The Engagement Process

Fourth in a series of essays humbly titled “Fixing Journalism”. First posted on June 8, 2005.

Journalists are, by nature and necessity, curious people – and not just about the people and institutions they cover. We like to know what others say about us, or if other media outlets use or credit our work. The popularity of Jim Romenesko’s column on Poynter’s website is all the proof anyone would ever need.

As Sy Hersh put it during his IRE panel last week, journalism can a “bitchy” profession that seems unlikely to adopt many of the ideas I wrote about in my essay on collaboration. But that’s ok.

Even if some of the traits possessed by journalists keep us from collaborating (a point I don’t entirely agree with), others open a door for a broader engagement with our audience. Here’s an example: reporters have long been used to responding to readers and critics, usually through the telephone or the mail. We’re not always excited about it, but we do it. Such communication is largely one-way – responding to every inquiry is impossible, and even when that happens it exists between two people.

Then came email, a double-edged sword for some in that it became much easier for our critics to reach us, but for many others email represents a new way to receive tips and connect with readers or viewers. Email can still be mostly one-way communication, since it’s hard to find the time to respond individually. But the door of conversation opened a bit wider.

Now we have the ease and popularity of personal publishing on the Web, mostly in the form of weblogs but also other types of sites. The immediate impact on newspapers was hard to gauge, since papers didn’t adopt those types of publishing technologies or do much to respond to them. Now plenty of media outlets have blogs, chats and other platforms that allow readers and viewers to get a little closer to their news outlets. But we should be doing more.

The reason is simple: if you are, say, a daily newspaper, you have one product a day and probably a website that gets a few updates during that period. Your readers, on the other hand, have as many opportunities to respond to your articles as they are able to produce. And they’re doing it now, or they soon will be. More than ever, media outlets are put in the position of being reactive to what others are saying and doing. We’re not the sole owners of the news anymore.

Want proof? Try visiting Technorati and searching for news stories. I did this last week for a piece I worked on involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Indian tribes, and found half a dozen blogs that linked to the story and provided some comments. Some asked further questions, others offered faint praise. Another story I worked on in May received similar commentary but also a series of questions.

What if I had wanted to respond to a question? Sure, there’s email, but unless I follow up in the paper no one would know if I had done anything at all. Outside of chats on newspaper sites or in stories written by media critics, it’s hard to find examples of reporters responding to comments posted on a website.

This is not, I believe, because papers want to shut out bloggers, but rather because we haven’t really thought about it or discussed it within newsrooms. The result is that while many reporters are in regular contact with readers by phone or email, the conversations taking place on the Web are too often missing our participation. To recap: phone OK, email OK, Web – well, we’re not sure.

Yet of those three platforms, the Web offers the greatest reach and transparency, both enormously beneficial to media outlets. In his inaugural column as the New York Times’ second Public Editor, Byron Calame wrote that “I hope to raise the blinds at The Times in some new ways to allow readers to get a clearer view inside the newsroom process. Greater transparency, I believe, can help you as readers better understand the news judgments that shape each day’s paper – and hold The Times’s news staff more accountable.”

He pledged to do that by using the Web more – a smart choice, since that can provide the biggest “bang for the buck” and it is where the future of the news industry lies. He’ll use the Web to publish more letters from Times readers and to host Q&A sessions with reporters and editors. Actions like these will help re-establish the links between newspapers and their readers in an age when there are thousands of options for news.

This is not without risks, of course, and high among those is the idea that a paper can become overwhelmed by disruptive conversation that drowns out the civilized discourse we all want (the Ventura County Star recently shuttered its discussion forums for this reason). I agree with my colleagues who say that people want a newspaper in part because it is edited and not simply a sea of unorganized information. But the relative lack of engagement we have now, when doing more is not difficult, cannot be our choice.

As with phone calls and emails, we do not have to respond to every blog posting. We need not encourage or acknowledge vitriolic screeds in response to our work, and we can remove those types of postings from our own sites. But we should encourage reporters and editors to respond to well-reasoned inquiry and civil conversation on and off our official sites.

Such behavior humanizes us, I believe, and helps to counter the notion that journalists are unresponsive or unaccountable. Ombudsmen or reader representatives seem to be popular with readers, and we can expand upon that work on the Web.

There are thousands of conversations going on about who we are and what we do in the media, and we don’t participate in enough of them. Our readers want to know more about us and the process that results in a paper arriving on their doorsteps. They’re knocking on our door; we should let them in.