Should me­dia be held to a higher call­ing with au­di­ences?

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Lately there have a been a num­ber of ar­ti­cles in the me­dia about the cul­ture of journalism breed­ing dis­dain for their au­di­ences; pub­lish­ers clos­ing com­ments on their dig­i­tal prop­er­ties is a good ex­am­ple of the per­va­sive­ness of that mind-set.

I’ve shared my thoughts on this is­sue many times, but when I saw an an­nounce­ment from an ed­i­tor of a daily US news­pa­per to ban com­ments, I couldn’t help my­self – I had to re­spond, again.

In his com­men­tary, the ed­i­tor said he re­ally does want to talk to read­ers and have com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tions, but that they would have to been done through “let­ters to the ed­i­tor” – not ex­actly the open com­mu­nity-based con­ver­sa­tion to­day’s par­tic­i­pa­tory news con­sumers want and ex­pect.

But these de­ci­sions are never based on serv­ing the needs of read­ers, be­cause as some me­dia pro­fes­sion­als be­lieve, most read­ers are “id­iots”.

In a re­cent opin­ion piece, the ed­i­tor said he ac­tu­ally agreed with some on­line com­menters over a lo­cal city is­sue and that it “scared the day­lights” out of him. He re­ferred to those read­ers as our “learned on­line peanut gallery.”

“Learned on­line peanut gallery” is an in­ter­est­ing choice of words, don’t you think? Let’s dis­sect that a bit...

Ac­cord­ing to Ox­ford, a peanut gallery refers to the up­per the­atre “cheap seats” (where you’d find the un­washed masses)

The Amer­i­can Her­itage® Dic­tionary of the English Lan­guage de­fines a peanut gallery as “a group of peo­ple whose opin­ions are con­sid­ered unim­por­tant.”

The ed­i­tor’s unashamedly pub­lic in­sult of his au­di­ence (which one can only as­sume he thought was a witty form of sar­casm) re­minds me of a quote from The

New York Times best­selling au­thor, Cas­san­dra Clare, “Sar­casm is the last refuge of the imag­i­na­tively bank­rupt.”

This move to ban com­ments cer­tainly i sn’t con­sis­tent with what that same ed­i­tor preached two years ago when he wrote that what was needed on the Opin­ion Page was a spir­ited and healthy di­a­logue – some­thing he said could not hap­pen if folks were muz­zled. Ob­vi­ously he’s had a change of heart af­ter be­ing the tar­get of sub­scribers who don’t agree with his per­sonal opin­ions and bi­ases.

Now to be fair, he does have a way with words. His post is some­what amus­ing, pok­ing fun at a few of the crit­i­cisms he has re­ceived over the years from read­ers. But what isn’t funny is his dou­ble stan­dard when it comes to com­men­tary on is­sues peo­ple care about.

Read­ing through a num­ber of his ed­i­to­ri­als (which wasn’t easy or en­joy­able given the con­stant in­ter­rup­tion of in­tru­sive auto-play video ads spread through­out the page), it was pretty clear that the au­thor doesn’t hold back on shar­ing his per­sonal views about cer­tain peo­ple in busi­ness and pol­i­tics – views, that if writ­ten by one of his read­ers, would prob­a­bly have been mod­er­ated out for name-call­ing and per­sonal at­tacks.

Sadly, this news­pa­per isn’t alone in treat­ing read­ers with dis­dain. More and more news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, news sites, and even ra­dio sta­tions are hold­ing on to their “sa­cred right” to pub­lish mono­logue journalism. Sad­der still is the fact that a third of jour­nal­ists are strongly op­posed to re­spond­ing to com­ments in any man­ner, see­ing it as out­side their jour­nal­is­tic role.

In to­day’s age of par­tic­i­pa­tory journalism, it is shock­ing that there still ex­ist pub­lish­ers who be­lieve the mantra of “free speech” is only for the en­ti­tled, and that “ed­i­tors know best” when it comes to what’s fit to pub­lish.

