Listening again to the community management panel at SXSW (that I posted about here), and trying to relate any of it to my own practice as a journalist, one thing stood out. Reddit community manager Erik Martin‘s comments criticisizing writers within mainstream media organisations who don’t go into comment threads and involve themselves within the debate got me thinking.
Martin claimed that if writers weren’t replying to comments and changing stories as a result of remarks made within these threads, then there was very little having them at all.
As someone who has worked in several newsrooms of local newspapers, I find this criticizm a little simplistic. Agreed, most of the websites of such organisations are behind the times, and I doubt many of them even employ a community manager (rather a techy online person to deal with all things web-based), but critics need to be fair to the journalists themselves.
I wrote many stories over Christmas for a large regional daily, some of which received a lot of reaction from readers via comment threads on the website (hell, one story had over 50, yes, 50, comments). Some of these comments were simply opinions on the matter at hand, which, for a news piece, surely don’t require a response fom the writer, so the criticism falls flat there.
Others, were criticism of the story, or the writing of it. On several occasions, I was tempted to reply and explain why x or y wasn’t included, or, if they’d let me explain, what certain things meant. However, as the lowest rung on the ladder, I felt wary of indulging in an author’s backlash, for fear it would taint the paper’s reputation and land me with me a ticking off from the big men (and women) in suits.
It’s true, papers are still working with a top-down model of journalism, and they don’t feel they are answerable to their readers, and it is not the fault of individual journalists if they feel trapped by such a system. When I was at the aforementioned regional, there was no option for authors to sign in as contributors and reply in any kind of authoratative sense.
So, should journalists also have to be community managers too? In a job that is high-pressure and time-contsrained enough already, are we really expected to take the time to moderate feedback and adapt our stories according to it?
What this brings up is a far wider issue surrounding journalism. If writers are to go on and join the mud-slinging in comment threads, what is there to separate them with the great unwashed that lurk there?