About 10 years ago, a group of McClatchy executives asked the founding editor of Wired magazine where he thought the Internet would rank among human inventions. Was it like television or, perhaps even more profound, like moveable type?

“I think,” Kevin Kelly told us, “that it’s more like fire.”

Our CEO later cautioned that humorist Dave Barry had conversely described the Internet as the greatest advance in communications since call waiting. Reality, he said, was probably somewhere in-between those extremes: fire and call waiting.

From where I sit, as executive editor of the Anchorage Daily News, I’m more in the moveable-type school of thinking. The Internet (and everything that catch-all name has come to mean) certainly represents the greatest technological innovation to hit the newsroom in my lifetime. The introduction of cold type or the addition of computers for word processing and data crunching were insignificant when compared with the World Wide Web.

Even so, as Kelly’s comment reminds us, the Internet hype can get pretty thick at times. One way to get beyond the hyperbole is to deal with one piece of the discussion at a time. Instead of talking broadly about “The Internet and the Future of Journalism,” let’s pose a narrower question: “What does this have to do with how we talk with readers?” And note that I use the word “with” and not “to” precisely because the choice of preposition lies at the heart of all that is changing for those of us at newspapers.

Our traditional communication with readers and viewers was one-way: we transmitted and readers received. We were a priesthood, delivering truth to the masses. But that catechism is disintegrating before our eyes. Thanks to the Internet’s interactivity, the masses are talking back. Editors no longer deal simply with an occasional reader calling to complain or a local gadfly writing a critical letter to the editor. Every reader becomes a potential writer, media critic, and publisher.

This potential offers a distinctly mixed blessing for those of us who work at newspapers and for our readers. Already I’ve experienced mixed results at the Daily News because of the availability and ease of these interactions; even so, we’re about to wade in to encouraging more Web-based communication again.

The Conversation Ends

Our paper’s initial experience with broad, Internet-based reader participation calls to mind a recent public radio story I heard about the decline of New England town meetings. After 200 years, going back to at least Alexis de Tocqueville, these annual expressions of direct democracy apparently are losing favor among their constituents.

One reason seems to involve the rancor and contentiousness of citizens trying to find common ground on which to build consensus with their neighbors. (Real participatory democracy isn’t pretty, perhaps especially not during this time of bitter partisanship.)

I’ve never attended a New England town meeting, but that story struck a chord here because I did try—and failed—to create a place on my newspaper’s Web site aimed at roughly the same purpose: a place where readers could write in to discuss the stories of the day and offer opinions on the newspaper’s coverage.

Our attempt began well enough. Articulate and well-informed readers posted thoughtful, interesting comments about the news and the newspaper. Some offered astute criticism of our coverage. Of course there were a few lunkheads, but overall the online forums extended and enhanced what we were trying to do in the newspaper. We had readers who wrote to give firsthand information about stories we were covering. A member of the family of a crime victim we hadn’t been able to track down wrote in and helped us flesh out the police account of a tragedy.

This is good, I thought. A hundred thousand fact checkers can add a lot to a newspaper’s coverage of a story.

But it wasn’t long before things started to go bad. A small group of people began to write constantly. They were neither the best-informed nor most thoughtful participants. Instead they were profane, bitter, shallow, racist and relentless. Little by little, their ignorant and mean-spirited comments began to predominate. They were prolific. They didn’t appear to hold jobs or even sleep. Ultimately their words set a tone for the forum that discouraged reasonable, intelligent, considerate voices from participating.

I couldn’t blame the good participants for dropping out—I would have, too—but their departure further solidified the hold of the snarling pack, reinforcing a downward spiral that eventually convinced me that this particular experiment in involving readers in the paper had gone irredeemably wrong. In the end, I was happy to shut it down.

I wish I could say I understand the psychology behind what happened. But I don’t. Why would an effort to let readers talk with their newspaper’s editors and reporters and with each other attract people so eager to unleash their intolerance and mean-spiritedness? It called to mind a former colleague’s description of talk radio as “a place where people go to pool their ignorance.”

