Posted on October 17, 2008
Articles, comments, stories, conversations
The format for networked reporting doesn’t exist yet, but I’ve been thinking about it in terms of how comments manifest public opinion (as well as an ugly underbelly of hate).
Networked reporting, as Charlie Beckett sees it, is a collaboration between the public and the journalists. It’s not the same as citizen or civic or public journalism. It harks back to an imagined utopia of small-town newspapers where the reporters knew everyone in town, nothing escaped their notice, and public opinion was as plain as the nose on your face. Under the surface of that fiction, of course, lay police and political corruption and a network of favors and allegiances that rarely appeared in the newspaper — because the journalists (or at least, the newspaper owners) were too embedded in the network to risk upsetting it.
Wait, don’t get mad and leave. I’m getting back to the utopia part.
If we imagine that the reporter actually knows and understands what’s going on in her community, we can assume her stories will usually be very relevant to that community. Moreover, her stories won’t be about things that the people already know — why would that be interesting? Her stories will be about the parts not clearly visible, behind the scenes, the way things work. That doesn’t have to mean stories about corruption, but stories that could help explain, for example, why the schools in one part of town are so much better than schools in another part of town. You may think you know why, but good reporting might change your mind.
As an example, I’m going to use U-Turn on H Street, a story by DeNeen Brown of The Washington Post. At a dinner table with a bunch of journalists in Wichita, Kansas, in May 2007, Brown was talking about her feelings about the comments left on her story by readers. I wasn’t taking notes, so I’m not going to try to quote Brown, but I remember clearly that she seemed hurt and certainly irritated that many readers had written personal attacks against her in their comments. (I’m tempted to say she was outraged, but that may be an exaggeration.)
Readers’ Comments on Articles
The conversation began with Brown saying she didn’t think newspapers should permit comments on articles, and then she gave us the specifics of this story — which is about urban renewal, or gentrification.
It’s a story about race in America, haves and have-nots, change in an old city neighborhood with a special history, new people moving in, and what happens to the longtime (and sometimes former) residents. Brown is a superb writer with more than 20 years’ experience in journalism. She reported this story thoroughly. Washington is her town; it’s not as if she parachuted in and wrote about something she had only looked at for a couple of days.
What comes with the swarms of new, hip people who now walk the once desolate streets looking for the coolest bars, sleek in their leather and heels? Do they know the history, the riots after King’s assassination, the white flight, or what happened in 1984 at Eighth and H to Catherine Fuller, a tiny cleaning woman found in an alley, her death too gruesome to recall the details — the pipe, the beating, the dreadful era that followed?
While a number of the reader comments were positive and very complimentary toward Brown and her story, others were not, and there were still others that apparently have been removed, according to what Brown described to us at the dinner table. Personal attacks on her character, criticisms of her professional skill, and even accusations that she had fabricated parts of her story — naturally, that last one made her angry, as it would anyone who does real, honest journalism. According to Brown, none of those accusations or attacks came with any shred of evidence. They were anonymous, cruel, unsubstantiated.
I felt lucky to hear Brown’s side of this, because at first I was ready to assume she was out of line — that she was upset about readers’ comments because readers aren’t journalists, and they don’t have any right to second-guess a trained professional — the reporter.
That was NOT her perspective, it turned out. If the readers had backed up their claims with verifiable facts (the way a good reporter would) — and if they had refrained from personal attacks on her — Brown would not have complained as she did. As it was, however, she saw the comments as undermining her hard work, her integrity, her interviews and scrupulous fact checking. The readers could just write whatever they felt like writing, true or not — and that stood in stark contrast to what a reporter is required to do.
Comments on Stories vs. Comments on Blogs
This past summer, a flurry of opinion about comments on news Web sites swirled around a blog post at Gawker and a column at the E&P Web site (which is summarized because we cannot link to it — ha ha, E&P! What a joke!). Derek Powazek posted a very sensible list of 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments. I linked to a fine summary of the issue by newspaper editor Jack Lail in August. Techdirt offered this wise observation:
There’s no indication that anyone at most newspapers read the comments. The authors of the articles rarely, if ever, respond to people in the comments. There’s little to no engagement or discussion. So, instead, the comments just become a way for readers to vent.
