Blogs As Conversation Starters and Story Leads
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.