Stop Being a Hammer
A long time ago, some clever person observed that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I doubt whoever said that was thinking about newspapers, but they could have been.
By and large, newspapers have seen new technological platforms as new ways to carry out their long-established mission of telling their readers what’s happening and what it means. And that’s a noble mission — like a lot of people, I heard it as a calling when I was a teenager and pursued it as a career. And for all the opportunities they’ve missed, newspapers have used those platforms to make big changes in what they do and how they do it. The Web let newspapers present their print material to a (potentially) world-wide audience and tell people the news without having to wait for presses and trucks. Blogs let newspapers update running stories in bits and pieces and bring a more conversational tone to the news. Social media (and before it email) let newspapers hand some of the work of distributing news to readers. Mobile is now letting newspapers reach readers who aren’t at work or at home.
In describing how these new tools have changed their mission, news organizations often say something along these lines: Our job is now to bring readers news and information whenever, wherever and however they need it. And, again, that’s a good, noble mission. But it’s still fundamentally the old mission: pushing news out to readers. What we risk missing is that the world has gotten much bigger than that. We have to see that our old mission is now part of something larger, figure out how we expand that mission to reflect this change, and change our culture so that we can meet its challenges and unlock its possibilities. What is that new mission? We’re still finding that out. But at the risk of sounding touchy-feely, it’s clear that it begins with less talking and more listening.
Not too long ago, readers had so few ways to talk with us that they hardly mattered. We’ve seen for a long time that that’s changing: The ability for anyone to publish is fundamental to the Web. But in fairness to news organizations, it’s only recently that the technology has matured to the point that conversation can really begin to flower.
News articles have had comments for a long time, and that’s good, but they’re almost inevitably tucked away at the bottom of the article or on a tab — making for a decidedly unequal relationship between writer and commenter. For all the immediacy of blogs, the same is true of them. And to a certain extent this imbalance is unavoidable. I find it incoherent to read something that’s annotated or commented in-line — the criticism begins before the message is complete. But it is an imbalance nonetheless. It makes conversation more difficult. It makes it hard for journalists to stop sending tablets of information down the mountain and occasionally hearing small voices from below.
But a beautiful thing about social media is that it inverts this. When a good conversation gets going on Facebook, whatever’s being discussed — a linked article, video, photo or just what’s on your mind — rapidly feels secondary to the upraised thumbs and the blue-boxed comments with their owners’ pictures attached. On Facebook, an item that doesn’t attract conversation somehow looks lonely. People on Twitter have very different levels of influence and “importance,” but the interface treats them like equals, and by doing that, it inspires conversation to jump those gaps. There’s no mountain to come down from.
I’m embarrassed by how thoroughly I struggle with this. I first learned my trade at print publications and went from apprentice to journeyman at the Web arm of a print paper, and I’ve been imprinted by that. I write columns and blog posts, and have to remind myself that the best measure of my writing’s success isn’t how good I think it is, but the conversation it inspires. I look at my Facebook activities and see too many links to my stuff that I want people to read and not enough evidence that I’m reading what other people are doing. I remind myself that Twitter isn’t just a new way to push out links, but a place to listen and learn. Every time I listen more than I talk, every time I leave a comment that leads to a conversation, I learn far more than when I stay aloof. Sometimes I feel like this will never come naturally, that I’ll always be looking for a mountain and tablets. But I’m trying. And the best tool I’ve found for changing my habits, however imperfectly I’ve done so, is social media.
And similarly, I think, it’s news organizations’ best chance to change their mission and see it as part of something larger. To see the news organization’s site not as a starting point for building a community, but as a potential part of a vibrant community that already exists. To make sure journalists understand — as the BBC made clear — that talking with readers is now a critical part of their jobs, and that they’re supported in making it one. To see that people outside our organizations and even our definition of journalism also make news, and treat it as such. To not just talk, but listen.
The news is no longer a bunch of nails; we need to stop being hammers.
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