How open are your lines of communication?

And yea, it is written that when four or more editorial execs are gathered together to forward plan the coverage of an impending Happening, one among them will, at some point, spake thusly: “We should do a liveblog”.
And everyone else nods while secretly wishing they had suggested it, and the suggestee gains immense Multimedia Kudos and envy points.

Of course, ‘we should do a liveblog’ is just one of the options when playing Multimedia Newsroom Bingo. Other popular phrases include “Can we make a Dipity timeline”, “What about a SurveyMonkey” (it’s always ‘a’ SurveyMonkey – I love that) , “We could do some (ie. any) video” and that old favourite, “Get some comments off the forum” (ie. is there a workie who can translate all that textspeak into English?).

To be fair, I’m as happy to talk to the talk as the next meeting-attendee but there are times when it seems these meeting-friendly web 2.0 phrases disguise a deeper issue.
Because at the end of the day Dipity, liveblogs, surveys et al still come down to newsrooms trying to control what the story is. It’s not quite one-way traffic but a contraflow is most definitely in operation and we’re the ones in charge of the signals.
What we are really saying is this:

“Want to know the background to this story? Here’s our Dipity timeline” (featuring our rss feeds and images)

“Want to take part and get involved? Join our liveblog” (and we’ll pre-moderate comments, determine and set the polls and decide when it opens and closes)

Such an approach is massively counter-productive. Yes you might have a Googlemap on your website but will you allow your readers to contribute to it? If not, why not? Suppose you did allow anyone to edit and it backfired – would you risk such a venture again? Or is it a case of once bitten, twice shy?
And another starter for 10: Do you select the ‘anyone can edit this’ option when using Dipity? If you do, then you’re creating an opportunity for collaboration. If not, why not?

These are, I think, important questions we newspaper-types need to ask ourselves not just once but repeatedly. Otherwise, even when we tell ourselves we’re trying new ways to communicate, ultimately we’re still dictating how news is presented and served up.
We may not necessarily control what happens to it next on other sites but on our own, it’s pretty much ours to dictate.

But, look, the tradition model (write content, publish content in paper, sell shedload of newspapers), is gone. The current model of write content, upload some content, publish all content in print, is built on compromise and uncertainty. So where do we go from here? I don’t have the answer but I think it might look something like:

Ask people/publish
Expand on what people tell us…
PUBLISH WHAT IS KNOWN allowing anyone to keep asking/adding to content
Conclude findings in print…
… and keep asking and listening because what you end up with may be completely different to the idea you started with

For me what makes a website sticky are the developments in a topic I care about. I go back to take part, see what others are saying, how things have changed, to comment and expand. I don’t go back to watch a video of someone talking about a plan for a new housing estate.
I would dearly love to see the traditional newspaper website format replaced with something more akin to wikis and blogs. To have open-ended news gathering and reporting (where we don’t close down the comment option after a week whether people have finished talking about it or not), and to have newsrooms embrace an approach where collaboration and partnerships are seen as opportunities.

Joanna Geary’s latest blog post struck a chord with me when she said “I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves“.
Too many times we try to finish a story, we present it as a neat package with a beginning, middle and end, and present it to the reader with a flourish. We follow up of course, and we may start a forum thread, or publish readers letters – increasingly reporters blog about their stories too, once they have written them.

But it’s not enough. I’d love reporters to spend a week where none of their stories were featured in the newspaper – they would only be able to get their information out online, via a blog, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, a wiki – hell, they could even arrange a meeting at a local cafe and talk to people – anything but the printed page. I think it would be an eye-opener for everyone involved.
The way we currently operate – and I mean our wetware, not a company’s hardware – inhibits our ability to share information and our thinking. That, in turn, inhibits our ability to grow audience, reach, reputation and, by extension, revenue. We’re bright people; we can be better than this.

7 thoughts on “How open are your lines of communication?

  1. I think the points you make are fascinating and this is one of the best descriptions of a possible future relationship between journalists and readers/users (if one can even use those distinctions anymore) and your analysis of motivational factors in online behaviour is spot on, BUT how on earth do you start convincing journalists (and I don't just mean older ones that have been working since the late 1960s but also kids coming in from universities) that they must somehow relinquish control of their stories to the unwashed masses? That is, what's in it for them?
    Steve Matthewson


  2. Hey Steve, it's a tricky one isn't it?
    I know places like Uclan are already instilling that kind of 'open-ended journalism' approach in students so they won't have the same bump in the road to negotiate.
    But how to convince people in newsrooms already that stories evolve, without them?
    I think we've passed the convincing stage actually. If people aren't starting to get it, they need to start asking themselves what they fear about it. And they probably need to be put in situations where they have to confront the 'loss of control' element head on and deal with it. What's in it for them is a good question. For me the answer is: It's the idea of reaching and reacting with an audience that is genuine rather than a contrived marketing mosaic, dealing with real-world issues, seeing your story go in a direction you might never have taken it under your own steam. And it's taking pride in seeing something you played a part in creating take on a life of its own.
    But I think that's some way away from happening. Unfortunately for our industry.


  3. I think one of the worries about giving up control of a dipity timeline, say, would be that assholes would flood it with spam. Which is not to contradict any of the things you say, of course.


  4. I've been toying with this idea in reverse, well except for the publishing bit I guess as I'm not sure anyone would have me in print, but by thinking about whether I should devote one of my days off to sitting in a magistrates court or going to council committee meetings and seeing if, armed only with my non-traditional journalist training, I can cover it.


  5. I'm sure you're right Dilyan; it would be open to abuse but – while we could always monitor/moderate it, I would hope an open document would also be policed by the audience who invested time and effort in creating it. I've noticed that happening on the new Pluck-powered comments system we've brought in at work; some of those commenting are now taking a proprietary attitude too.

    You should do it Martin – it would be fascinating!
    I used to cover mags courts a lot and the stories that emerge are great (and now, alas, often unreported by dailies). I'd say papers are far better off having someone based out of mags court writing direct to a blog, than sat in the office, churning.

    You know, we should have a Challenge Day where regional journalists do just what you suggest. I'd love that!


  6. If I might just strike a blow for the old guard: is that what readers want?
    We've got lots of tools that help stories to evolve and for many more voices to contribute but how much uncertainty can people really take?
    I understand that in science there are lots of hypotheses, many variables and unknowns but if I ask a scientest a question I don't want them to fling a load of data at me and tell me to work it out for myself. I want them to use their skills and experience to give me their considered view.
    Why should journalists be so keen to do down their own talents by assuming that just because anyone can read that anyone can analyse, that just because anyone can type that anyone can write?
    As a journalist I know the value in having a dialogue, not least in tapping the expertise of people who are much more qualified on a topic than me.
    As a reader I'll contribute to stories that interest me, and take the author to task if I think they've missed something.
    But most of the time I just want to be lazy. I don't want to interact.
    I just want someone I trust to tell me what is going on.
    That's a journalist's job.


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