Last night I was a guest at the Editorial Intelligence seminar entitled "commentariat v. bloggertariat" - a discussion of how newspaper opinion columnists and bloggers coexist and work together.
The versus in the title immediately set the tone for contrast and confrontation; Iain Dale came out fighting for the blogosphere, with a provocative opening: "the fact that the Twitter hashtag for this event is #eiblogger and not #eicomment rather indicates the organisers believe bloggers are winning." As well as that, he scolded The Times over the recent outing of anonymous blogger Nightjack. Batting equally fiercely for the other side, David Aaronovitch was disdainful of bloggers, boasting that no blogger could ever get an interview with Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who he was interviewing the following day, while the Spectator's Martin Bright said he couldn't think of a single classic blog post he had ever read.
While it provided entertainment, the confrontational tone and setup didn't really help bring us to any constructive conclusions. Newspapers are in trouble, it was repeatedly stated, yet bloggers are way down the list of reasons why that is so - the very fundamentals of news distribution and advertising sales have been overturned and will not return to their old state again. When the discussion moved away from the artificial distinction it proved to be a bit more nuanced and interesting - Iain Dale gave the perfect example of a blogger who has crossed over into the mainstream media - himself - while Mick Fealty revealed about how stories from his blog, Slugger O'Toole, would shape the coverage in the Belfast newspapers the following day.
Those in the mainstream media camp gave a less open-minded and concessionary view; all too often blogs and bloggers were conflated with the opinions left in comments on online news articles, or even worse, the 'green ink brigade' formerly managed by letters page editors (thus protecting journalists from their audience). Astonishingly, Anne Spackman of the Times suggested that the law on defamation and hate speech was a good enough set of rules for commenting on articles. The law is a bare minimum - what is agreed by the majority of society to be totally unacceptable. To better manage your communities you need a lot more than that; after all, you are only as good as the people who comment on your site - and I find many online newspaper's reader comment sections to be poor, full of incoherence, poor spelling and grammar and some comments filled with outright spite. No wonder some journalists are utterly averse to engaging more with their audience.
There is more to social media than just allowing reader comments on your articles - indeed, there is more to the online community around your site than people leaving comments. Newspapers and their readers are capable of much more given the right tools and the right community management - such as the Liverpool Post's crowdsourcing of its front page or the new Help Me Investigate initiative from 4iP. Mark Thompson, who was in the audience last night, and his recent analysis of safe seats and MP's expenses, is a great recent example of blogs contributing new content and analysis whilst inspired by mainstream media.
With some notable exceptions like the above, there is too much of a culture of antagonism, on both sides in this debate, but especially from some of the mainstream media stalwarts who attended last night. Letting your lawyers, rather than your community managers, be the arbiters of what is considered acceptable behaviour and participation, is just one symptom of this culture; dismissing blogging out of hand or demanding anonymous but lawful bloggers be unmasked. The good thing is that newspapers are, relatively speaking, miles ahead of where they were 5 years ago, and some of the more social media-savvy in this space do get it; I'd love to see some of the more constructive dialogue these forward thinkers could have with the same bloggers who were there last night.