Thursday, February 21, 2008

Regaining Trust For a Healthy Relationship

The press has always had a shaky relationship with the public, especially after the Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke debacles. Can you really blame the public for losing its faith in American media?

Revisions of codes of ethics such as the New York Times was an attempt to ensure the public that it would never happen again but the mainstream media might need to find new ways to win over the hearts of the public as they turn to alternative ways to find news.

That being said, I'd like to commend the Spokesman Review from Spokane, WA on its efforts. I stumbled across this article on Poynter noting the Review's attempt to lay everything on the table for its readers.

It's called the Transparent Newsroom and consists of blogs, briefings and live webcasts about everything the newspaper is doing. Editor Steve Smith discusses coverage in the blog, News Is a Conversation, notes from daily news meetings are shared, live webcasts of its weekday meetings are streamed on the Web site and discussions from the editorial board are shared along with other blogs giving insight into the inner workings of a newsroom.

Talk about being able to keep a watchful eye. What more could readers ask for? It's a clever way of using new media and driving reader participation as readers are encouraged to give feedback. In fact, managing editor, Gary Graham just introduced a new reader feedback feature on Feb. 15 in addition to his regular commentary on journalism issues. He writes:

More than 30 Spokesman-Review readers have agreed to participate in a little experiment.

Continuing the Spokesman-Review's commitment to transparency and bringing more readers into our daily conversations, I've asked this group to respond to a series of questions about the latest edition of the newspaper. Their comments will help us understand more about reader preferences and reactions.

Each morning, I will email three or four readers of the group a series of questions. After all of my volunteers have had an opportunity to answer questions and critique the paper, I'll recruit a new group.

Our morning news meeting opens with a critique and comments about the paper from various editors, reporters and photographers. This is my attempt to expand that conversation.

Let there be no mistake about this. It is not a scientific method of reader research. I'll not pretend otherwise.

This direct approach is perhaps the best way to rebuild the relationship between the mainstream media and the public. Sure, peering in on the latest news meeting might not be the most exhilarating part of someone's day but the option is there for those who are concerned about the media.

From another perspective, this could be helpful in a different way. To piggyback on Professor Kennedy's discussion about how journalists need to be more open, the Review's Transparent Newsroom is a great way to do this.

Normally, journalists hoard their ideas (I'm guilty as charged myself) for fear of someone else running off with it but by throwing it out there on the Internet, we may be able to improve that story and make it even better than it would have been if we hadn't been so greedy. This can even be a result of posting those news meetings for everyone to see. Readers can suggest ideas, propose sources and help build a better story. Readers want to be heard and want to participate...this is what has led to citizen journalism.

Poynter's Mallary Jean Tenore suggests this could be a possible downside noting:

The downside to being so transparent is that the paper opens itself up to criticism from the industry, and it becomes easier for newsroom competitors to see what the paper is up to.

But she also points out the benefits outweigh the risks according to Ryan Pitts, the online director for the Review:

People will criticize the paper whether editors know about it or not, so it's better that editors be aware of the criticism, Pitts said. If it's good, thoughtful criticism, then the paper will consider making changes. If it's inaccurate, the paper works to counteract it with the truth.

The blogs are a bit bland in appearance and could probably use a little sprucing up but it's the idea that matters the most and it seems like the Spokesman Review is onto something. Poynter also made sure to shed some light on a few other mainstream media outlets that are experimenting:

Similar to The Spokesman-Review, WFTX-TV, a Fox-affiliated station in Cape Coral, Fla., addresses the public's concerns in its "Viewers' Bill of Rights" and its "Viewers' Voice" feature, which gives viewers a chance to discuss their thoughts on the station's recent coverage of events.

At The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., members of the community are invited to attend the paper's page one meetings. The number of people who attend the meetings fluctuates, and sometimes no one attends, but the invitation is always there, says Linda Williams, senior editor for news at The News & Observer.

The paper also hosts a readers' panel, which the paper's public editor, Ted Vaden, oversees. The rotating group of readers who make up the panel meet with various editors on a monthly basis to talk about what they do and don't like about the paper.

Keeping the mainstream media on a tight leash might be the way to gain back the public's trust and give them the good feeling of having the upper hand--just like any other healthy relationship.


Dan Kennedy said...

Great post — very comprehensive. At one time BostonNOW was webcasting its news meetings. Perhaps it still is, though I couldn't tell from its Web site. But the Spokesman-Review was definitely the first.

Mallary Tenore said...

Glad you found the article useful. It's pretty interesting to see what news organizations are doing on this front.

~Mallary Tenore