In his column this weekend (which is either not online or behind the paywall), Independent on Sunday readers’ editor Michael Williams noted that “the only column on the IoS with an e-mail address attached is this one”.
This came after Williams had quoted extensively from the hilarious rant against reader feedback and interactivity recently put forward by Los Angeles Times *columnist Joel Stein and reprinted yesterday in *Media Guardian.
Williams describes Stein’s piece as a protest against the “American habit that is fast spreading into newspapers over here” of publishing journalists’ e-mail addresses with their articles.
In one passage quoted by Williams, the American columnist wrote: “I don’t want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in conversation with you.”
It wasn’t clear whether Williams agreed with Stein that publishing e-mail addresses is a bad idea. But after a brief complaint about the spam he receives as a consequence of being the only person on his paper with a public e-mail address, Williams invited further e-mails, particularly “treasures” like the one from Lt Col Philip Robinson of Andover, who recently offered this biting critique of the IoS’s journalism:
I would like to compliment you on your coverage though ‘Letters from the Front’ of the circumstances and feelings of our military engaged in operations … It is something that should bring them pride.
I’m not sure I understand how sending fawning notes to the ombudsman will help improve a newspaper’s journalism.
It is certainly true that publishing e-mail addresses can lead to an unwelcome deluge of abuse which make Lt Col Robinson’s kind note stand out. Perhaps the IoS is onto a useful way of using the Readers’ Editor as a firewall between its journalists and us, the great unwashed. After all, as the experience of the Guardian’s blog Comment is Free demonstrates every day, the public brawl approach to reader feedback does not guarantee measured, constructive debate, either.
But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Thick-skinned reporters and columnists have long ignored letters from the green-ink brigade, and they can safely trash the e-mail equivalent along with the correspondence from Viagra-pushers and offers of cash from Nigerian businessmen.
What journalists can no longer afford to ignore, however, is legitimate criticism and offers of new information provided by knowledgeable members of the people formerly known as the audience.
Stein’s jeremiad was a reaction to the new media orthodoxy, famously championed by former *San Jose Mercury News *journalist Dan Gillmor, that news should become less of a lecture and more of a conversation.
But Gillmor’s phrase did not mean that journalists must spend all of their time engaging in individual dialogs with each of their readers. He meant only that journalists need to understand that truth is arrived at discursively, and that they should welcome — rather than be instinctively defensive about — public feedback, corrections and criticism from their readers.
Journalists who have embraced this view have understood that for any given subject, some small subset of a their audience will know more than they do, and that facilitating communication with such readers can only improve their reporting.
Ultimately, however, personal e-mail correspondence probably isn’t the key issue: If we ignore readers’ e-mails, or don’t even give them the option of sending it, their conversation will simply go on without us on these readers’ blogs.
Stein is no doubt aware of this phenomenon himself, because while he has been studiously ignoring e-mails, bloggers have already pointed out one significant factual flaw in his piece.
Stein asserted that Martin Luther had, in 1517, nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral as a work of individual genius which would have been diluted if he had been forced to engage with feedback from the masses. In fact, the monk had actually included a passage inviting comment and debate based on his argument.
“The Reformation was, you know, sort of a wiki”, wrote one online wag after Brad DeLong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out the error on his widely-read blog.
Just as Luther invited interactivity, so should journalists. Interactivity may be threatening to columnists accustomed to making pronouncements from on high, but it does not diminish their journalism. On the contrary, correctives like this strengthen flimsy arguments and improve the factual record, which all journalists interested in truth-telling should welcome.
Have I got anything here wrong? Let me know why in the comments below. Valid points will be graciously accepted and will improve interested readers’ understanding of what I have written. Unconstructive abuse will be summarily ignored.