The Conversation, Habit and Loyalty
There’s an interesting video over at Nieman Journalism Lab in which Bill Wasik, author of “And Then There’s This,” talks with Zachary M. Seward about Politico. (Extra credit to Nieman for kindly posting the transcript. I think it would have been easier to read if the “you knows” and false starts had been cleaned up and the editing noted, but that’s another issue and another post.)
Wasik is concerned about newspapers’ use of data about which stories get read, and how that will drive what gets covered and written. He’s troubled to think that Politico’s news philosophy (as expressed in a now-famous memo by Mike Allen) is centered on producing stories meant to spread virally, since many political stories that spread that way are ammo in political flame wars.
It’s an interesting debate, but what really grabbed me was something a bit off Wasik’s main point: His doubts about the now-commonplace commandment (I’ve handed it down a time or two myself) that news stories be the basis of a conversation with readers.
Wasik calls the idea of a conversation “this great big euphemism in journalism right now, where what we’re supposed to be doing online with the readers is creating, you know, engaging them in conversation over social media. And if a story gets emailed around a lot and read a lot and blogged about a lot and commented a lot, then that means we have somehow, you know, tapped into this sort of touchy-feely idea of conversation. To a certain extent, it’s a whitewashing of the age-old thing of give people what they want to read.”
Twenty years ago, Wasik says, certain newspaper editors would have protested being told to run stories that make people buy papers, then adds that “today if you say to the same people, well, your job is to engage the readers in conversation over social media, well then, you know, you’re the VP of online development.”
It’s a good line and a good point — and it got me thinking about what newspapers should really be after in approaching readers, and why we’ve sometimes reduced that to the idea of a conversation. Because conversations aren’t really what we’re looking for. Rather, conversations are one way to measure how successful we’ve been in attaining what we actually need.
What newspapers really need isn’t conversation but engagement — or, to be less buzzwordy, loyalty and habit. We want to be a daily or even an hourly destination for readers. Readers who make your paper a habit are more likely to explore, clicking around and trying new features. Readers who make your paper a habit are more likely to click on an ad, or pay for a subscription if you try that route. And yes, readers who make your paper a habit are more likely to be drawn into conversations and connections with other readers and sometimes with writers themselves.
Loyalty and habit run counter to the “drive-by” readership that’s an unfortunate side effect of the link economy, and which has led publishers to waste precious time grousing about Google and aggregators and bloggers, oh my. As I’ve written before, turning drive-by readers into loyal, habitual readers is the key to rebuilding readership and finding an online business model that can be basis for moving forward.
Conversations are a part of that, but far from the only part — they’re simply one indication of loyalty and habit. I read Slate every day, but I’ve never left a comment there. (I have passed on or posted links via my Facebook page, but pretty rarely.) Slate is a habit for me because I’ve learned that every day I’ll find three or four things I want to read. They’ve won my loyalty, but engaging me in conversation was a small part of that process.
So why all this talk of the conversation? I think it’s because one of the biggest Web-driven cultural changes for journalists has been the need to come down the mountain from which we once made pronouncements and engage with readers lower on the slopes, where they’re commenting and sharing and publishing away on their own blogs and Facebook pages. That’s a huge change, and one news organizations have focused on because it’s so different than what’s come before, and because it’s something journalists can do themselves. If you’re a columnist, good luck changing your site’s navigation and design to better capture drive-by readers following a Digg link to a single column of yours. But, hey, you can respond to comments.
Awareness within news organizations of the need for “conversation” is a good thing, and the conversation is indeed a piece of the puzzle. But it’s only a piece, and it would be unfortunate to focus on it so avidly that the puzzle goes unsolved.
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