How exactly do reader comments fit into journalism

While there are plenty of lessons from the Press Herald Apology (or “Apologygate if you’re looking for a hashtag), one that stuck out to me is what exactly is the role of reader comments in the editorial process?

One of my complaints about the whole affair is that by issuing an apology, particularly to all those voicing their anger over Facebook, Twitter, email and online comments, the Press Herald had “cede(ed) editorial control to the crowd.”

But how should newspapers use reader comments when it comes to making decisions on coverage, story placement or even the reporting process?

(For the moment let’s set aside the other debates on comments, meaning we won’t talk about whether they’re worthwhile or how to improve them. Though former Press Herald colleague Carl Natale has a good idea on how to try and make them civil`.)

The easiest answer is tips and story ideas, as evidenced by this blog post. In the previous post on L’Affair de Press Herald, a commenter said something that stuck in my head:

“And I disagree with you, in that in our web 2.0 world with all of its new interactions between big institutions and their constituents, in a world of declining circulation, and in a world of crowdsourcing, that all newspapers are missing the boat here by retaining 100% control over what stories are reported.”

(Thanks to the commenter who wrote that…but next time think about leaving your name for credit! Also, can we not use the phrase Web 2.0? Please?)

Reporters have a finite amount of time and sources for tips. While no one is suggesting it’s time to stop shaking down the guy who runs the sandwich shop in City Hall or trading calls with dispatchers, online comments could easily become a part of the mix when it comes time to look for story ideas. (And no one’s suggesting you run with the first thing that seems interesting in a comment thread. The same type of vetting applies of course.)

But my anonymous commenter hits on another good idea:

“If the Press Herald had posted their stories for the next day or next week and the timeline of those stories, a *conversation* could have been had. Ahead of time. And the editors could have made their decisions still.”

Ah yes, Transparency. While it’s beginning to boarder on becoming a buzzword (trying saying that phrase three times fast), it’s a valuable idea for newspapers, if not most companies. The tools are out there to give reporters, editors and photographers the chance to open up the newsgathering process. Skip the newsroom webcam and let your audience know what you’re working on through Twitter or Facebook. Keep a running newsroom blog explaining what’s being worked on and dissecting what’s already been published. And invite the public to participate.

Does this mean editors and reports should pivot every time they get word about a story their working on over Twitter? No. Does it mean newspapers should tip their hand whenever their working on exclusives or investigative pieces? Heavens no. But the day-to-day work of a newspaper, even when it may seem like sausage making to people inside, could be interesting to people outside. And it could also create a better bond with the community.

One last idea for using comments? The easiest one: Feedback. Yes, this is a no-brainer, and something the public is more than willing to do. (If I kept track of how many comments I got on my old blog about grammar and punctuation I’d likely have leapt from the roof.)

The problem is that “comments as feedback” sounds a lot like “let the public cut loose on us” to some in the news game, which is why its important to treat those comments constructively and respond. If someone fact checks you, respond and say thanks. If someone questions if something is missing in a story, tell them why or why not, also, say thanks. If a reader unleashes an expletive-laden tirade against you, your abilities as a writer, your boss and your mother, move on. Or just simply say thank you.

But these are just my ideas. I’d be a jerk for not taking my own advice, so who has other ideas about ways to use comments constructively in the editorial process?

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2 responses

  1. Josh

    Along the same lines, check out the new comment policy enacted just today by the Las Vegas Sun. It requires verification either through the Sun’s site or by using a Facebook login. The intent is to raise the level of discourse with the thought that commentors won’t be able to hide behind anonymous comments.

    Check out the article that details the process and reasoning behind the change.

    It’s wicked pissah.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:38 am

  2. Josh

    http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/sep/21/story-commenting-policy/

    That might help.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:39 am

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