The first step to re-focusing this discussion is to separate comments on articles from comments on blogs. In journalist blogs on news Web sites, the journalist bloggers often DO respond to reader comments, and some very nice conversations often ensue. Group blogs and individual blogs sometimes exhibit very different dynamics in the comments. In general, the comments on articles have a very different manifestation — and I think that’s largely because of precisely what the Techdirt post said: There’s no one home. It’s like an abandoned building. The kids feel free to throw garbage and break all the windows.
The comments on a blog happen in a house where someone lives. It’s obvious to everyone — from the responses made by the blogger within the comments section — that this is a person’s home.
Back to DeNeen Brown’s article: She’s not permitted — by her newspaper — to join in the conversation taking place in the comments attached to her article. She is kept out of her own house and can’t ask people to treat it with the respect it deserves. She cannot ask them to back up their claims with evidence. She is absent, and therefore the anonymous commenters feel fearless. They don’t have to support their wild allegations. They are free to be as reckless as they dare.
Not an Article, Not a Blog
At this point in the trajectory of digital, interconnected communication, we need a new format for networked reporting.
In the E&P article mentioned above (July 24, 2004: “Web integration on a grander scale”), Steve Outing says newspapers must “go beyond user comments as the sole means of interaction on news articles.” I am saying news organizations must go beyond articles themselves.
If you want to use the resources in the community to make a story complete and accurate, then you have to open the story up to them before it’s written.
And maybe you don’t ever need to write it at all.
Most current thinking about “getting the readers involved” follows the lines Steve employed in his E&P column, when he described a newspaper story about a bear on the loose in a residential neighborhood.
By asking for eyewitness accounts, photos and videos, for instance, perhaps we’d actually get a look at that bear. After all, if you live in that neighborhood, you will be interested in that story. You might even have taken a photo or video of the animal. Prompted to act when you read the story either in print or online, you then might add your photo to the paper’s online coverage.
I wouldn’t care so much about that bear, even if it were in my own neighborhood. (Well, I guess I would care if the bear were still running free … still, this is NOT a very important story for the long haul.) But I would care — a whole lot — about DeNeen Brown’s story if I were living in a neighborhood that was getting gentrified. Especially if I lived on or near H Street itself (I lived about 3 miles north of there, near the Brookland Metro stop).
What Brown did was write a story that, in a time-honored journalistic format, attempted to provide a multi-dimensional view of what is happening in the place, with voices from various people included.
As usual, some people who read the story thought THEIR voices were not represented, or were represented inaccurately. This almost always happens — if you go out and talk to people after your story runs, you’ll hear all about how you didn’t get this or that right, or you left out something vital, or you skewed it the wrong way, etc. Sure, sure, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
But why should you be complacent about that? Why would you accept that — if you didn’t need to?
Beyond the Article, Beyond the Story
Jeff Jarvis wrote about this recently and helped resurrect these ideas that I have pondered and then shelved many times. Jeff said the new “building block” of journalism is the topic, whereas it used to be the story.
I am loath to say the story is dead, because humans have been telling stories to one another as a way to make sense of the world since long before we planted seeds in the soil and began to build houses. Stories give us a way to understand different people and places and to calm our fears about them. Stories help us learn how to do new things. Stories enable us to dream, inspire us to reach beyond what we can grasp. Without stories, we would be poorer.
Jeff sees his topic-not-story idea like this:
I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something (an extension of an article like this one that asks what options there are to bailout a bailout). It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.
This is brilliant — but it leaves out the nub of what I’m trying to puzzle through here. I agree with Jeff that what we are talking about is an ongoing process, not a finished thing (which a story, in many ways, is). But I disagree that it’s a blog and/or a wiki and/or a discussion forum ( “It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”). Jeff’s “page” is a large end result, and it’s complicated and time-consuming and wonderful and terrible — all at the same time.
Returning to H Street in Washington one final time:
The topic in that case is gentrification, and it’s gigantic. It occurs (and has occurred, and will occur) in many cities, both near and far away. But H Street is a real and living example of it, and it has some things in common with other nearby neighborhoods that might not be the same as thngs in a Chicago neighborhood, or a street in Baltimore, Maryland. Most important — and the thing we must not lose sight of — is that the people on H Street are the people who are living in that story. They are the people who wanted to speak, or who thought they did not get a chance to speak. They are the people who DeNeen Brown talked with, or didn’t talk with; the ones who felt included or excluded by her story.
The conversation that needs to occur — and that needs to be curated, as Jeff likes to say — is the format we have not discovered yet. It’s not a blog, not a discussion forum, not a wiki. It’s something else that we don’t have yet.
It’s a format for networked reporting, and we need to invent it.