Journalists must set the tone for their communities

Robert Niles has a must-read post on the Online Journalism Review about the role that journalists should play in terms of interactivity and community on their sites. Online communities need leadership: Will journalists provide it, or will someone else? he writes:

…writing in any interactive environment is an act of leadership. Your words, your tone and your style not only inform your audience, they provide a model – an example – for those in the community who will write for that community, as well. And your silence creates a vacuum of leadership that others may fill.

Since my career shifted six years ago to become more interactive, I am often asked how to get ‘them’ to be nicer. The ‘them’ is always those nasty commenters, members of the public who aren’t as pleasant or as deferential as journalists would like them to be. I respond that the blogger or journalist sets the tone of interaction. If as a columnist, you write a link-baiting attack piece, expect a counter-attack. If a journalist actively invites constructive participation from readers, over time, that journalist can build a positive community (rather than a passive audience) around his or her journalism. The key part of that comment is ‘over time’. It takes time and effort to build a community. It doesn’t take much time or creativity to whip up an angry mob.

The initial response I always get is that sharp writing sells and that I’m somehow advocating overly polite pablum instead of incisive commentary. First off, poisonous communities don’t sell. They don’t sell to most readers, and they damn well don’t sell to advertisers. It’s really interesting the different responses I hear when talking about some high profile engagement-based comment sites. People in the media laud them as visionary, ground-breaking and industry leading. When I speak to members of the public, they call the same sites toxic, offensive and aggressive. I often joke that a lot of publishers engagement strategy is really an enragement strategy. Find the hot button issues of the day and push those buttons until they bleed.

I’m also drawing a distinction between journalism and comment, which is getting awfully blurry these days whether online, on air or in print.

Robert talks about a ‘ladder of engagement‘, and I’ve written about taking the concepts of ‘leveling up’ from gaming and applying it to news communities. I’m not necessarily talking about gamification of news but rather increasing rewards for increasing levels of participation. Robert has some good ideas in his post, and the entire idea is that we’re building loyalty and engagement.

Loyalty is the new currency of the online realm. If you look at the difficulty that major, major news websites are having in creating a sustainable business around high volume traffic, you can see that millions of unique users aren’t necessarily the key to success. It’s about pages per session, dwell time or time on site. A smaller number of highly engaged users can often be more valuable, especially when those users are focused on some high return verticals.

‘You’ journalists must be part of your community

However, putting the business side of things aside for a moment, the resounding message from Robert’s post is that journalists need to be active in our own news communities. We set the tone. If you’ve ever been to a good party or dinner, the host brings people into the discussion. The host introduces new topics, and he or she makes sure that a number of voices and points of view are heard. Whenever I’m out at such a dinner, I come away feeling invigorated and better informed. Without journalists playing this role in our news communities, we’re not only abdicating responsibilities for the conversation on our sites, we’re missing a huge opportunity. I love the quote from Arthur Miller:

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.

In the past when a newspaper was defined by the paper, that conversation was a construct, and the conversation was very limited in who could participate. Now in the digital age, that conversation is a reality. It’s a lot more raucous of a conversation, but it’s also more inclusive. My passion is public service journalism, and journalists who can host such a great debate (not just kick off one) are rare. It’s a new skill, and I’m glad Robert has provided such great advice in how to hone that skill.

As our communities and our countries face such pressing problems and challenges, it’s imperative that journalists join these discussions and help foster them. We do that implicitly by providing people with the best information that we can find, but we can also engage our audience to be more active in making these key decisions.

Three years ago, I was back in the US covering the presidential election. One of the people I interviewed, Ralph Torres began following me on Twitter. The day after the election, he wrote this to me on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie id=”991306753″]

We have the opportunity to pull our audiences further into critical civic conversations but we have to seize it, not believe that interaction is only for ‘them’.

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