Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blogging is about conversation

Traditional journalists don't usually react positively to the idea of engaging their readers in a conversation.

I can remember getting a phone call a decade or more ago from someone who wanted to take issue with what we'd written in the paper. I tried to deal politely with the reader. But I was on deadline and I just couldn't get him off the phone. No matter what I said ... stuff like 'we were just reporting what we observed,' the caller wanted to take issue with me and with the story.

I finally, and probably with a hint of irritation in my voice, said: "This isn't talk radio. I'm sorry but I just can't debate this with you. You're entitled to your opinion, our story tried to play the facts right down the line."

Obviously the guy wasn't very satisfied. I finally had to tell him "I'm hanging up now, thanks for calling." Click.

Well, that was print journalism. It isn't blogging. The expectation of the audience for blogs is that you will engage them in conversation. You'll encourage their comments. And when necessary you'll respond to them.

For years, it's been policy that reporters at the P-I -- and everywhere else I've worked -- aren't allowed to respond directly to readers. Even when introduced "Soundoffs" at the end of each staff-written story, reporters were not permitted to respond directly to the reader.

That's because editors have believed that, when it comes to stories, the purpose of a Soundoff is to let readers have their say. We aren't the last word.

But the expectation in blogs is different. Journalists didn't make the rules for blogs, and by the time most of us came to the world of blogging, there were already established expectations. One of them, and an important one, is that blogs are the initiation of conversation.

So, while P-I reporters still have to submit any response the have to comments in a blog through an editor before it's posted, reporters can respond. In fact, the expectation is that the will.

Regardless of where you blog, whether your blog is personal or about news, you should expect to engage readers in conversation. Answer their questions. Let their comments inform your view. Correct their erroneous impressions and admit to your own mistakes.

That said, be sensible. Recognize the difference between a belief (which can be argued) and a fact (which can't).

But know that some people are just baiting you. These folks, in Web parlance, are called "trolls." They love to engage in an argument for the sake of the argument. They like to get a rise out of you.

The rule of thumb in dealing with trolls is to ignore them. Don't feed the trolls.

I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.
-- George Bernard Shaw and others

So don't respond to someone who's obviously just trying to get a rise out of you or your readers. But remember you're not writing from an ivory tower. You live in the same world as your readers. And you're having a conversation with them.

It's not a rule. It's just good blogging practice.


  1. Great post Don. I always feel like if people aren't commenting on my posts, I'm not doing something right. I'm sad that my PrintToOnline blog doesn't have a single comment yet. Reporters keep asking me their questions offline instead of posting questions in the comments!

    I realized the other day (after talking with one reporter about this) that people who haven't been using blogs don't even see the "comment" link or know how to comment. That, and they're totally not used to this "online conversation" thing. It doesn't occur to them to engage here. It'll take a while for that to become natural, I'd guess.

  2. Hey, Michelle, I posted a question on Print to Online but I don't see it on the page. I'll try again. Personally, I think it would be more user-friendly to have a prompt specifically for questions rather than having people post questions as "comments" after unrelated posts. But maybe that's not how it's done in the blogosphere. Anyway, I'll give it another go.

  3. Cecelia, good point. In fact, if you follow Monica Guzman in The Big Blog, she often ends a post with a question. In a post during the December snowstorm, when the garbage wasn't getting picked up, she asked readers to tell her what other areas, besides what she was writing about, still needed attention. That an example of using the conversation to help inform the story.
    As for your question, hopefully your comment will go through this time.

  4. About posting comments.... In general this blog is open only to registered Google users, Cecilia, and that may be the case with Michelle's too. So you may have to sign in to your Google account before it'll be accepted.