It must be Sunday, because here I write another introduction to a chapter from my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. Section 2 introduces five journalisms—contextual and process were presented the previous two weeks. Next up, conversational journalism applies community concepts from local newspapers to the expansive Internet audience, which is actively engaged wherever and on whatever device it may be.
Please also read the other excerpts: Foreward and from Section 1, Chapters, I and II, III and IV, V and VI to grasp the logical flow. Reminder: The book releases into the public domain soon after the serialization completes.
With that introduction…
III. Conversational Journalism
Viner’s statement is excellent segue to journalism as a conversion, which is tightly-knit to process. The difference is engagement. Process journalism is more passive, such as using a soundly-sourced rumor or partially-developed story to generate reaction and to advance the reporting. Conversational journalism is more active, more ongoing personal interaction with the audience. Think cliché two sides of the same coin.
I stumbled onto process journalism, unexpectedly, in June 2010, after accusing blogger John Gruber of running a “bully pulpit”, in part because he maintains a no-comment policy. (Gruber gets more treatment in the discussion of advocacy journalism.) Doreen Marchionni, currently a visiting assistant professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University, offered valuable input for the ruckus that followed (Gruber fans are passionate!), from her PhD studies.
Conversational journalism is in its simplest form, and most appropriately for the age of context:
- Establishing personality—you the writer are a real person, not an automaton
- Including readers in the reporting and storytelling process, wherever they are online
- Writing stories in a more conversational style that appeals to and better engages wider audiences
For local newspaper reporters, conversational journalism should already be a way of life, assuming they become involved in their local communities. In the age of context, the community is much larger. Services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr are a global village, where writers from everywhere can actively engage readers, some of whom will be sources, too.
Birds of a Feather
I contacted Marchionni for any new conversational journalism insights. However, because of teaching commitments, she couldn’t immediately contribute but plans to respond after publication (I explain why that fits my broader plans for the book in the Afterword). Her past advice for journalists, in 2009 for Poynter and 2011 during South by Southwest, is nevertheless current.
“Audiences are constantly sizing you up”, Marchionni says. “Not only are they sizing you up, they’re constantly looking for themselves in you—the writer or the journalist…Our audiences are essentially trying to figure out if the journalist we may or may not want to follow is similar to us”. She adds: “It’s birds of a feather flocked together”.
The observation, which she backs with quantifiable data, reveals something that should be obvious—people relate to people—but is too often lost in the news media’s obsession with objectivity. The monotone writing style many news organizations demand for reasons of objectivity distances reporters from their audiences.
News has long been about personalities, so why resist? Why else are there news anchors or TV programs branded by reporter or commentator rather than network? Consider newspaper personalities: Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert died in 2013 but his name is such a strong brand new movie reviews continue at the website bearing his name.
Audience is everything, but during the age of context the hub shifts from news brands to personalities. It’s your audience. Readers come looking for you and to get the content you produce. They want to believe in you. Conversational journalism builds trust.
Marchionni encourages journalists to:
Actively engage audiences via Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook and/or other social-networking tools. They work well in crowd-sourcing stories, and online audiences get them…
Care about interesting stories. Audience members’ pure interest in story topic often determined whether they viewed conversational news as distinct from traditional, and whether that conversation might be more credible or authoritative. Interest also determined whether they simply liked a story, perhaps enough to keep coming back to a site.
The most important conversation is when the audience engages you. The news gatherer reaches across social services, and people reach back. They reciprocate. In a report published online December 2013 and in print February 2014, Mark Coddington, Avery Holton, and Seth Lewis propose “reciprocal journalism”. They write:
At a time of tension between professional control and open participation in digital communication…when news organizations are desperate for engagement with audiences and yet also reluctant to allow audiences into the news construction process, reciprocal journalism suggests seeing journalists in a new light: as community-builders who can forge connections with and among community members by establishing patterns of reciprocal exchange. By more readily acknowledging and reciprocating the input of audiences, and by fostering spaces for audiences to reciprocate with each other, journalists can begin to fulfill their normative purpose as stewards of the communities they serve.
What the authors describe is conversational journalism, where the news gatherer as trusted source takes on a larger role. Reciprocation is about engagement, response, and benefits. The news gatherer engages people in contextual venues, they respond, he or she responds back, and through the conversation both benefit.
As such, comments add to any conversation, despite ongoing debates among news organizations and other websites about so-called trolls. Social venues Facebook or Twitter engage audience where it is. In news story comments audience comes to you. Commenters create conversations around your content, and their engagement with you and other readers extends the narrative—becomes part of the storytelling—where your brand is strongest.
There are dynamics to group conversation, whether direct comments to your content or audience engagement elsewhere. Twitter is the textbook. The service’s 140-character limit, which narrows responses and makes them feel more immediate, feeds conversation. Insert appropriate metaphor about momma bird and chicks here. Reader’s choice.
In the United States, as previously stated, only about 8 percent of the adult population uses Twitter, but the service increasingly is where people look for news and to discuss it—making the social service one of the best for conversational journalism.
February 2014 Pew Research report “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters” is a fascinating look at the social groups that form around topics. Pew identifies “six different kinds of network crowds”, two of which I call out.
The first, Community Clusters:
Some popular topics may develop multiple smaller groups, which often form around a few hubs each with its own audience, influencers, and sources of information. These Community Clusters conversations look like bazaars with multiple centers of activity. Global news stories often attract coverage from many news outlets, each with its own following. That creates a collection of medium-sized groups—and a fair number of isolates.
Why this matters: Some information sources and subjects ignite multiple conversations, each cultivating its own audience and community. These can illustrate diverse angles on a subject based on its relevance to different audiences, revealing a diversity of opinion and perspective on a social media topic.
The second, Broadcast Network:
Twitter commentary around breaking news stories and the output of well-known media outlets and pundits has a distinctive hub and spoke structure in which many people repeat what prominent news and media organizations tweet. The members of the Broadcast Network audience are often connected only to the hub news source, without connecting to one another. In some cases there are smaller subgroups of densely connected people— think of them as subject groupies—who do discuss the news with one another.
Why this matters: There are still powerful agenda setters and conversation starters in the new social media world. Enterprises and personalities with loyal followings can still have a large impact on the conversation.
Poop the Scoop
Conversational journalism is more than about readers and collaborating with them. “The ‘news story’ is every day becoming more like a dynamic, living conversation than a series of discrete, disjointed, atomized points of view”, writer Maria Bustillos asserts. She refers to Twitter as “a combination newsroom, water cooler, stock ticker, and gossip mill, and still utterly addictive to journalists. Among its many other benefits, Twitter has crystallized a certain realization for me about the future of news: the increasing tendency of a set group of talented writers to coalesce around a given topic”.
One deterrent to process and conversational journalisms and news gatherers chatting around the virtual water cooler: The scoop. The journalist hot on the trail of the big story might resist engaging in an audience willing to participate in reporting the story and even extending it, for fear of being trumped by a competitor.
“The scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism”, Jarvis warns.
Editors love reporters’ scoops. Corporate ego swells. Careers rise. But does audience grow because of the big scoop? No. Engaging readers and allowing them to participate in the reporting/storytelling process matters more.
Conversational journalism is all about audience engagement and participation.
Photo Credit: Svein Halvor Halvorsen