Friday, 26 September 2008

'Readers should be seen but not heard':
breaking the habit of three lifetimes

It wasn't so long ago that the only input a reader would have with his local paper would be through the letters pages ... or if he went on a killing spree and ended up as the splash.

Today things are different. Now we want readers to tell us their opinions. At the end of every other story we ask 'What do you think?'

But why aren't our readers flocking to our forums to have their views aired?

Our forums seem to be the stomping ground of the hardcore, or those with a particular axe to grind. We don't seem to be attracting our usual demographic of readers or the number of commenters which our weighty tomes should warrant.


Well firstly, for 200 years or more we've asked our readers to listen to us - 'We're the voice of authority'. And now, for the first time ever, we are inviting them to air their views. It will take a bit longer than a web 2.0 week to change the habit of three healthy lifetimes.

If we continue to cover stories which are relevant to the communities which we cover, then people will slowly come around to realise that they can have a say on issues which directly relate to them.

Secondly, and I know this from personal experience, some journalists (notice I only say 'some') love the sound of their own voice. They think it's their opinions that count. They could have a one-man meeting and still overrun. But, and this is the problem, there are journalists out there who haven't mastered the reporter's number one skill - the art of listening.

It takes more more than one person to have a conversation. And that applies to forums too.

Reporters should be using forums as an opportunity to communicate with their readers. Forums are an opportunity to quickly get involved in a conversation with large numbers of people who are affected by the issues we write about. Why wouldn't we converse with them? Why wouldn't we use it as a platform to source opinions, views and even stories?

This is something that works. Just last year one of the titles I work on posted a story online about a local marine who was serving in Afghanistan and who strapped himself to the outside of a helicopter to go and recover the body of a fallen comrade. We started a thread on the title's forums asking for readers to send their best wishes to the brave soldier. The first comment was from the man's proud father.

Forums could be a fertile ground for journalists, not just the stomping ground of the green ink brigade.

I feel a project coming on ... I'll keep you posted.


Lalalaura said...

I completely agree we need to encourage the average Jo to get involved - but often leaving a forum comment involves so many sign up hurdles I suspect all but the most militant are put off.

Too many fields to fill out makes you feel like your spontaneous comment is a Big Deal - and that's the exact opposite of a free flowing lively debate.

Classic example is how much feedback we get when live blogging versus how long it takes to get a forum fired up.

Kevin Matthews said...

Any hurdles are bound to be a block on comments, and at present our forums certainly make our readers jump more than a few.
Removing any unnecessary obstacles is essential.