participatory journalism and the future

Recently I’ve noticed more sites that don’t allow comments — not like in the old days of the internet where some sites just didn’t have the programming knowledge to have comments, but sites deliberately excluding comments. Sites like Vox, Pacific Standard, and most New York Times articles. Vox and PS are both relatively new, and it seems like a conscious decision. I’m guessing Vox’s rationale is that they want their explanatory articles to feel like the definitive guide to that subject, without unruly commenters butting in to say the reporter forgot something or got something wrong.

But Pacific Standard’s lack of comments is kind of mystifying, because they seem like the type of thought-provoking, modern site that would invite discussion. I’ve read some amazing articles there — like this moving piece about the woman who accidentally invented artisanal toast. She opened a tiny cafe on a shoestring, as a last-ditch effort to deal with her psychotic episodes by connecting more with people, and struck on a menu of coconuts, coffee, grapefruit juice and thick-sliced toast in order to spur customer conversations. I really wanted to know what other people thought of the article. But… no comments allowed!

Your typical internet comments section.

I think some sites are getting wary of the vitriolic comment wars that can appear on the most innocuous articles — I once saw a discussion on a Mozart YouTube video turn hateful within the first four responses to a comment, as one person disagreed with the other over whether Mozart was the best composer. By the 10th comment, people were saying stuff like, “I’m praying you never have children” and that the other person was “what’s wrong with this country.” All that was missing was a comparison to Hitler or a “Thanks Obama!”

But it’s a shame not to allow comments. Many people, including me, find some of the best material in the comments, often better than the article itself. Sites like Gawker use comments effectively by asking questions and then publishing the most interesting comments, or asking for updates or tips on breaking news. Other sites have moderators to keep out the worst trolls and haters.

In a Nieman Lab article about reader engagement and comments, Jake Batsell writes positively about some articles that accumulated thousands of comments, and how journalists can best use comments. I thought his comparison with traditional print journalism was interesting:

Had he been assigned a reflective piece like the where-was-God story during his days at the magazine, Gilgoff told me, he might have interviewed ten or twelve sources for a seven-hundred-word story that left 90 percent of his reporting on the cutting-room floor. He also probably would have moved along after writing that single story. “Before, you would think a story has come and gone,” he said. “What the Internet allows you to do is see that people are still talking about it. We didn’t know that a few years ago.”

One benefit of the internet is that all previous articles are still available. An article can still have an active comment conversation days or months after it’s published. And you never know what readers are going to react to. My most-shared article at the Emerald was a piece about a self-harm support group on campus, which was very surprising, since I had written a lot of articles I would have assumed would be more popular. [Unfortunately I can’t link to the article because the Emerald’s redesign has apparently deleted all my old articles. 😦 ]

The internet also allows for infinite material on a subject, if readers want it… and almost every topic, no matter how obscure, has legions of obsessed readers who want to read more. I like the idea of being able to use all that reporting that was “on the cutting room floor.” When I read an article about something really fascinating — like the artisanal toast lady — I would love to read the full text of the interview, or get more details that were left out of the original piece. Some sites now offer this as supplemental material.

In another Nieman Lab article about broadening the scope of journalism, Jonathan Stray writes, “Journalism is just one part of a broader information ecosystem that includes everything from wire services to Wikipedia to search engines.”

I just finished writing a 13-page research paper about how the WIkileaks phenomenon caused journalists to have an identity crisis because here was someone with no journalistic training — Julian Assange — working separate from any media organization, publishing groundbreaking information, including a video that Reuters had tried to get through FOIA for two years. At first I assumed that Assange, who called himself the “editor-in-chief” of Wikileaks, was not a “real” journalist. But after a while I realized that the whole question is a little silly and kind of a waste of time.

Traditional journalists like Bill Keller, who worked with Assange to get the leaks but then wanted to distance themselves from him, fell all over themselves to try to make Assange look uncouth and “not a real journalist,” by writing tasteless columns focusing on everything from Assange’s supposedly dirty shirt to his strange mannerisms and comparing him to “like a bag lady walking in off the street”… hardly how a journalist would write about a colleague or even a source, especially after Assange had given the Times the scoop of the century by allowing them first publishing rights, along with the Guardian, for thousands of leaked documents.

Many of the scholars I read for this paper discussed how the harsh treatment of Assange in the media was a reaction to traditional reporters feeling threatened by both the changing media landscape to how people like Assange were making them seem irrelevant. Finding explosive documents was the traditional territory of the investigative reporter, and here was someone doing just that, for free, and without the backing of the traditional media.

Stray ends his piece about expanding what he calls “editorial products” by saying:

I’ve used the word “editorial” to sidestep discussion of what “news” or “journalism” is. To ask that question misses the point of what it does. And there has been a strange lack of innovation here.

I agree. I think journalists have been so desperate not to lose their jobs or their identity that they have become entrenched in an old, outdated model of what journalism “is.” It doesn’t matter what journalists think it is, because the journalists are not who gets to decide — the readers are the ones who are voting with their clicks.

An artist’s rendering of the internet masses storming the gates of Real Journalism.

One of my first professors at UO, a man from India with an advertising background who was teaching J201, said something that really annoyed me one day. I have practically worshipped the paper edition of the NYT since I was around 13 (now 33!), and he was talking one day about the downfall of print and the defensive, old-fashioned attitudes of print media.

He said, “The New York Times is saying, ‘You’re going to miss us when we’re gone’ — that’s not a very good business model!”

I was extremely annoyed and insulted when he said that, because at the time I agreed with the Times, and I resented his pointing out that news has to be a business, when I wanted to happily hide my head in the sand and read my beloved paper without thinking about these tawdry issues related to making a profit and staying afloat.

I was thinking, “Business model! — pff, real journalists don’t even have a business model! We are artists, writing the truth, and if readers can’t appreciate that, screw them.”

But now I think I agree with him… wagging a finger and arguing that this or that “isn’t journalism” or trying to hold the gates of Real Journalism closed when the internet revolution is rioting at the gates — this is all very counter-productive. For journalism to survive it has to listen to what people want.

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