Friday, April 20, 2012

News as conversation in the social media age

I was asked to speak Thursday at the social media workshop sponsored by Media Network Idaho, the Idaho chapter of the American Nuclear Society and ComDesigns.

There was a lot of good information shared throughout the day, by Sarah Lane of TWiT.TV, Mike Hart of ComDesigns (who built the virtual tour app for the INL), Misty Benjamin of INL, and Cynthia Price of Child Fund International.

My remarks were held for last, so anyone with more important things to do could leave, I suppose. Still, there were enough longtime newspaper people in the room who could relate to what I had to say about how much the world has changed in 30 years. For anyone interested, here are the remarks I wrote in advance. I wandered off script somewhat, but this is what I was prepared to say:

When I was thinking about what I’m going to say today about social media, for some reason I thought of the old sketch on Saturday Night Live about the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

Phil Hartmann has been thawed from a glacier and become an attorney. Any time he gets into trouble, through stupidity or greed, he falls back on, “I’m just a caveman! Your computers confuse and frighten me!”

Having spent nearly 30 years in print journalism, I think I can relate. The social media age has come, and all of us who want to stay in the game have to adapt.

But how confusing is social media, really? Think of the town criers who used to walk the streets, ringing their bells and hollering out the latest news. Who were these people, and what drove them? Need for attention, I’m sure. I can relate to that.

The more important question, though: While the town crier had the news, where did he get the news?
I don’t think he hit the streets armed with the day’s headlines and walked around oblivious to his audience. In fact, he was probably a person who stopped in every doorway, shop and tavern to talk to anyone who would put up with him. The stories he collected from the people he met were the ones he shouted out.

This was social media in its basic form. When you forget the technology, social media is as old human nature itself. As social, verbal creatures, we have an innate need to know the latest and share. The Odyssey was social media. Medieval murder ballads were social media. We tell stories to each other to make sense of our world.

If the town crier had any sense, he’d eventually want to save his lungs by buying a press and starting a newspaper. But the point I want to make is that news is a two-way street, and we have entered an age in which that is more obvious than ever. I’ve sort of known it all along, but my experience as a blogger this past year has brought it home to me like never before.

After leaving the Post Register newsroom in 2008, I heard from plenty of people who told me they really missed my writing, especially the business column that ran every Monday.

What did people like about the column? It was subdivided into really short bites, it was conversational, and it kept people up to date on things that were happening around town. I answered people’s questions. People told me, “When I read your column I feel like you’re talking to me.”

My departure from the newsroom happened to coincide with the rise of social media. I had discovered MySpace that spring, mainly because I was interested in posting my original music. The summer of 2008, like millions of others, I migrated to Facebook.

This was back in the day when a person would use their Facebook name as the subject of a sentence. Who remembers that?

“Paul David Menser … is making deep dish pizza for dinner.”

“Paul David Menser … is gazing at his navel.”

“Paul David Menser … will unfriend you if he has to look at one more picture of your perfect children.”

Those days are long gone, and we all know how radically Facebook has changed communication. I have my own opinion about where it seems to be headed, but I don’t think there is any doubt that it has changed how we relate to each other and how we share stories and news.

Last fall, a customer in the store where I work recognized my name and said, “I really miss your column. It’s not the same since you left.”

That was when the light bulb went off over my head and BizMojo Idaho was born. What I learned was that my old format – short bits of “hey did you know?” type stuff -- fit the blog concept perfectly, and the stream of information could be continuous. People would make a daily appointment to catch up.

Now the Web is full of blogs where the most recent entry is six months old or more. That's because people discover how hard it is to come up with something new to say every day.

One thing all my years in newspaper business taught me was how to produce content. Unless I was on vacation or laid up with swine flu, if a day went by without my byline in the paper I would feel guilty. If two days went by, I’d get worried about myself.

Here’s something funny. When I was newspapering, I would never put my byline on a story that was less than six column inches long. I couldn't justify it to myself.

But in a world where people are looking to their smart phones for updates, short is essential. Maybe the people who look to their iPads are looking for a longer read, but even then the average iPad visit to my blog is only a minute and a half. I know this. Google tells me, and Google never lies.

A big breakthrough in my blogging was the realization around the beginning of December that everything I posted on BizMojo I should share on Facebook or Twitter right away. Until then, I would share what I thought might be of widespread interest, but I realized that was old thinking. Why not put everything up and let readers decide for themselves?

This came into very sharp focus in January, when I learned about the death of a local real estate agent, Galen Bush, who’d died of a heart attack while riding his bike on a Saturday afternoon. I debated whether to write anything at all, but thought I might help the family by getting the word out about a bank account that had been set up. Besides that, I knew him from a band we’d been in together. So I interviewed Galen’s boss, wrote six or seven paragraphs, posted it, then shared it on Facebook.

No post I have put up has gotten more page views in as short a time as that one. Why? Everyone who saw it shared it with someone else.

In the age of social media, news is a shared commodity. It always has been, but I think some people in the news business have had a tendency to wall themselves off.

Now, I’m all for professionalism, but I don’t think it’s unprofessional to have a conversation with your readers, your viewers or your listeners. And it’s a big question in the news business right now.
The best thinking I’ve seen on the subject comes from a woman named Doreen Marchionni, from Missouri School of Journalism, who writes a blog called Journalism as a Conversation. She recently profiled a book to which she contributed, called “News With A View: The Eclipse of Objectivity.”

Here’s what she said that really hit home:

“Conversation … is not a departure from facts-based reporting, though much confusion persists. Since completing my research, I have taken the data on the road, sharing it with academics and journalists alike … Almost without fail, I get some variation of these two questions:  How does conversation square with objective news? Is this the end of objectivity?

The short answer to both: It depends on what you mean by ‘objective.’  The long answer, as this chapter reveals, is that rethinking objectivity is in order, and that is a complicated finding. Despite the complexities of conversational news, though, one point is clear:  It represents a departure from the paradigm of the journalist as elusive, all-knowing, data-distributing automaton in favor of the journalist as co-collaborator, partner, and ordinary human. And for many, that is revolutionary.”

The Internet has knocked my profession sideways, not only financially but psychologically. The social media phenomenon has changed everything. It isn’t just a fad; it’s reality.