Where conversation goes to die

Posted on January 06, 2011 by Janet Coats

I was having a conversation this week with Lisa Skube, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, when something she said struck me as being so on-point I immediately jotted it down in my notebook.

Lisa, who is exploring ways to improve the networks smart thinkers use to share and learn as they work to build the future of news and information, was talking about the comments people leave on websites.

Those comment areas, she said, are the place conversations go to die.

Of course, this isn’t universally true. Some sites have robust comment areas, where true dialogue occurs. But as a former newspaper editor who wrestled with the issue of user comments online for years, her remark struck a very familiar chord in me.

I was still mulling that when, during a conversation with my husband, he used the phrase “interactive media.’’ And I just couldn’t help myself: Why do we call it interactive, I said, when we don’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to do just that – interact with each other, in real time, around the news of the day.

Certainly social media has changed the dynamic radically. I find myself involved in dialogue and sometimes debate among my Facebook friends about a particular story someone has posted to his wall. While I likely never feel drawn to post a comment on the exact same story on a news site – I must admit, I never have done that – in a social media context, I feel as if I’m being invited to do so.

I suppose it is the difference between reading and talking. When I’m on the New York Times website, I am in reading mode – which for me, is a private, interior activity. When I’m on Facebook, I’m there to talk and to see what others are saying.

This is the experience of one, very middle-aged journalist – hardly a focus group for the digital future. But I think it does speak to the issue that most news organizations haven’t figured out, and that entrepreneurial community news startups are starting to get very right.

Reporting the story, presenting the information, is not the end of the process – it is, in many ways, the midpoint. My friend Joy Mayer, another Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, has been studying the issue of engagement this year. One of my favorite posts about her journey came when she interviewed The Guardian’s Meg Pickard about what engagement means to her organization.

You can find Joy’s interview with Meg here, and I highly recommend it. But the gist of it is, traditional journalism really has no intersection between the journalist and the community. The journalist does all her work during the reporting and writing phase; once the story appears, she sees her work as being done. The community has little to no input into that reporting and writing work and only enters the process after the story is published – just as the journalist is exiting the equation.

As I’ve been thinking about community management as a way of keeping the dialogue alive for the group of entrepreneurial community publishers we’re working with at The Patterson Foundation, I’ve been struck again and again by the mistakes of my past. In tradition newsrooms, I never pushed hard enough for journalists to participate in the dialogue about the stories they were reporting and writing. I must have listened a thousand times to the complaints about how ugly and uninformed reader comments were on our website.

And what I should have said was: What are you doing to change the conversation?

True interactive media is just that: A place where we interact, where we discuss and debate and disagree. We should never be satisfied with letting the conversation die.

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