About six months ago I took a big leap, leaving a good job, stable paycheck and measure of security behind me. When I left the Press Herald I didn’t know what I’d wind up doing next, or where.
Well now I know. This story starts with an email I received while sipping a margarita on a beach in Florida in May and ends today. I’ll save you the unabridged version and get to the point.
To paraphrase one of the more disastrous job announcements in recent history:
“This fall I’m taking my talents to Cambridge and joining the Nieman Journalism Lab.”
Jim Gray: “Nieman Journalism Lab, that was the conclusion you woke up with this morning?”
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?)
How exactly did “A show of faith and forgiveness” turn into an apology? Gutlessness.
Readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram may have been surprised to find an open letter from Publisher Richard Conner yesterday (and today), offering an apology for a story that appeared in print and online.
Was it a grossly inaccurate story? A clear violation of the paper’s standards and practices? Did it perpetrate a crime against the community?
No. They published a story and photos on Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan. And thanks to the date, Sept. 11, that drove some people into hysterics.
In his letter Connor apologized to readers for showing a lack of sensitivity and not balancing their coverage with 9/11 events.
Unfortunately what Connor’s done is created a self-inflicted wound to his newspaper. By apologizing for a factual story portraying part of the community it covers, the Press Herald has damaged its ability to educate, betrayed the journalists who work there, alienated a part of their audience and shown that editorial control can be won by the power of the mob.
In offering the apology, Connor was taking a reactionary stance to an outcry from readers, over email, phone calls, Facebook and Twitter. Since I’ve never sat in the big seat reserved for publishers, this may be guesswork, but taking flak for (and defending) stories is part of the job. As he outlines in his letter, the work of assigning, editing and placing stories is a serious one that involves a large group of people, all of whom just got thrown under the bus in favor of the commenting class.
List blogs are hot, and, unfortunately, so is unemployment. I figured it was about time to sit down and write up my “what I did on my summer vacation” (we went to the Vineyard, I met a sea captain, I milked an Alpaca!), but instead break it down into digestible hits.
1.) The news is damn depressing
Funny how stories about unemployment figures, the jobless rate and the stagnant pace of growth in the economy are background noise (albeit sad background noise, like a Sarah McLaughlin album) when you have a job. Now that I’m a free agent (my preferred term thank you), all that news seems to do is sucker punch you. That’s the best case scenario, worst case is it depresses the hell out of you, making the job hunt that much harder. As a reader of news I know you can’t easily stop those stories no more than you can stop the causes behind them, but still, NYT, could you take it easy on the fun-loving headlines using phrases like “jobless have only desperation?”
2.) You’ve got a lot of time with your thoughts
And depending on how much you like yourself, that could be a good thing…or not. Over a long enough period of time your brain can turn into that annoying roommate who never gets off the couch and leaves a thimble-full of milk left in the fridge. When your days consist of looking for work, evaluating (and re-evaluating) your worth and making a case for your potential, that’s just opening the gates to some self-debasement. At the same time, you’ve got ample opportunities for your mind to wander and discover that repressed ADD inside you. This is problematic only because when you should be looking for a gig you end up losing hours contemplating things like “whatever happened to that Mustang Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt.” (Answer: It is believed to be hiding in a barn somewhere in the Ohio River Valley.)
3.) Finding that “book in you” is a lot harder than you think
No one ever likes the kid who stomps his feet and says “I’m taking my ball and going home.”
But somehow newspapers have become that kid, especially when it comes to online comments on their website.
Sure, that may be too simplistic an explanation, but consider this: Newspapers made the decision a while ago set comments loose and when they didn’t turn out the way they like they started threatening to end the whole game.
It’s no secret that online comments on news sites can be a babbling pool of filth, ignorance and bad grammar, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that some are considering doing away with comments or drastically changing how they handle them.
In a recent article in the American Journalism Review Rem Rieder argues that it’s long past time to end comments permanently.
The crux of his argument is this: Newspapers don’t have the resources or the time, and comments have proven to be nothing but trouble anyway.
But Rieder and others looking to shut down comments seem to miss one point, which is that comments are lowest impact way for newspapers to offer the community a way to interact with them. And if you shut that off you’re making a conscious decision to walk away from connecting with readers.