Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Comments from readers

Here's a little Online Journalism Review diatribe against the LA Times for shutting off comments on stories, and recently editorializing that reader comments are as dangerous as Osama bin Laden. Hmmm.

This is a debate in my own newsroom. I weigh in on the side of allowing comments and inviting the community of commentators to police their arena. Flag inappropriate comments, talk directly to those folks about the climate and tone of discourse you want. The journalist is not expected to be the only parent in the room. To cut off the commentary is too much of a missed opportunity.

This is my job, really

That's me, in the blue coat in the background. It's a sunny August day, I'm out of the office, chatting up moms and dads, coaches, quarterbacks, tight ends and cheerleaders. I'm swimming in middle-America, which today includes defensive linemen with amazingly long and vowel-studded Samoan last names.

I'm building hyperlocal, as in a sudden, new wing of our web site devoted strictly to some 30 schools statewide with football and eight with flag football teams. I want those user-generated mom-and-dad-produced photos on every single team page. I want the kids to chat online about their team and the one that whupped them. I want the coaches to argue with our two pick'em sports reporters who select the top 5 games every weekend and predict winners.

Suddenly, I wish that I had made that third effort to have coffee with Dan Gillmor down in Palo Alto. Author of "We the media," journalist Gillmor is a guru of hyperlocal and how delicate this new audience is to cultivate. I've got email lists for booster parents and harried coaches. I write thank you emails to folks who send in images. I argue with our web editor about the prep site: It HAS to be easier to use! Let's celebrate reader participation by displaying their photos BIG, with lotsa credit.

Why am I doing it? Because I believe that community news organizations like the one I work for will soon (now, even) include a blend of us and them. Them is the people who live and work in the communities we report on. Us is, well, the fewer and fewer of us left in American print newsrooms. We need them to build connection in our pages, the glue of community. They need us to hold powerful people's feet to the fire: government officials, school administrators, business people. We work for the readers. So if they can contribute some of the content that binds a community - names, faces, achievements, good work - then the newspaper's reporters can focus on their role, getting at the hard and complicated truth, facts people need to know.

OK, I'm getting off my soapbox now.

I read an interesting post today at Mediashift about all the jobs shifting from print to online. I felt like I was the poster child for the structural adjustment newspapers are making. I went away for a year, read tons on the shifting world of journalism, took a multimedia fellowship at Berkeley to dip my toes in the water, and now I am back in the work world -- making the adjustment. I haven't written or edited a single story since I came back. Instead, I've been building Web pages, learning why they scream
ERROR instead of nicely displaying what I built, and editing little videos for our Web site. Now, I want to consume Final Cut Pro and Soundslides and html and Dreamweaver tutorials in one fell swoop. I want all those skills, yesterday. Then line me up with some database management software. It's a different world, not necessarily a bad one.