County fairs, country music and loving your audience

I grew up in the rural Midwest in the US, about 90 miles west of Chicago, and my father loved – still loves – county fairs. Back in the mid 1980s, I was lucky enough to see Johnny Cash with his wife June Carter at a country fair. I still remember the shiver that went down my spine when he took the stage and said: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

I’m not a huge country music fan, but I love good music. Johnny Cash was a living legend, but he still thanked the audience for coming to the concert, for buying his records. He was humble, but it was a humility and a gratitude for his audience that was common to country singers. When I saw Walk the Line this year, I realised for Johnny Cash it might have been because of all of the letters of support he got, especially when he was struggling with his demons and addictions.

I got that feeling of connection with my audience when I was a cub reporter in western Kansas. It was not just a connection with my sources but also with my audience. That feeling of connection is one of the reasons that I find blogging as a journalist more fulfilling than traditional publishing or broadcasting. I find it odd now to write a story that doesn’t have a space for comments. Yeah, I can see the stats. I know people are clicking on the story, but I find having a conversation with my audience more fulfilling.

I talk to a lot of people in the media who view their audience as an annoyance. In the past, the only time they ever heard from members of their audience was to complain. Here in the UK, they jokingly refer to agitated callers or writers with the blanket phrase, ‘Angry in Milton Keynes’.

When I started this post, I was going to point out some of the many incidents when the media turns on their audience. It’s a pointless exercise really. It gets pretty ugly pretty quickly, like when Richard Cohen of the Washington Post this spring called e-mail correspondents a ‘Digital Lynch Mob‘. (For more background, Kos called it the ‘Substance of a Blogswarm‘. Tailrank has a nice roundup of this particular spat.)

I’m not going to pick on Mr Cohen or any publication. Even I have found myself in a middle of a blogswarm or two, such as when the brothers at Iraq the Model banned the BBC from their blog last year. A poor colleague, Sarah, who actually had little to do with the misunderstanding, got some pretty abusive e-mail. She asked me to help out. I hopped into the comments and explained what we were doing. Two comments later, the tide turned, and a commenter named Thomas was even talking about linking back to us.

As I’ve said before, if we in the traditional media blog, we have to play by the rules of blogging, not our own rules. You don’t issue a press release. You get out ahead of the blog storm. You get into the comments. You give your side of the story.

But you don’t always have to be on the defensive. Real blogging – getting out there and actually engaging in a conversation with your audience – has real benefits, both in terms of the business bottom line and just in terms of personal satisfaction.

What do I get back from it? A lot. As I blogged a few weeks ago, I’m changing jobs. Friday was my last day in the office at the BBC, and my colleagues blogged about it. I had plenty of well wishers. Abdelilah Boukili in Morocco has become a loyal member of our audience. He’s been quick to let us know when something is wrong with the blog, usually technical glitches. But it’s helped us fine tune our blog setup. He has also set up his own blog to chronicle his comments on BBC websites. But his comments on the World Have Your Say blog and here on Strange Attractor show how blogging opens new ways to relate to your audience. He said in a comment to me:

It was your interaction with the contributors to the BBC blog that encouraged me to be one of the frequent contributors. I am not a journalist like you equipped with means to get information. All I can do is give my comments which can be good or bad.

In case, you leave BBC blog I will be “following” you in the Guardian blog.

And there are several bloggers who have become frequent visitors to my blogs, Steve in Utah, Ipanema, Anbika in Nepal and Roberto in Miami, who have wished me well.

It takes time to build a community with a blog. Media companies are rushing to blog, rushing to use social networking tools. But as Suw and I always say, the technical tools are just the start. First off, learn to love your audience. We need to learn from the country music crowd. They remember who pay the bills.

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