Archive | January, 2016

Getting in the Mix

17 Jan

I admit to being pretty impatient with people who are dismissive of newspaper comments sections. Yes, I’m familiar with all of their downsides. But they also offer the potential — I emphasize — for something other than business as usual.

Joseph DeStefano headshot
Joseph N. DiStefano (Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

One local journalist who actually engages in meaningful conversation with online commenters is Joseph N. (Joe) DiStefano, the Inquirer’s longtime business columnist.

Here’s a great example:  His recent article on the Dupont chemical company. The article spawned a 148-comment thread (really!) with plenty of opinionated (and often well-informed) commenters joining in.

DiStefano was right there in the mix, posting more than a half-dozen comments of his own. Some were brief acknowledgements, but others were more substantive, like this one:

Good points, thanks. I would add tho that ‘elderly cousins’ on the DuPont board are outnumbered by sitting CEOs. From our distance, it looks like they were all for Kullman until a sub-3% activist investor began rallying pension and hedge funds to press for more. Then they were all for the Dow deal. Raises real questions about the efficacy of what passes for the gold standard in corporate governance.

I would draw 4 lessons from DiStefano’s example:

  1. Commenters respond to an engaged reporter. There is less baloney on a thread where people know the reporter is “watching.”
  2. Smart reporters know that they aren’t just writing for commenters, but for the larger audience of lurkers — both of whom may include potentially valuable sources for future articles.
  3. It’s OK for a reporter’s tone in comments sections to differ from the tone of a news story. They should be consistent, not identical.
  4. Good comments sections are built over time. They don’t start afresh with every new article. Good commenters will hold a reporter’s feet to the fire about stuff he or she screwed up months ago. And good reporters will know when to hold their tongues and listen.



A Moment of Optimism

17 Jan

It’s been a while since I checked in, and during that time we’ve had some interesting developments here in Philadelphia. One is a refreshingly bold — though quite risky — new step for our major newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The papers’ billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, has donated them to a new institute being housed at a local community foundation.

Photo credit: Wellcome Images. Used by permission under a CC-BY license (via Wikipedia)

Get a board member’s take on the new initiative. Relevant excerpt:

The basics of the rather complex transaction are these: The umbrella company for the news organizations, Philadelphia Media Network, was donated to a new nonprofit entity called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The institute is under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation. With [Gerry] Lenfest’s $20 million gift as a kick-start, the institute will raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals to support investigative and other public-service journalism and – ultimately, more important – to be a catalyst for transformation in the digital age.

It’s a creative effort that may or may not work to sustain the newspapers in the long term. But in my opinion, Lenfest & co deserve huge credit for acknowledging that “more of the same” (layoff, decrease quality of coverage, lose subscribers, repeat) was not going to do it, and actively brainstorming a potential solution.

Both papers have been through cycle after cycle of demoralizing layoffs. Aside from the human cost to employees, there has been a terrible cost to civic power. Community-minded citizens, gadflies, and the general public can’t hold elites accountable if we don’t know what they’re up to. Journalists are one of the few occupations that are actually paid to find out what powerful are doing with their money and influence, and tell the rest of us.

Let’s hope this is the first page of a chapter that sees greater investment in high-quality journalism for our city — especially the investigative kind.

(I’m also cautiously optimistic that the newly-revamped website [now visually tolerable for the first time in years] may yet give birth to an effectively utilized commenting community. But that’s a topic for another post.)