Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Partnering with readers

The News & Observer made a big splash this morning on the metro cover, asking readers to help the paper report a big new project about speeders on the freeways. They're looking for anecdotes, personal stories and even on-the-scene reporting to help amplify a staff reporting project.

Here's what DME Dan Barkin had to say about the effort in a note to staffers today:

One thing I have learned in the two months that I have been in my job is that you can't be subtle and get readers to participate in what we do. In for a dime, in for a dollar. That shouldn't be surprising.

Stories with large headlines and a bold presentation get more readership, more often than not, than items that we tuck away somewhere. That was the thinking behind today's City & State display. Without giving away the store, we wanted to tell readers what Pat Stith and Mandy Locke and David Raynor are reporting and
enlist their help.

There's a risk here. We have tipped off any other competitors that we are working on this story. But I haven't figured out a way to get input from readers any other way.

This morning, we got an email from a woman named Lynn Carter who said "I have always wanted to tell my story." A fellow named Bruce White emailed us and recounted his experience recently in court in Orange County: "The judge starts out by saying “no one here will receive any points on your insurance today”.

The typical model that we have followed since Moby Dick was a guppy is that we publish our stories and then we get feedback -- emails, phone calls, letters to the editor -- from people who have lots to add from their experiences and knowledge.

At that point, we're typically done with the story.

Thanks for calling, we say.

That is a frustrating model, because we wish we had been able to find these folks before publication. It doesn't tap into the intellectual capital of the community, and as you know, we have intellectual capital here in abundance. Drilling a well into it is difficult. Even the best source-developing journalists only tap into a fraction of
the potential, and only through the most labor-intensive effort.

More importantly, perhaps, it also doesn't give the public a stake in us. They are passive recipients of our labors.

The reader participation model is different. It tells the public -- intense readers, casual readers, non-readers if they hear about it secondhand -- that we're working on something that they may know something about, and asks them to share their knowledge with us and the community.

What will we do with this knowledge? In some cases, it will give us leads to follow up. Surely, if there is a judge in Orange County who routinely proclaims that it's no-points day in court, that is something that we probably didn't know, but it sure is interesting.
In some cases, we can publish selected excerpts of comments. I am learning today through phone calls and emails what people think the "real" speed limit is.

Stripped down to its core, reader participation..citizen journalism, whatever you call it, relies on the fundamental truth that people like to be asked. We live in a world of disconnected, alienated citizens who feel powerless. While we may not feel like we are in Fortress McClatchy, we are to those who don't have the access that the powerful and the advocacy groups have. The popularity of social networking in cyberspace, I'm convinced, is because it makes people feel connected, part of a community. But there is something unfulfilling about most social networking, because it goes to no end most of the time. The journalism that we do is connected to a purpose -- to make life better in the community.
Potentially, this is a very, very powerful force that can transform us in the eyes of the community.

It won't happen overnight, but it can happen.

Thanks to Adelaide Nash for the presentation, which makes a big difference.

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