Reinventing the Newsroom

Blogs As Conversation Starters and Story Leads

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on April 28, 2009

Last week I was at the Poynter Institute, discussing life as a sports blogger with a group of students and established journalists, and someone asked how beat writers could use sports blogs to help their coverage.

I think what I said applies not just to sports blogs (I talked about the small but surprisingly diverse world of New York Mets blogs, since that’s what I know best), but to any newspaper blog. My advice boiled down to this: Successful blogs are conversations, ones that reporters should at least listen to and ideally join, whether they’re traditional reporters or newspaper bloggers.

First off, I said, reporters should remind themselves that good blogs are communities of people who are passionate devotees about a given subject, and the fact that these communities are virtual rather than physical no longer particularly matters. Those online communities are the equivalent of a lively potluck dinner or the corner bar where everybody bends elbows, the kind of gathering that a reporter would give his eyeteeth to be invited to, and where he’d fill his notebook. And with blogs, you don’t even need an invitation to listen in.

Sportswriters who listen to those conversations can steal a step on their competitors, because they’ll get the tenor of a community in ways they won’t dealing with a team or taking the measure of a crowd from the vantage point of the press box, and because they can vet potential sources. There are limits to this, of course: To go back to baseball, you wouldn’t write that Jake Peavy is coming to the Mets because letsgomets86 said so in a misspelled comment written entirely in caps and attributed to his brother’s friend’s buddy. But that conversation can be invaluable for other kinds of stories.

The Mets just opened Citi Field, their new ballpark, and anyone hanging around the comments section of Faith and Fear in Flushing would have seen a while ago that while fans generally liked the new park, the Mets had two problems that weren’t going to go away: complaints about seats from which you can’t see a good chunk of the outfield and the perception that there wasn’t enough Mets history inside the park. The various Mets beat writers did write about both those issues, but from the pitch of the conversation on our blog, I could tell that dissatisfaction ran deeper and would prove longer-lasting than some of those early stories suggested. Furthermore, a beat writer hanging around our comments area would have found the kind of sources you work a crowd hoping you’ll find but fearing you won’t: lifelong Met fans who are passionate but not irrational and can express themselves.

And those are just the benefits of listening. Beat writers who actually join the conversation will be at minimum respected and quite likely embraced. It’s no secret that the anonymity of the Internet encourages people to say vile things they wouldn’t dare say if they had to look someone in the eye. But I’ve found that there’s a more-hopeful corollary to this: When people actually engage with their critics, the tone of the conversation quickly changes, and the cheap-shot artists get shoved to the fringe. Moreover, however much some independent bloggers like to jeer at the “MSM,” most of them are thrilled to get a little recognition (and traffic) from MSM sources. Engagement works. Whether you’re linking out to good bloggers who’ve written something interesting, politely setting the record straight on something, or wading into the comments section of good blogs, it helps defang the nastiest critics and can turn the reasonable ones into champions.

In recent years newspapers have started thousands upon thousands of blogs. Some of them are great, but most of them are pretty pallid. And one reason is that reporters’ first instinct is hold themselves aloof from the conversation that ebbs and flows between blogs devoted to the same subject. They don’t link out or join in.

That’s the old model of newspapers, except with slightly different pronouncements handed down from a slightly lower mountaintop. And its time has passed. It no longer works for us to hand out missives from on high. Now, technology has let readers come up the mountain and set up their own printing plants on the slopes. They gossip and gab down there, often arguing about whatever dispatch we send to them, but increasingly mixing it up about each other’s pronouncements.

This can strike us as unfair, untidy and unseemly, particularly when we send something down the mountain and see it received with jeers and spittle. But tough luck — our chatty mountaineers aren’t going to relocate. The only thing for us to do is go down the mountain to meet them.

5 Responses

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  1. David Roth said, on April 28, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    I actually wrote a couple posts about a similar thing at Can’t Stop the Bleeding yesterday — one about how innately and elegantly Joe Posnanski seems to understand what a blog is for, both relative to his fellow veteran sportswriters and in general; the other was about a post that an acquaintance made, and reminded me of both a different salutary effect blogs can have. The story on my second post (here) is this:

    The subject of the second post is a writer who recently spent a few months in the Dominican reporting a story about baseball there. He cultivated a bunch of sources, one of whom recently handed him (anonymously) a huge bombshell about a truly eye-popping scouting impropriety. The writer doesn’t have the sourcing (and neither a venue nor the resources) in which to follow the story to its conclusion, and so just kind of got a blogspot address and ran it up there in the hopes that it’d get a follow-up.

    There are some questions about that, but talking to the writer about it put me in mind of a couple things — first, the possibility that sports blogs (as some news blogs are already doing) can serve as more than just a commentary-oriented counterpoint to traditional news coverage by incubating and maybe crowd-reporting (I’m trying to avoid typing “wiki” anywhere in here) these sorts of nascent stories until they’re ready for the higher standards and broader audiences of the big time; and then the less-nice fact that, until someone finishes these stories, they’re just more undersourced scurrility floating around the e-ether. Does the nastiness of the latter truth outweigh the potential positives of the former, do you think? It’s safe to assume most mainstream reporters would think so, yeah?

  2. Bernard said, on May 1, 2009 at 6:30 am

    This was really interesting and taught me one things or two.

  3. Jonah said, on May 1, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Jason – Enjoyed your talk at Poynter, and this post even more. My newsroom has struggled to integrate blogs, mostly because most of us don’t really understand them. I’m certain I will quote this post when I try to explain to the next editor why we need to jump in head first.

  4. reinventingthenewsroom said, on May 1, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks Jonah — everybody’s figuring it out, so just dive right in and experiment. Let me know how it goes….

  5. […] bad news. Culturally, there’s still some reluctance to come down from the mountain, to borrow yesterday’s metaphor. Strategically, there’s a worry that engaging social media will force overburdened papers to […]

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