Will Bunch recently published a piece at American Journalism Review about journalists’ disconnection with the communities they cover, and wondered if (how) online tools could help them reconnect. Read it all.
Here are the thoughts I shared with him in full (edited to remove redundancy now that I’ve added links to previous postings).
Q: When you worked in newspapers, especially at a larger metro with a mobile staff like the Mercury-News, did you feel that reporters and editors were well-connected to the communities that they covered — engaged in the community and in conversations with citizens that led back to better news coverage. If not, how did journalism suffer?
A: It’s hard to speak for others. But my impression was that we were fairly well connected to the tech and local government folks, and less so to others. There were obvious exceptions, including several local columnists.
For me, the conversation started quickly. I was writing about technology in a place where a lot of it was being invented and improved, and everyone I covered had email early on. The readers were not shy about telling me what I was missing or getting wrong. That was when I realized (duh) that they collectively knew vastly, vastly more than I did — and what a great opportunity I had as a result.
When I started a blog in 1999, I started hearing from even more folks. Tech was and is more than ever a community of interest, not just geography, and I was learning things from a global audience by that point. I can’t overstate how much the blog was valuable in expanding and deepening the conversation.
None of that was to the exclusion of standard reporting, such as picking up the phone and going to see people in person. I got some of my best stuff over lunch tables in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and San Francisco, and in hallways at conferences.
But count me in as a huge believer in the value of online tools to deepen ties especially with communities, local and global.
Q: What did you learn with Bayosphere and in researching your book about the walls between journalists and citizens in their communities? Do you have concrete suggestions for breaking down those walls? Should their be limits on what types of activities a journalist should take part in — i.e., political activity (some journalists like Len Downie don’t vote, as you probably know)?
A: If we’re talking about breaking down walls between traditional journalists and communities, we’re actually making some progress. Whether it’s too late to matter is a separate issue, but it plainly won’t hurt.
As I’ve suggested before, newspapers in particular can have a huge leg up on doing this, and have more options. But broadcasters can do some of these things, too.
The first thing, whether you’re a newspaper editor or broadcast news director, is this simple test: Go to Flickr, Technorati and YouTube and search on your community name. You will find a parallel universe of media, being created by people in your community for themselves and each other. Then see what’s happening on Facebook and MySpace and other social networks. And see what old-fashioned (!) email lists, such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, are covering hyper-local topics. (Our old Palo Also neighborhood, consisting of several hundred homes, had a mail list where people regularly broke news of interest there, news that would never have risen to the attention of the Palo Alto paper, much less the Mercury News or Chronicle.)
Second, stop pretending your organization is an oracle. It’s not. You don’t know everything, and even if you did you couldn’t publish or broadcast as much as you’d like to. Pointing to outside sources of information — especially local blogs and other media — is a great start. It doesn’t mean that you endorse what these folks are saying or vouch for it, but it does mean that you recognize that others in your community are creating media with at least some information other people might want to see. Be the portal to everything. Point widely beyond the portal on individual stories and topics, and not just to source material, which more and more organizations are finally doing. Point to your competitors’ best stories when they beat you on something local. (I routinely did this on my blog, pointing to the SF Chronicle, NY Times, WSJ, trade journals and other tech outlets, because it was what my readers expected. I sent them away to the best stuff I could find, and they kept coming back because they knew I’d do that.)
Third, make sure your audience can respond and, in many cases, join the journalistic process. Comments are only a start. Moderation is a fine idea, but use a light touch. My rule for conduct is simple: We’ll be civil. We can disagree sharply, but we will treat each other with respect. Beyond comments, do what more and more organizations are (belately) doing: Ask the audience for information that can lead to better journalism. But if you’re turning people into unpaid freelancers, don’t be surprised when they start posting what they know on their own sites, not yours.
Newspapers have at least two more huge opportunities.
First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives. The revenues would go up with targeted search and keyword-specific ads on those pages, I’m absolutely convinced. But an equally important result would be to strengthen local ties. (Note: I discussed this in much greater length in 2005 in this posting, “Newspapers: Open Your Archives”.)
Second, expand the conversation with the community in the one place where it’s already taking place: the editorial pages. Invert them. Make the printed pages the best-of and guide to a conversation the community can and should be having with itself. The paper can’t set the agenda, at least not by itself (nor should it), but it can highlight what people care about and help the community have a conversation that is civil and useful. (More on this in another 2005 posting, “Where Newspapers Can Start the Conversation”.)
BTW, one word for the notion of journalists not voting: ridiculous.