Look at the comments, stupid

Man, who doesn’t have a blog.

Any newspaper that can even be tossed in the conversation has someone adding to it. There is no end to the number of jerks like me doing much of the same, with less experience and knowledge but increasingly more interest than the more professional.

The question, of course, is if any of it is working. One of the simpler answers, I’d say, is, well, look at the comments. If they’re improving, you’re improving.

This is a generational thing, few argue that. But if a newspaper has young, interested staff, why aren’t they encouraged to engage readers more.

The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. is a great example. Its state capital bureau in Harrisburg, Pa. is currently a one-man show, but one who is as involved as any.

For the Call, a good metro daily with a circulation of 110,000, John Micek is a whole lot. He pounds big statewide copy and hosts Pennsylvania’s first good state government blog, Capitol Ideas, beating the Inquirer, which brands itself as the state and region’s industry leader. (The Inqy’s Commonwealth Confidential has made huge strides by three smart staffers, but the paper itself seems to bury it and the blog’s Web address doesn’t make me believe CC will be there for the long haul – no blame to the Inqy Harrisburg bureau, of course)

Micek was recently named one of the 10 most powerful journalists in the state – one of the youngest on the list. A sign of the time is how four of them have big online presences – Micek, Mario Cattabiani now blogs and at the time Brett Lieberman blogged for their newspapers (the Inquirer and Patriot-News respectively), and Pete Decoursey, a former Patriot-News columnist turned editor of Capitolwire, an online-only news service in Harrisburg.

I came to know Micek through a helluva internship in Harrisburg this past summer, which included at least one faux interview with Micek himself. Micek is a smart 30-something willing to take on something new. He rightly and smartly questions some of the so-labeled innovation that is meant to save newspapers. But that doesn’t stop him from trying them.

Micek’s morning blog rants, where he takes on the state’s news is surely friendly to folks just trying out the news blog game. He’s taken it further by jumping on Twitter, opening himself up to more interaction with readers.

I know nothing of his hits and regular reader interaction. How monetized the Call itself is trying to make Capitol Ideas is beyond me – they run a single ad on the main page that is also filled on his archived pages.

But Micek is making effort plenty aren’t.

No one knows where newspapers will be 10 years from now. But, by my estimation, if a reporter gets e-mails or story comments, that’s good. If that increases with time, that’s better. Every business on the planet knows that encouraing its customers to be a part of the product – see company Facebook groups and, more traditionally, free shirts with cigarette company logos – so why aren’t newspapers jumping on board?

The answer, again and again, is that there is an enormous class of talented (and some less talented) journalists who don’t want anything to do with the reality that their job is as product-related as a washer salesman. Newspaper curmudgeons they’re called in the media blogosphere. Still other of these ideas I’ve accepted as part of the necessity that the business model – and folks with those minds – involve themselves in newspapers.

I know that sometimes, OK, maybe most times, reader response seems wacky. I’ve gotten my share of calls and e-mails and comments that didn’t seem to make sense. Indeed, response that seemed to waste my time. That’s why we need to better develop means of attracting and connecting with readers. So we don’t just get the crazies. We need to accept some comments, even if it’s harsh. So we don’t just seem pretentious.

If UtleyRules15 says your lede “sucks,” hey, maybe he’s right. Chances are someone was saying the same thing 50 years ago, but now it’s easier for him to tell you. Don’t criticize that, accept that it’s possible someone else’s opinion matters. Because he’s the customer.

You don’t have to bend to everyone, but we all need to better accept this as a reality.

Blog communities don’t have the same problems with viscious comments that many newspaper Web sites do.

New media guru Howard Owens posted on this earlier this year. He seems to say the same, the better the comments, the better the community and, in the end, better the product, which has a better chance at succeeding through this tumult, the newspaper bubble. Why are some blog comments better than newspaper comments? Owens says the following:

I would say, primarily because blogs get the close attention of their owners. There is little opportunity for trolls to get a foothold on a well-run blog.  Most blog owners apply high standards for the conduct they will allow.  They monitor closely. They participate in the conversation.  In other words, they are actively engaged and involved.  They are owners.

How involved are reporters and editors involved in participation on their web sites?

Not much.

And until we fix that weak link in our participation strategy, we will continue to struggle with developing the kind of online community our newspaper communities deserve. [Source]

Am I overselling the comments? Um, leave a comment and let me know.

Image courtesy of MediaBistro.