Standards in journalism (and comments)

Via Kevin, I came across this piece by James Fallows of The Atlantic: Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media. As soon as I saw that headline, my feathers ruffled. So you think new media is worse than traditional media eh? Well, how come debates that pit blogs against journalism never talk of the scum-sucking pond-dwelling tabs, eh? How comes it’s always the worst of blogging vs the best of journalism, eh? Eh?

Oh, Mr Fallows, I apologise. I did you wrong. Fallows hasn’t, as I had assumed, written some lazy tripe based on a false dichotomy. Far from it. He’s taken an intelligent and insightful look at the claim made by “everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel” that there has been a “decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion.”

It’s a really tempting position to take, that standards in journalism have slipped. It’s a position I have some sympathy with, because it jibes with the frustrations I feel on a daily basis when I see inaccurate reporting, sensational headlines and so much PR that I’m surprised that someone at CERN isn’t studying the destabilising effects of political spin on sub-atomic particles.

But Fallows argues eloquently that have we heard this argument before, at pretty much every major inflection point in journalism.

As technological, commercial, and cultural changes have repeatedly transformed journalism, they have always caused problems that didn’t exist before, as well as creating opportunities that often took years to be fully recognized. When I was coming into journalism, straight from graduate school, in the 1970s, one of the central complaints from media veterans was precisely that the “college boys” were taking over the business. In the generation before mine, reporters had thought of themselves as kindred to policemen and factory workers; the college grads in the business stood out, from Walter Lippmann (Harvard 1910) on down. A large-scale class shift was under way by the time of Watergate, nicely illustrated by the team of Bob Woodward (Yale ’65) and Carl Bernstein (no college degree). The change was bad, in shifting journalists’ social sights upward, so they identified more with the doctors and executives who were their college classmates, and less with the non-college, blue-collar Americans whose prospects were diminishing through those years. And it was good, in equipping newspapers and TV channels with writers and analysts who had studied science or economics, knew the history of Russia or the Middle East, had learned a language they could use in the field.

And we can’t just round on digital and blame it for the shift in the way that people consume news and the way that the internet allows them to indulge their interests without ever eating their greens. But we can, he demonstrates, learn something from some of the digital journalism outfits, like Gawker, that so many traditionalists look down upon.

Now, I confess, I can’t even begin to paraphrase the rest of Fallows’ article. Like many Atlantic pieces, it’s long and to try to summarise everything could only do it a disservice. I can only say that this is a great piece, well worth reading and rereading.

One bit, about Gawker’s Nick Denton, stood out as requiring further consideration, but not just in this context of standards:

In the first New York profile, in 2007, Denton had said that an active “commenter” community was an important way to build an audience for a site. Now, he told me, he has concluded that courting commenters is a dead end. A site has to keep attracting new users—the omnipresent screens were recording the “new uniques” each story brought to the Gawker world—and an in-group of commenters might scare new visitors off. “People say it’s all about ‘engagement’ and ‘interaction,’ but that’s wrong,” he said. “New visitors are a better indicator and predictor of future growth.” A little more than one-third of Gawker’s traffic is new visitors; writers get bonuses based on how many new viewers they attract.

This is fascinating. The received wisdom, and certainly my position for many years, has been that comments can be valuable in terms of encouraging audience loyalty and return users. Over the last several years I’ve been refining my ideas of when comments should and shouldn’t be used on a news site. We have so many examples of how comments can turn toxic, putting off both readers and advertisers, that one would be a fool to think that commenting is some sort of loyalty silver bullet. It is clear that commenting requires serious thought: when is it enabled, how it is used, how/when journalists should engage (hint: most of the time), and how can users be encouraged to behave in a positive and civil manner.

Denton is right. Comments for comments sake is a dead end. And most news outlets have no comment strategy, have given no thought to when and why they might enable comments, and so rarely use comments in a productive way that readers simply aren’t used to the idea that such a collaboration might even be possible. The news industry is also so tribal that they are almost incapable of taking advice or help from anyone that they see as an outsider. That’s a pity, because outside of the news industry is where most of the expertise sits, even now.

We need to be much more sophisticated about how we use comments, much more thoughtful and much more experimental, because we already know that free-for-all comments too easily go awry. Like a pristine blanket of newly fallen snow, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along to write their name in wee and ruin the view for everyone else.