Reinventing the Newsroom

The Conversation, Habit and Loyalty

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on July 16, 2009

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.

5 Responses

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  1. Michael said, on July 16, 2009 at 11:58 am

    You still visit the same Websites every day? Have you heard of RSS feeds and Google News?😉

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on July 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Yep, and depend on them for most things. But for others (like Slate), I find my daily Web rounds a comforting routine.

  3. Zach Seward said, on July 17, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Great thoughts, Jason. Thanks.

    About including “you knows” and false starts in the transcript: That’s something I’ve debated a lot since we provide transcripts for all of our video and audio. (How we do that is an interesting story for, as you say, another post.) Part of me thinks it’s most important to faithfully transcribe exactly what was said, even if it isn’t elegant. But a big consideration has to be ease of use for the reader, especially as people choose to read the transcripts in lieu of playing the videos. If it’s difficult to get through, that kind of defeats the point of having a transcript in the first place.

    So I think for my next video, I’ll take half of your advice and omit “you knows,” one-word false starts, and things like that. I’ll leave in longer false starts because I think those are important and not as difficult to read. How’s that sound?

    And in any event, thanks very much for the feedback.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on July 17, 2009 at 8:25 am

      Hey Zach, definitely sympathetic on the subject of transcripts, having been there myself. And kudos to you for doing it in the first place — it makes it so much easier for folks who can’t or don’t want to fire up a video player.

      Besides being a bit hard on the reader, I think the other drawback of a faithful transcription is that it can make the subject’s thinking seem scattered. We all talk with false starts and verbal tics (“um” and “well” are mine) but what sounds normal in conversation can look uncertain and vacillating on the page. As you note, though, some false starts are very interesting in capturing someone thinking through an issue.

      I think you have an advantage because the video is right there to be checked by anyone who might be suspicious that something important was elided. It’s interesting to think that posting the raw audio/video of interviews (within the bounds of discretion, proprietary etc.) might become common journalistic practice — particularly since if we don’t do it, interview subjects might. But that’s definitely another post.

      Great interview and series — looking forward to more.

  4. Terry Steichen said, on July 21, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Jason,

    I agree that having a conversation is less of an objective than a consequence of delivering news that the consuming public values.

    You suggest substituting “loyalty and habit.” But I think these are also more like consequences than objectives. What a publisher does to repeatedly draw in users (out of loyalty and habit) isn’t dramatically different than what you do to appeal to (what you disparagingly call) “drive-by” readership.

    You observe that you read Slate every day (though you do not enter into conversations about what you read there). Yes, that’s certainly an indication (by definition) of loyalty and habit. But it kind of begs the question of what stimulates that loyalty and habit.

    I suggest that the underlying value comes from the editors’ consistent ability to choose topics of interest, and see to it that these topics are reported in a useful way.

    Once that happens, then loyalty and habit follow, along with engagement, a willingness and interest in interacting on the reports.


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