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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.