Sunday, 31 May 2009

How open are your lines of communication?

And yea, it is written that when four or more editorial execs are gathered together to forward plan the coverage of an impending Happening, one among them will, at some point, spake thusly: "We should do a liveblog".
And everyone else nods while secretly wishing they had suggested it, and the suggestee gains immense Multimedia Kudos and envy points.

Of course, 'we should do a liveblog' is just one of the options when playing Multimedia Newsroom Bingo. Other popular phrases include "Can we make a Dipity timeline", "What about a SurveyMonkey" (it's always 'a' SurveyMonkey - I love that) , "We could do some (ie. any) video" and that old favourite, "Get some comments off the forum" (ie. is there a workie who can translate all that textspeak into English?).

To be fair, I'm as happy to talk to the talk as the next meeting-attendee but there are times when it seems these meeting-friendly web 2.0 phrases disguise a deeper issue.
Because at the end of the day Dipity, liveblogs, surveys et al still come down to newsrooms trying to control what the story is. It's not quite one-way traffic but a contraflow is most definitely in operation and we're the ones in charge of the signals.
What we are really saying is this:
"Want to know the background to this story? Here's our Dipity timeline" (featuring our rss feeds and images)
"Want to take part and get involved? Join our liveblog" (and we'll pre-moderate comments, determine and set the polls and decide when it opens and closes)

Such an approach is massively counter-productive. Yes you might have a Googlemap on your website but will you allow your readers to contribute to it? If not, why not? Suppose you did allow anyone to edit and it backfired - would you risk such a venture again? Or is it a case of once bitten, twice shy?
And another starter for 10: Do you select the 'anyone can edit this' option when using Dipity? If you do, then you're creating an opportunity for collaboration. If not, why not?

These are, I think, important questions we newspaper-types need to ask ourselves not just once but repeatedly. Otherwise, even when we tell ourselves we're trying new ways to communicate, ultimately we're still dictating how news is presented and served up.
We may not necessarily control what happens to it next on other sites but on our own, it's pretty much ours to dictate.

But, look, the tradition model (write content, publish content in paper, sell shedload of newspapers), is gone. The current model of write content, upload some content, publish all content in print, is built on compromise and uncertainty. So where do we go from here? I don't have the answer but I think it might look something like:

Ask people/publish
Expand on what people tell us...
PUBLISH WHAT IS KNOWN allowing anyone to keep asking/adding to content
Conclude findings in print...
... and keep asking and listening because what you end up with may be completely different to the idea you started with

For me what makes a website sticky are the developments in a topic I care about. I go back to take part, see what others are saying, how things have changed, to comment and expand. I don't go back to watch a video of someone talking about a plan for a new housing estate.
I would dearly love to see the traditional newspaper website format replaced with something more akin to wikis and blogs. To have open-ended news gathering and reporting (where we don't close down the comment option after a week whether people have finished talking about it or not), and to have newsrooms embrace an approach where collaboration and partnerships are seen as opportunities.

Joanna Geary's latest blog post struck a chord with me when she said "I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves".
Too many times we try to finish a story, we present it as a neat package with a beginning, middle and end, and present it to the reader with a flourish. We follow up of course, and we may start a forum thread, or publish readers letters - increasingly reporters blog about their stories too, once they have written them.

But it's not enough. I'd love reporters to spend a week where none of their stories were featured in the newspaper - they would only be able to get their information out online, via a blog, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, a wiki - hell, they could even arrange a meeting at a local cafe and talk to people - anything but the printed page. I think it would be an eye-opener for everyone involved.
The way we currently operate - and I mean our wetware, not a company's hardware - inhibits our ability to share information and our thinking. That, in turn, inhibits our ability to grow audience, reach, reputation and, by extension, revenue. We're bright people; we can be better than this.
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