Oxford Internet Institute: Continuing the conversation

After having the opportunity to speak about blogging and the US elections at the Oxford Internet Institute last Monday, the conversation is continuing. I apologise for not responding sooner, but I do have the small matter of getting married at the end of this week.

After my talk, I posted some links to links studies that I mentioned during the talk as well as well as added to some arguments that I made. One of the questions that was raised during my talk was whether the mainstream media should blog. Tobias Escher, a DPhil student and research assistant at Oxford, followed up his questions with a post. He says:

  1. Journalists and their employers do already have a voice in the public sphere, they do not need yet another channel to get their take on issues across.
  2. Most of these corporate blogs just don’t work. They are not written in the spirit of blogging, they are not looking for a real dialog (something they share with blogs of politicians) and aim only to co-opt bloggers into giving the media company some form of credibility.
  3. The money spent on developing these platforms should rather be invested into the core business of news providers, e.g. in foreign correspondents and investigative stories (ie. the things that are most difficult for citizen journalists).

I agree with Tobias on point one, and I have often said publicly that to justify the effort of blogging, financially and editorially, that news organisations must do more than simply chop up content that they already produce and put it in blog format. (A friend of mine calls this approach ‘news sushi’.) I often play a Daily Show video in which Jon Stewart jokes that MSM blogs ‘give a voice to the already voiced’.

What is the strategic reason for news and media organisations to blog? What are news organisations trying to achieve? It can’t be simply to publish more content. Does the addition of comments below articles offer any strategic advantage that outweighs the potential liability both in terms of possible brand damage and moderation costs?

For me, blogging is part of a community strategy, not a publishing strategy. As I wrote:

Adding comments to the bottom of stories or columns is a step, but it’s missing the point. It’s treating blogging strictly as a publishing tool, not as part of a broader community strategy. …

I’m not saying that it’s a mistake to allow comments on the bottom of articles or columns. But that doesn’t change the fact that simply allowing comments on static content isn’t taking full advantage of blogging. It’s is treating blogging as a content-management system that allows comments. If that’s your goal, just adapt your content-management system to accept comments.

And if that is your organisation’s goal, then I would argue that the risks do not outweigh the costs because the competitive advantages decrease while the cost remains constant. Comments alone are no longer a differentiating factor in today’s media market. They have become in many ways, a lowest common denominator in terms of participation.

I think Tobias is also right that most corporate and MSM blogs lack credibility. For one, they lack authenticity. They often have no voice, no humanity. In the US, journalists are hampered by believing that strict objectivity requires them to adopt not only a neutral tone but actually a boring, emotionless tone. Readers don’t believe us because they don’t believe we as journalists are actually objective. Also, why would anyone engage with the disembodied voice of objectivity?

In the UK market, blogging suffers from a belief that blogging is simply columns with comments. But the professional columnist still can lack authenticity and sees no need for engagement. As Dan Gillmor said, “We like readers plural, but we’re scared by readers singular.” Scared, and from a column delivered from a position of being above the conversation, professional columnists are often dismissive of the opinions delivered from beneath them.

I’m fascinated by the points of view that readers raise that I hadn’t considered, perspectives they bring that I don’t have. If I engage in the conversation as an equal, I often find that I don’t suffer the harsh blow back that some columnists complain about from readers.

Too many media blogs simply use the technology to give the appearance of interactivity with the addition of comments. But there is no conversation. There is a monologue from the media, and the conversation exists only amongst ‘them’, the commenters who come to discuss the article. Any sense of community remains completely external to the news organisations as long as journalists remain uninvolved in the discussion.

The bottom line is that if you are implicitly asking readers to interact by creating a space with comments, designed for conversation, that you have to be ready to be part of the conversation. Journalists who blog need to have some sense of responsibility for the conversations they start on their blogs, whether that be in the tone they set or their level of commitment to the conversation. Being a blogger is like being the host of a salon or a discussion group. A blogging journalist should bring original reporting from unique sources to the conversation, but they also should foster the discussion, highlighting interesting contributions from commenters, linking off to other interesting blog posts as part of the wider conversation and generally being congenial hosts. Why isn’t directly facilitating lively, intelligent, informed debate and discussion a journalistic function?

To respond to Tobias’ third point, which was to say that community isn’t the core function of a news organisation and not worthy of investment over news gathering functions, I cede that this is a valid and common question. I know that what I’m calling for is going to take time, effort and money. Most news organisaitons aren’t expanding, they are cutting back faster than the Detroit auto-makers.

To answer some of the cost concerns, I’d simply say:

  1. The real cost is not in the development of a new platforms but in staff costs, whether that is hiring new staff or diverting existing staff or staff time to blog or support community projects.
  2. As I wrote about recently, the development costs can be dramatically lowered by the use of open-source software. The New York Times uses WordPress. Morris Digital uses the open-source CMS Drupal, and there are several other open-source CMS and community software options.
  3. It is much less costly to add a new blog than it is to launch a new print product or section. These blogs can be focused on niche coverage that is interesting to readers and to advertisers and helps grow the business and support quality journalism.

As I said at Oxford, most news and media organisations believe that quality and brand recognition will help them cut through the increasingly cluttered media landscape. At the risk of repetition, quality does not guarantee success in today’s media market. I believe that news organisations need to reconnect with their audiences. It’s my belief that the news organisation with the strongest relationship with their audiences will succeed.

This doesn’t mean I believe that journalists should pander to readers, but I believe that social media gives journalists the opportunity to develop a direct relationship with ‘the people formerly known as the audience’. The tools make it easy for journalists to carry on a conversation with readers, involve them in reporting and build a loyal community. To me, it is a competitive advantage. It is one of the competitive advantages of a networked journalist. I draw on the wisdom in the crowds to enhance my journalism as well as feed Guardian journalism back into those crowds.

Technorati Tags:
, ,

Comments are closed.