Thank­fully there are me­dia ex­ec­u­tives that treat read­ers with re­spect and work hard to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages di­a­logue among them, ed­i­tors and con­tent cre­ators – pub­lish­ers like The Times, Fi­nan­cial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The In­for­ma­tion, T3 and Forbes mag­a­zines, to name just a few.

For ex­am­ple, in ad­di­tion to their sup­port of The Corel Pro­ject with The Wash­ing­ton Post, The New York Times an­nounced in Septem­ber that they were part­ner­ing with Google Jig­saw to cre­ate a new mod­er­a­tion sys­tem for reader com­ments, be­cause, “Times read­ers have spo­ken, and we’ve been lis­ten­ing: You want the chance to com­ment on more sto­ries, and you want your com­ments ap­proved more quickly.”

Fi­nan­cial Times also val­ues the in­put of its au­di­ence. It has an 11-per­son team that use com­ments as a tool for en­gage­ment be­cause they be­lieve read­ers “are en­ti­tled to be­ing part of the qual­ity con­ver­sa­tion and what the com­mu­nity has to of­fer.”

“In to­day’s age of par­tic­i­pa­tory journalism, it is shock­ing that there still ex­ist pub­lish­ers who be­lieve the mantra of free speech is only for the en­ti­tled, and that ed­i­tors know best when it comes to what’s fit to pub­lish.”

In­ter­est­ing how some of the most suc­cess­ful me­dia com­pa­nies in the world are lis­ten­ing to their read­ers and act­ing on their needs, while oth­ers who take the path of least re­sis­tance are ac­tu­ally ac­cel­er­at­ing their own dig­i­tal demise.

I can’t help but won­der what they think their role is in so­ci­ety? Few would ar­gue that main­stream me­dia is ex­pected to keep gov­ern­ments ac­count­able, but isn’t its role also to ed­u­cate and bring knowl­edge to peo­ple?

But, if you de­liver that knowl­edge with the as­sump­tion that read­ers are id­iots and they’re not go­ing to change, then you’ve failed – you’ve failed in your mis­sion for the bet­ter­ment of so­ci­ety. Now there are some pub­lish­ers who don’t sub­scribe to that mis­sion, see­ing their pri­mary role as serv­ing the fi­nan­cial needs of share­hold­ers, at what­ever cost. But that’s not the me­dia that I want or ex­pect in a healthy democ­racy.

Sure, manag­ing a com­mu­nity is not easy, but noth­ing worth hav­ing ever is. Re­cently I read about a niche faith-based site that had 80 vol­un­teers and four em­ploy­ees whose only job was to mod­er­ate com­ments and en­cour­age ci­vil­ity. The in­vest­ment they made in their au­di­ence pro­vided huge pay­back in terms of in­tel­li­gent and en­light­en­ing dis­cus­sions among their read­ers.

But what was re­ally in­ter­est­ing was their in­ge­nious strat­egy on manag­ing trolls. Ban­ning them didn’t work, so in­stead they en­cour­aged them to con­tinue their tirades on spe­cial mes­sage “di­a­logue and de­bate” boards.

There, they could rant and rave to their hearts’ con­tent, while more re­spect­ful dis­cus­sions con­tin­ued within the main ar­ti­cle. Bril­liant!

The days of one-way journalism are over and if pub­lish­ers don’t wake up to that fact and start con­nect­ing with read­ers the way they want, then there won’t be any­one to con­nect with at all.

To­day, trust is me­dia is at an all-time low as more and more read­ers hold pub­lish­ers ac­count­able for their words and ac­tions.

If you want to truly thrive in a pub­lish­ing world that’s be­ing rewrit­ten from the ground up, it’s time to come to the ta­ble and lis­ten to your au­di­ence, es­pe­cially when you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Be­cause as Ad­lai Steven­son said so well, “The first prin­ci­ple of a free so­ci­ety is an un­tram­melled flow of words in an open fo­rum.”

The power fun­nel is in­verted and peo­ple, not pub­lish­ers, hold all the cards. You can’t beat them, so you might as well em­brace join­ing them. Open your dig­i­tal doors to your au­di­ence be­fore it’s too late and they get slammed in your face.

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