Blog comments can be the new ‘Letters to the Editor’

The letters page of a daily newspaper is the most mixed of mixed bags.
Various papers I’ve worked for had different approaches to it; some banned ’round robin’ type endorsement letters ostensibly written by celebs (‘hello, I’m Gloria Hunniford and I’d like everyone from Southampton to get behind National Gut Week), others stuck them on the page with a murmur of relief that some of the gaping space had been filled.
Some resorted to getting staff to write letters when there weren’t enough to fill a page and one (the South Wales Argus – take a bow for honesty, folks) only ran a letters page if there were enough local letters to fill one.

If a news story attracts maybe six letters we tend to see it as a major talking point; it merits follow ups and, sometimes, a letters page special. Then we’re all very pleased about how we’ve engaged readers in debate.
So, if six letters mean a news story has engaged readers, what do we make of this blog post about Steve Coogan’s ‘woeful’ show at the Echo Arena in Liverpool?

To say it’s provoked debate is a serious understatement: 37 comments and counting on the blog; the online statistics show it’s the most viewed news story on our site at the moment.
The post itself was run in the paper as a review, uploaded to the LDP website as a review and also placed on the Comedy Blog (with a cross-ref from the online review). It’s a fascinating debate being held between readers, some of whom are responding to Vicky Anderson, some to each other. It’s wonderful to see an article take on such a life and identity of its own.

And more than that, it’s generating content for the newspaper too. After all, a great debate doesn’t just have to exist online – we’re taking it into print tomorrow, by reverse publishing the blog comments. We’ll also be asking Mr Coogan for a response. Be interesting to see what, if anything, comes back from ‘his people’…

The Coogan review is, as far as I’m concerned, important for a number of reasons:
1. It effectively puts paid to any argument that only people from outside the circulation area read newspaper’s online sites. The comments here have been posted by local people who attended the show. Whether they enjoyed it or not, they are from our circulation area.

2. People want to interact through blogs. Would these posters have written a letter to the editor? I’m willing to bet not one of them would have put pen to paper (also, we received just two emailed responses). All the comments were posted directly onto the blog. Search analysis showed that people were actively looking for somewhere to comment – typical search terms were ‘Coogan + review’, which would indicate the blog post was being discussed and people were then going online to find it. I find that very interesting.

3. A blog post is potentially more valuable to users than stories that are seeded by newspapers on their forums in the hope of sparking debate. These posters could have gone to our online forum, but then they would have had to join, if they weren’t already members, fill in the form and accept the verification email, start a topic and write an opinion. Here, they simply entered a conversation already initiated by the blog post.

4. Blogs can create content. We aren’t reverse publishing these comments to fill space, we’re sharing a conversation created by a review on a blog, and we are looking to move that debate on – not only have the comments themselves become a story, they also demonstrate the need for the subject (in this case Steve Coogan) to respond. Forums can work in the same way but the posts here, in the main, lend themselves to publication more readily.

It’s got me wondering if we should try running a ‘news’ blog, with reporters posting versions of stories, along with their own observations. It would be interesting to see what sort of reaction we got from readers. Of course, such an action would also reopen the ‘enabling comments under stories’ debate, and all the associated legal discussions that surrounds that.
But newspapers are there to provoke debate; if readers demonstrate that they want to discuss stories and events on blogs, when surely our websites have to reflect that?

UPDATE: The Independent picked up on the Coogan blog row today; it’s the p3 lead and the Editor’s Choice online. The Daily Mail also reported it. While both saw fit to mention the debate was kicked off by a blog post, neither saw the need to link to it. How poor…

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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7 Responses to Blog comments can be the new ‘Letters to the Editor’

  1. David says:

    How about a reporters’ blog in which they not only gave their views on stories they’d worked on, but also talked about how they got it – thus opening up the process for discussion, and, hopefully, more interaction with the audience in the future?

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  2. mark says:

    @david: Iwould love to see that for two reasonsa)it is how we should be working: transparency should be more than just links, it should also be about process and working routines. About how we envisage the story and how it eventually plays out. About illuminating the “tools of the trade” aspects for both ourselves and our publics. It would force us to reflect slightly more on our own working practices and let us hear how those practices are understood.b) it would help debunk the myth of objectivity which has (in my opinion) been so harmful to journalism. Objectivity is pretending we can disassociate ourselves from the subjects we cover.

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  3. Alison Gow says:

    @David I think reporters blogging thoughts on their stories would be fascinating; it would challenge a lot of journalists to put their <>own<> ideas in the public forum. Such an exciting idea, and one that I think many writers would ultimately really enjoy getting stuck into. It’s so great on a blog post when people start ‘talking back’ at you – this could be a great way to initiate conversations. @Mark Achieving transparency is, I think, one of the biggest we face as reporters. How much more trust could it engender in our profession if there was a clear and documented path from initial steps of an investigation to the clearly-presented conclusion? Reporters blogging on their own stories would, most likely, provoke a lot of reader interaction. As you say, perhaps it could lead to changes the way newspapers approach some issues and operate. Given the current climate, that could be hugely a positive step.

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  4. Reporters blogging on their own stories is a natural evolution for how we work. Based on conversations with friends and families – and on all the career nights I have attended as a representative of the local paper, to talk and offer advice to students – I think there is a real interest there.Given how hard it is to get out of the office for any length of time nowadays, this could be a new way of building your profile, making contacts and picking up tip offs too.I think we would have to be careful though – I hate jornalism where the journo considers what they think to be more important than the subject or people they are writing about. All those 3000 word interviews with celebs where you have to wait for 2000 words of journo meanderings before they get to say anything get on my nerves!

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  5. @David: the problem there is a lot of stories come about in really mundane ways – and also, lots of journalists don’t want to remove any more mystery from their job.Alison, another problem is that many papers seem to forbid their reporters from getting involved in a dialogue over their stories, which I find to be quite sad.

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  6. Alison Gow says:

    @xxnapoleonsolo the ‘look Ma, how pretty I’m writing’ school of journalism makes me shudder, so the observation about writers holding forth about their own superiority struck a real nerve! People need to blog as they talk, I think, without too much consideration; to treat it as a conversation that you’re going to get comeback on rather than an opinion column.@scribblercraigThat’s so true: Would journos really want to cough to the fact that their great exclusive came via a ring-in rather than painstaking investigation? I guess the answer is… no. But if we were open about how many stories come in (including those that arrive as luckily-embargoed press releases) maybe we’d have more people willing to be sources. If readers knew that that a splash was a sometimes due to someone randomly calling the newsdesk and the call being put through to that reporter, maybe it might encourage the next person who feels they have a story to think ‘why not?’.Ego-wise we may not like to admit stories can arrive on a plate. But ego isn’t going to encourage people to trust us…Personally, I don’t see why reporters should be forbidden from talking to readers about their stories; I’ve refused to put abusive callers through to reporters sometimes but I’ve spoken to them myself and tried to deal with their comments. Mostly I’d say we have to be open-minded and think of readers as customers, who give feedback. Hmmm… you raise very interesting points – and have given me some things to think about. Cheers!

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