are not so dependent on them that we've forgotten how to go out and find news that they might not be aware of to give to us.

Again, thank you for your comments.
Abigail

I read Ms. Albair's editorial

I read Ms. Albair's editorial with great interest, since it's my job and our newsroom to which she was referring. I can tell you that her perception of what we're doing is skewed, mainly because she hasn't been here and doesn't understand what's happening.
The city of Torrington is our best and greatest critic, and it's only by opening our doors to anyone and everyone that we can do more work, get more stories in the paper and gain a larger readership and support. We have fantastic support here in Torrington and we also have a tremendous number of critics, who are thrilled by the idea of having us available to them.
As for - how did Albair put it? The fear that we've "forgotten how to go out and find news that they might not be aware of to give to us" nothing could be further from the truth. Like all reporters, our staff here "misses" stories, but we're quickly reminded of that by our readers and we get even better ones, often, than the ones we would have written in the first place. The tips, the phone calls and the stop-by-so-I can-talk-to-a-reporter-in-person flow keeps us busier than ever. Meanwhile, we're chasing our own story leads. By no means are we sitting around waiting for our readers to write anything for us. Our city and surrounding towns are far too busy for that and frankly, what would be the point of being here if we weren't interacting with them?
And we make mistakes, but if people don't tell us, sometimes we don't know about them. Factual errors, a perception of an idea or presentation, or the spelling of someone's name - all these elements and more can be clarified or corrected if necessary. The "need" we feel is because often readers feel as if there's a wall between"them" and "us."
We're taking the wall down and listening as closely to we can to the voices behind it. That's what this is about.
In newspapers, if you fear change, you die. In the dozen or so short years I've been involved in newspapers, that has become my mantra and it has served me well. I urge everyone to at least TRY something different in what you do each day. You never know what might happen, and it could be the making of you.

Emily- My editorial was in no

Emily-

My editorial was in no way directed at any specific publication. There were, in fact, a number of them that sparked it, some not in Connecticut, and if you'll look at my original piece you will find there are, at least to my knowledge, points that don't apply to your paper.

We have chosen to, for the time being, produce our newspapers in a way we've found to work for us and the community. There are some things happening that I feel damage the integrity of journalism, and they are not, in many cases, things specific to this area or any paper in it.

I wish you the best of luck with your new efforts.

Abigail

Abigail, To say that the

Abigail,

To say that the editorial in "no way" was directed at any particular publication is laughable -- as is your point that any newspaper in the world shouldn't be allowing their community to be part of the process.

News organizations exist to present information to the audience. That audience is, sorry to be the one to break this to you, the product that is "sold" by the advertising department ... it's not the paper, the website, etc. ... it's the audience.

The point you -- and Ed (I'm assuming Gunderson) -- is missing is that the audience is our industry and is our business. Allowing the audience to participate isn't new, it's the way it's always been. The difference is that we (media organizations) have a built in audience that attracts readers and eyeballs.

The best thing for all of us to do is serve our audience the best we can and not quibble about who has the best model ... the audience will decide.

Let's all just truthful and upfront when we take shots at our competitors. Please remember that Abigail, the next time you step out from behind your computer.

Abigail: To claim that your

Abigail: To claim that your editorial was in no way directed at the Register-Citizen is absurd and unbelievable. But it's not that big a deal, because no one who knows about the experiments there is going to take that seriously, so no one is really deceived by it.

Probably what you meant is that the editorial's frame of reference was wider than just the Register-Citizen, but that you certainly had the Register-Citizen in mind, along with others. So we'll just assume that was your intention and ignore what you said here on that issue.

I've called your editorial a "tour de force of fortress journalism" because that is what I think it is, especially the suggestion that inviting the public directly into the newsroom and the production process indicates a loss of faith in professional journalism, a kind of despair that it cannot meet its obligations.

It could just as easily be a sign of confidence, under the "familiarity breeds respect" theory.

Two alternative ways you could have gone with this: One would be take on the Register-Citizen's moves more directly. State what your theory of reader involvement is. State what theirs is. Explain what your approach is based on. Explain what you think their approach is based on. And then argue for why you think you're right and they'e wrong, locating areas of agreement and areas where your approaches diverge. Of course, you'd have to give up the laughable claim that you weren't writing about the Register-Citizen but we already covered that.

A second approach would be to start by admitting that no one knows what the right level of user engagement is, that we're in new territory here, with few rules and very little knowledge that's reliable or proven. In an environment like that, it's healthy for newspapers to try different approaches and learn from each other. The Register-Citizen is going one way; here at the Valley Press we're going a different way. They have their reasons... and we have ours. We'll be watching to see what works. And we'll be consulting you, our readers.

Jay Rosen, What strategies

Jay Rosen,

What strategies have you found useful in your own search for the right level of user engagement?

Are there any you have you tried, learned from, and then discarded?

Closest I have come to a post

Closest I have come to a post that answers your question is:

http://archive.pressthink.org/2007/10/09/what_i_learned.html

The person to ask is Joy, the author of this blog. She's doing a research project on engagement and how it is interpreted by different news organizations and journalists.

Abigail, If a reader writes

Abigail,

If a reader writes the story better than a reporter could then it's okay, isn't it, even if you'll have nothing left to do? Is your goal, the truth or keeping a job?

Anyway, you worry too much. There will be many cases where no such reader exists at the moment of need.

See, look at my punctuation.

See, look at my punctuation. Your job isn't in danger. ; )

Thanks, everyone, for the

Thanks, everyone, for the lively discussion!

Paul (@fromvikingstock): We hit our limit on threaded comments up above, so I'll reply down here to the question Jay lobbed my way.

There's one big problem with trying to decide on the right level of user engagement — engagement means different things to different people. One of my goals for the fellowship is to suggest more specific typology. I have three broad categories I'm working with at the moment (though I reserve the right to redistribute!). They are outreach, conversation and collaboration, and I'll write more about how I arrived there soon.

I posted this morning about an interview with an expert on community management, and he had enlightening things to say about why a focus on community should and can be a key part of just about any business. You can read that post here: http://rjiblog.org/2011/01/18/engagement-is-a-mindset-not-a-series-of-ac...

In terms of strategies, engagement is and should be a continual process of try and discard. Experiment and refine. Fail and get back up. But there's no magic answer. No one-size-fits-all approach.

If you're a national news organization and your goal is reader outreach, your strategy might look like what the Associated Press is up to: http://rjiblog.org/2010/11/17/what-engagement-means-to-lauren-mccullough...

If you want to meet readers in person and come out from behind the wall of a monolithic news organization, you might meet readers in person, like the Chicago Tribune is doing: http://rjiblog.org/2010/11/18/what-engagement-means-to-the-chicago-tribune/

If you want to have your ear to the ground and be really listening to your community, you'd do well to pay attention to TBD: http://rjiblog.org/2010/09/21/what-engagement-means-to-tbd-com/

And if you want to infuse your organization with a spirit of collaboration, prepare to have your jaw dropped by The Guardian: http://rjiblog.org/2010/12/01/what-engagement-means-to-the-guardians-meg...

The Guardian's approach wouldn't work for the AP. One thing's clear: As we embark on this journey, we need to know clearly what we hope to accomplish, and strategize with that goal in mind.

Kaitlyn Yeager, the

Kaitlyn Yeager, the Register-Ciizen's community and engagement editor, has a column up today in response to the editorial: http://registercitizen.com/articles/2011/01/19/opinion/doc4d367ad4210eb3...

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