Jeff Pulver’s 140 Character Conference — dedicated to all things Twitter — returned to New York City this past month for what I’m sure was it’s usual mix of evangelism, genuflecting and marketing pitches, plus some really useful food for thought.
I went to the one in Los Angeles back in October and really enjoyed it. The best thing about the #140Conf is that each speaker only gets 10 minutes to talk (15 for keynotes, 20 for panel discussions), so if you don’t like a topic, it’ll be done soon.
One of the NYC speakers was J-school teacher/media commentator/blogger extraordinaire Jeff Jarvis. Pacing back and forth across the stage, Jarvis spoke on why “Comments are backwards.”
“The topic today is that comments blow,” he said in only the way Jarvis can.
He said this statement comes after years of defending comments, saying they were the voice of the people, even though newspapers think they’re “the voice of assholes,” and that “somebody ruined this because they said, ‘shit.’”
Why this happens, Jarvis continued, is because comments happen after a story is done. We publish our stories and throw them over a wall and say, “OK, now you can comment.” So people do, they talk to the wall but there’s no response, so they shout at the wall, then they swear at the wall. Still, no response.
I totally agree with this. At my last paper, we weren’t allowed to comment back to readers. I thought, as Jarvis would say, this is bullshit. We want readers to engage with the paper online but then we give them the cold shoulder, unless to deny them access after they’ve become too unruly trying to get attention.
I bypassed all this by setting up a MySpace account (this was that prehistoric era before Facebook) for the A&E section I was in charge of and constantly interacted with my readers. I left them comments; I switched around the page’s top friends. I made playlists of the bands playing in town that week. I was building an audience by simply acknowledging that audience.
Side note: However, I doubt many of the people I interacted with on MySpace actually read the paper, so from an advertising and circulation perspective, they were useless. But to me, they were just as important and we certainly shouldn’t discount them outright, which would be the newspaper’s knee-jerk reaction. Instead, we just need to figure out a way to monetize this different audience.
Back to Jarvis: We look at the Internet as the medium, he said, and that brings baggage. With the medium assumption, we bring along the expectation that it’s all finished and packaged with a bow on it. And then, said Jarvis, someone says “shit,” they’ve ruined it.
“We expect comments to look like the New York Times, when they look like life.”
The Internet is not a medium; it’s a place where people connect. It’s a place of interactions and transactions, said Jarvis.
He went on to point out the Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project, which is:
“an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process with the focus on Digital First and Print Last. Using only free tools found on the Internet, the project will – from assigning to editing- create, publish and distribute news content on both the web and in print,” according to the project’s free WordPress site.
Additionally, the using free Web-based tools, reporters will interact with the audience/users to get story assignments (an “open-sourced assignment desk”) and while the story is being reported.
“The presumption is you’re working with a wise crowd,” said Jarvis.
Admittedly, as a reporter, the initial idea of this makes me cringe, until I realize I’m already doing this. I’m already using Twitter and Facebook to report stories. Often, though, that’s still a one-sided process. This is a way of keeping the reader included in the reporting process, not just as someone on Twitter who might be good for quote.
It’s an interesting experiment to keep an eye on, especially if the Register Journal Company can make money from this.