Reinventing the Newsroom

Reactions to Nieman’s Social-Media Report

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on September 17, 2009

Nieman Reports’ latest issue focuses on journalism and social media, and it’s terrific, full of thought-provoking stuff from smart writers and thinkers.

There’s an enormous amount to mull over here, but here are some reactions to two articles that really grabbed me:

Richard Gordon‘s discussion of News Mixer is a great account of a Web-site prototype put together by a Medill class taught by Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert. News Mixer uses Facebook Connect, as I think all newspaper sites soon will, and lets readers annotate paragraphs with questions and answers, offer contextual quips, and post letters to the editor that are given the status of mini-articles. There’s a sense of play with News Mixer that I think is sorely lacking in most comments areas. Yes, readers comment because they have something to say. But they also like to build up profiles, interact with other users (including in relatively passive ways such as following, blocking or “ignoring” them) and do things such as vote comments up or down — all activities that make readers more likely to return to a newspaper’s site, engage and over time become habitual readers.

Gordon also takes himself to task for treating the Web as a one-way broadcasting medium during his time with the Miami Herald:

Our team created discussion boards but hoped they’d require no attention from our staff. We didn’t think that cultivating community or moderating discussions were appropriate or necessary roles for a journalist. And we ignored evidence right in front of us—our own behavior as online users—that the most powerful and persistent driver of Internet usage was the value of connecting with other people.

It’s that last part that brought my palm to my forehead. Because I’ve been guilty of that in my own career — I’d spend days and nights avidly consuming, sharing and commenting on news, then put on my journalist hat and shut that part of my brain off. Ascending Mount Journalism, I’d become an aloof figure who’d hand down stone tablets, making at best half-hearted efforts to connect with readers who were doing the very things I did so enthusiastically … whenever I took my journalist hat off.

We know we have to shed this broadcaster mentality as a business, but that doesn’t mean waiting for the guys in the corner offices to come around to that. It means shedding it as individuals, too. As Gordon notes, the best way to do that is to look at your own behavior as a reader, and figure out how to help and reward that.

(By the way, I looked for Gordon on Twitter and couldn’t find him. Can anybody help?)

This blog has admired Matt Thompson‘s work before, and I really liked his explanation for Nieman of why readers love Wikipedia. Journalists like to crab about Wikipedia mistakes and vandalism, mostly because we feel conflicted about shamelessly cribbing from it. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s defenders tend to get a case of the Webby vapors exalting its DIY nature and distributed expertise. Besides being tedious, both positions miss why Wikipedia works so well for readers. Thompson nails it:

[T]here was also something quite remarkable about how stories are structured on the site, how breaking news gets folded into an elegant, cohesive record, enabling site visitors to quickly catch up on a topic without having to sort through a torrent of disparate articles and headlines.

If you’re looking for a way to combat information overload, to distill the universe of topics covered by the local newspaper into a manageable stream, it’s difficult to find a more perfect invention than the format Wikipedia has pioneered.

Contrast that, he says, with the way newspapers typically approach complex, ongoing stories: They stick the new events at the top, then stick in snippets of background that only serve to confuse readers, making them feel, in Thompson’s words, like understanding the news required “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding.”

More tomorrow. In the meantime, get reading!

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