For journalists, interacting with readers isn’t just good practice — it could mean survival

There are any number of paradigm shifts that are taking place in media and journalism thanks to the web, including a massive decline in advertising revenue and the related contortions that has forced on the media business. I don’t want to downplay those factors, but for me one of the most important changes of all is the one that journalism professor Jay Rosen summed up years ago when he referred to “the people formerly known as the audience” — that is, the change from a one-way broadcast model to a multi-directional social model of journalism.
In many ways, this shift — which Dan Gillmor also described in his book We The Media — has been the hardest shift of all for journalists and media outlets of all kinds to adapt to, even some of those who are supposedly “digital native.” Why? Because so much of what we think of as journalism has been one-way for decades, apart from throw-away engagement efforts like radio call-in shows, TV “streeter” interviews and the vast wasteland known as blog comments.

Teaching social journalism

That’s why I’m in favor of CUNY’s plan to offer a master’s course in “social and community journalism” as part of its journalism school program, which Jeff Jarvis wrote about recently in a post on Medium. As he describes it, the course would focus on helping young journalists develop the skills required to engage with readers or viewers or listeners — and not just through comments or Twitter, but through actual interaction aimed at improving their journalism.

“Journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things. To provide a service with relevance and value requires knowing those you serve, and to do that requires building relationships with those people.”

At this point, the ubiquity of interactive tools like Twitter (s twtr), Facebook (s fb), Instagram and so on — not to mention just the web itself — means they are taken for granted, and therefore often wind up not being used to their full potential. Many journalists are convinced that posting links to their content on Twitter or Facebook is a good thing, because maybe it will result in clicks, but how many actually use those tools in a truly interactive way as part of the journalism they do?
This is part of the reason why I spend so much time looking at alternative methods, whether it’s the way Andy Carvin used Twitter during the Arab Spring or the way Reddit is trying to create tools for live-blogging of the news, and how communities like the Syrian War sub-Reddit are using them — or how Storyful can team up with blogger Brown Moses to do “open journalism” through a Google+ page.

All journalism should be open journalism

There are traditional journalists who are models of engagement, including people like New York Times columnist and foreign correspondent Nick Kristof or CNN host and former NYT media writer Brian Stelter. But in many cases, the best examples of engaging with a community seem to come from outside the world of traditional journalism — from people like Carvin, or former Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald, or Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan, or even VC Fred Wilson on his blog.
You can see some of the culture clash between traditional views of journalism and community-centered ones emerge whenever the topic of reader comments comes up, which is why I find myself writing about it so often, and defending the value they can have. The reaction to sites that get rid of comments or hand them over to Facebook is often about how terrible comments are — how they are filled with spam and trolls, etc. But the sub-text is usually about how journalists are too busy doing the important work of journalism to spend time actually talking to their readers.
Ghost town
This kind of position is easy to defend: After all, journalism is important, and wading through hundreds of dumb comments made by people who never even finished the blog post before submitting their thoughts seems like a waste of time. Maybe it’s better if people just posted things to Twitter or talked about your journalism on Facebook or wherever — why do you even have to be involved? You have many other important pieces of journalism to produce. Says Jarvis:

“The first skill we will teach in this new program is listening to a community, hearing and discerning its needs and then thinking about how best to help it meet those needs. The answer sometimes?—?often?—?will be reporting and content. But it can also mean connecting the members of the community to each other to share information themselves.”

Interaction makes for better journalism

The biggest single reason to engage (to use an over-used term) with readers or the people formerly known as the audience is that it makes your journalism better — maybe not right away, and maybe not in every case, but over the long term, hearing from readers improves your understanding of what you are writing about. And that applies to virtually every topic that is worth doing journalism on.
The other reason to do this is that journalism and media in general are becoming much more about person-to-person interaction and relationships, rather than person-to-institution or person-to-brand relationships. Do traditional journalism brands like the New York Times still have power? Of course they do — but individual brands within those institutions have much more than they used to, which is why writers like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein and Kara Swisher and dozens of others have left to carve out their own enterprises.
And if that future continues, and going directly to readers for funding becomes the norm — the way journalists like Andrew Sullivan and Jessica Lessin and the writers behind De Correspondent and Beacon Reader are doing — then a strong relationship with a community of readers and fans whom you engage with regularly isn’t just a recipe for good journalism, it could be a recipe for survival.
Because it seemed relevant, here’s a Storify of a conversation I had on Twitter with Wall Street Journal reporter Gautham Nagesh about the value of public interaction:

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Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock/ Digital Vision, as well as Thinkstock / mangostock and Thinkstock / icompass