comment is free, engaging with audiences and thoughts about the MSM vs bloggers thing

Georgina Henry, editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free, writes in today’s print edition about getting out there and engaging with the audience:

“On good days I think this is the most exciting new frontier for journalism – the immediacy of the debate, the excitement at watching readers engage with the big (and occasionally trivial) issues of the day with wit, verve and insight make print seem sluggish, out of date, even a bit dull.

Other days, when I have spent hours removing the anti-semitism and Islamophobia that dances round any piece about Israel/Palestine, and the incoherent abuse, the swearing, the false statements, the ill-disguised misogyny, the intimidation and the downright nastiness that fuels so many comments, I wonder whether Guardian values – free comment, but fair comment too – are in danger of being drowned out in an anarchic, unmoderated medium populated, it seems, by weird men. I look with fondness at the rigorously edited paper, and the polite discourse on the letters page.

The answer for most media companies developing blogs… is to pre-moderate comments. We have deliberately decided against that, only requireing commenters to register, because we want to keep the conversation as free flowing as possibly. So What to do?

Stung by one particularly brutal comment on a piece by a young Muslim woman we had recruited to blog, I did what Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, advised and entered the fray myself…”

As you’d expect, a lot of people told Henry to stop whinging but others provided some useful insight and advice. You can find the post and resulting 200+ comment discussion here. It’s nice to see Henry, and some of the other “bloggers”, getting out there and engaging with their audiences – as Henry points out in the article:

Guardian columnists have taken to heart that blogging is about more than just writing your piece and disappearing once the conversation starts. They have started, as a matter of course, going back into the debates they have generated to talk to their readers.

But I’d like to see a news or media organisation take it one step further than this, to actually engage with the conversations taking place OUT THERE. It’s all well and good having a “blog” that paid members of staff contribute to and members of the audience can comment on. That, however, is not really blogging.

Blogging is a technology and a technique and, in this sense, mainstream media usually forgets about the second bit. Bloggers look at their inbound links and use tools like technorati (Guardian Unlimited profile) to see who is talking about their stuff and linking to them. They go in search of this and other content to read, excerpt, link to and comment upon. They also post comments on one another’s blogs. Neil McIntosh, assistant editor of, did it when he stepped out from behind the fences to post a comment here, as did the guys behind WikiTravel who commented on the same post. So too did the guys working on ScooptWords who recently joined debate about the soon to launch service here.

That’s what blogging is and what bloggers do – they step off their bully pulpit and go down in the pits, and when they’re done they take home a few souvenirs to post up to prove that they were there and that they survived it. That is the conversation that bloggers always tell non-bloggers about and it’s the one thing that’s, so far, completely lacking in mainstream media blog efforts. So what’s in it for mainstream media?

* by going out and finding content, then bringing it back (excerpting, linking, commenting on) you’re able to get lots of “free” content (the effort to go out and find is closer to traditional journalism techniques, and probably cheaper and less open to bias, than waving your big contact us flag in the air and hoping to find some needles in the insuing haystack)
* by going out and posting comments elsewhere, you’re truly joining the conversation and, in doing so, you’ll reach new and different audiences for your content
* if done correctly, it will be trust in your people and your brand
* think of it as a cheap way to get audience research
* because of the way that search engines like google work, taking into account how many links you’re getting and from what sites, encouraging more debate about your content – wherever that debate takes place – helps your google page rank (Thanks to Tim Ireland for helping me understand this!)

Let’s face it, without mainstream media a lot of bloggers would have little to talk about – they’d either lack the content to comment on, would know nothing of the celebrities, personalities and politicians they write about, they’d lack the analysis to disagree with, and wouldn’t have access to the facts and figures they need to provide their own analysis. Many bloggers actually need mainstream media, and increasingly mainstream media will need bloggers.

Marrying the two together in a way that’s useful to both sides might not be that hard to do if mainstream media learns to blog and by that I mean figuring out that blogging is BOTH a set of tools and a technique for using those tools. This will build trust between MSM and bloggers and it’s only then, when there is trust and greater understanding between the two sides, that the whole bloggers vs mainstream media thing will go away.

[podcast version of this post]