Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blog comments can be the new 'Letters to the Editor'

The letters page of a daily newspaper is the most mixed of mixed bags.
Various papers I've worked for had different approaches to it; some banned 'round robin' type endorsement letters ostensibly written by celebs ('hello, I'm Gloria Hunniford and I'd like everyone from Southampton to get behind National Gut Week), others stuck them on the page with a murmur of relief that some of the gaping space had been filled.
Some resorted to getting staff to write letters when there weren't enough to fill a page and one (the South Wales Argus - take a bow for honesty, folks) only ran a letters page if there were enough local letters to fill one.

If a news story attracts maybe six letters we tend to see it as a major talking point; it merits follow ups and, sometimes, a letters page special. Then we're all very pleased about how we've engaged readers in debate.
So, if six letters mean a news story has engaged readers, what do we make of this blog post about Steve Coogan's 'woeful' show at the Echo Arena in Liverpool?

To say it's provoked debate is a serious understatement: 37 comments and counting on the blog; the online statistics show it's the most viewed news story on our site at the moment.
The post itself was run in the paper as a review, uploaded to the LDP website as a review and also placed on the Comedy Blog (with a cross-ref from the online review). It's a fascinating debate being held between readers, some of whom are responding to Vicky Anderson, some to each other. It's wonderful to see an article take on such a life and identity of its own.

And more than that, it's generating content for the newspaper too. After all, a great debate doesn't just have to exist online - we're taking it into print tomorrow, by reverse publishing the blog comments. We'll also be asking Mr Coogan for a response. Be interesting to see what, if anything, comes back from 'his people'...

The Coogan review is, as far as I'm concerned, important for a number of reasons:
1. It effectively puts paid to any argument that only people from outside the circulation area read newspaper's online sites. The comments here have been posted by local people who attended the show. Whether they enjoyed it or not, they are from our circulation area.

2. People want to interact through blogs. Would these posters have written a letter to the editor? I'm willing to bet not one of them would have put pen to paper (also, we received just two emailed responses). All the comments were posted directly onto the blog. Search analysis showed that people were actively looking for somewhere to comment - typical search terms were 'Coogan + review', which would indicate the blog post was being discussed and people were then going online to find it. I find that very interesting.

3. A blog post is potentially more valuable to users than stories that are seeded by newspapers on their forums in the hope of sparking debate. These posters could have gone to our online forum, but then they would have had to join, if they weren't already members, fill in the form and accept the verification email, start a topic and write an opinion. Here, they simply entered a conversation already initiated by the blog post.

4. Blogs can create content. We aren't reverse publishing these comments to fill space, we're sharing a conversation created by a review on a blog, and we are looking to move that debate on - not only have the comments themselves become a story, they also demonstrate the need for the subject (in this case Steve Coogan) to respond. Forums can work in the same way but the posts here, in the main, lend themselves to publication more readily.

It's got me wondering if we should try running a 'news' blog, with reporters posting versions of stories, along with their own observations. It would be interesting to see what sort of reaction we got from readers. Of course, such an action would also reopen the 'enabling comments under stories' debate, and all the associated legal discussions that surrounds that.
But newspapers are there to provoke debate; if readers demonstrate that they want to discuss stories and events on blogs, when surely our websites have to reflect that?

UPDATE: The Independent picked up on the Coogan blog row today; it's the p3 lead and the Editor's Choice online. The Daily Mail also reported it. While both saw fit to mention the debate was kicked off by a blog post, neither saw the need to link to it. How poor...
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