I’m all in favor of newspapers and television stations becoming a closer member of their communities, of talking with, listening to and responding to readers and viewers and citizens needs.
But I draw the line at regurgitating Facebook and Twitter comments in print and on the air. Unfortunately, more and more media outlets are doing it. They do it with big news events, with small news events and with trend stories.
It’s lame and about as useful as an appendix. They don’t reflect what people think because they aren’t representative of anything. In fact, some media organizations present a balance of comments illustrating “both” sides of an argument. I know television stations avoid taking sides so as not to lose audience, but newspapers?
One of the laziest pieces of journalism ever concocted are “Man on the street” interviews in which papers and stations walk downtown or to the mall and interview people about something. (Last semester, I told students in my news writing class that they would know that they had crossed me if I assigned them a “man on the street” story.) This practice, as Tiffany Jones told me via Twitter, is a “man on the street” story one step further. I’m all for technology that makes work easier, but not when it doesn’t make it better. Stations and papers often even use a person’s Twitter name, which may not be a real name at all. Sloppy journalism for a lazy story.
With the advent of online commenting, the “man on the street” story for newspapers and TV stations became archaic. The conversation is held online in real time, rather than later on a newscast or in the paper when, of course, people could not participate in the discussion.
So, what should the news organization do?
1. Participate online. Most news orgs have a presence on social media, broadcasting stories they have produced. Some go further, asking people about stories — often to harvest comments to air or publish. Fewer still actually respond to people. And only a handful, I’m guessing, act as if they are people, talking about the sorts of things people talk about on social networks….or within a community. You know, responding to comments and complaints. Thanking people. Don’t know how? Check with Steve Buttry. He’ll help in a few easy lessons.
2. Get your staff members to participate on social networks as themselves. Again, participate as they do in real life, with all the zest that people do in real life.
3. Talk with people as a staff. Want to get connected with the community and show that you represent their voices? Don’t do it by airing comments by random people. Do it by finding out what stories they want reported and report them. Nothing connects people with their hometown newspaper or station than covering the kinds of stories that have relevance and importance in their lives.
4. Develop a personality. People have personalities. Does your news organization? I don’t mean the warm-and-fuzzy promotional campaigns that television stations put on. I mean, true personalities. People are funny and charming. They’re tart and opinionated. If you’re boring, your social circle will be small and people won’t feel connected to you. Let your writers loose. Let them write with more attitude and authority. They know what’s going on, and usually know the story behind the story. Let them tell it. If you’re uncomfortable with shedding the view from nowhere, at least move columnists and editorials to the front page. You don’t need to be the life of the party or the smartest person in the room. But you need to be an organization that is relevant, interesting and has something to say.
5. Be where people are. You can’t be of the community if you’re not there. Develop that mobile site, because that’s where people are gathering. If yours is hard to navigate or slow to load or out of date, it’s like getting to the party after everyone has gone home.
6. Help people find what they want to know. That means aggregating and curating. Even though this idea has been around for years, news organizations are still wedded to the idea that the only reporting of value is their own. When there was little competition, that was fine. Now, though, people get their news from everywhere. If you want to be at the center of the community, you need to gather information from everywhere and distribute it everywhere.
There are others — imagine the goodwill that you’d earn if you honored life’s passages by publishing obituaries and wedding announcements for free — but let’s start with the free ones. (OK, I know that No. 5 isn’t free, but it’s a necessity, whether you like it or not.)