When we had started this online forum I hadn’t viewed the editor’s gatekeeping role as including the imposition of civility on public debate, but in retrospect that seems to be one of the things we need to do.

Renewing the Dialogue

Time has passed, and I’m ready to give this effort another try. I’m sure the bad actors or their cousins will show up again. But in an attempt to stop from happening what derailed our last attempt, this time forum participants will need to register on the site, and we’ll be able to cut off registrants who don’t behave themselves. We know that’s more of a speed bump than a barrier, since banned users can create a new e-mail address, reregister and return. But we’ve also built in new mechanisms for screening and removing postings and better ways for the community of users to regulate itself.

Will this new venture into the free-for-all marketplace of ideas work better than it did the first time we tried it? Time will tell but, so far, the cyber town square seems to be one of those places where the hype about a glorious Internet—free from the strictures of old media gatekeepers—seems better in concept than in reality. But we’re going to keep at it until we find something that works.

Figuring out how we get our readers to talk with us, talk with each other, and contribute to the journalistic mission of the newspaper, is a puzzle we need to solve. Smart newspaper editors are engaged in doing this. Surely it is clear to every editor that we must learn how to extend our core mission into the online world if we want to survive and thrive. I’m convinced, for example, that the battle for the time and attention of young readers will be won or lost on our Web sites, not on the pages of our newspapers. Soon the Daily News will be asking readers to submit reviews of movies, concerts, plays, restaurants and nightclubs. We plan to post all of these reviews online and publish the best of them in the newspaper.

At the same time, we’re redesigning our in-paper entertainment guide, which will be accompanied by the launch of a four-page, free distribution sheet focused on movies, dining and nightlife. Both will feed content to and promote an expanded Web site aimed at 18- to 30-year-olds. We might be wildly successful, or we might not. If this works well, we’ll do more of it. If it doesn’t, we won’t just retreat. We’ll try something else.

The Role of the Blog

I am also writing an editor’s blog. Why? Mainly because I want to explore the potential of a newspaper blog before I commit other precious newsroom resources to this possible new venture. If it works the way I hope it will, the readers and I will have an ongoing, online conversation about the newspaper and what appears (and does not appear) in it each day. Writing this blog will also test my skepticism about whether blogging can live up to its hype. Some blogs seem like little more than guest columns or expansive letters to the editor. Others offer personal commentary, ranging from what might appear in a newspaper column to a more intimate diary entry.

Is the blog a fundamentally new form of communication? I don’t think so, but I do hear a lot of nervous talk about them among editors. Do newspapers need to jump on the blog bandwagon? Maybe. Blogging certainly seems a wonderful way to do something—but what that “something” is for newspapers still seems in need of exploration.

Some would say that the recent high-water mark of noninstitutional news blogging was the dissection and discrediting of the CBS News report on President Bush’s National Guard Service. Smart people asking tough questions and ferreting out information for an Internet audience could not be ignored. This was a socially useful activity and one that was fundamentally journalistic, even if motivated by political partisanship.

A different type of blog is “Dooce,” the online personal journal of a Salt Lake City housewife. This is just a window—a clever, funny window—on the life of a regular person. It’s interesting, entertaining material. If I were the editor of a Salt Lake paper, I’d be trying to get material like that into the paper. In my judgment, this is also journalism, a personal form of it.

Newspapers are getting busy with blogs. Some are insider, backstory material or analysis, some are personal musings, some are editor columns. And I haven’t seen much that was good in the blogosphere that wouldn’t have been good on the pages of a newspaper, if newspapers could loosen up the standard newspaper template.

Changes wrought by the Internet demand that newspapers innovate, and that means experimentation as we move beyond the boundaries of our known world. This is the world of “ready, fire, aim,” as another colleague puts it. But this is certainly not how newspapers—these conservative, change-averse institutions that we love so much—usually operate.

Can we learn to adapt? I think so, but not without pain. Certainly we have sufficient motivation. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Knowing you are to be hanged in a fortnight does wonderfully concentrate the mind.”

Patrick Dougherty, a 1989 Nieman Fellow, is executive editor and senior vice president of the Anchorage Daily News.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment