On more than one occasion I’ve spoken to people in newsrooms who feel as though something has gone badly wrong because lots of people are criticising their publication on Twitter.
This, I think, comes from the fact that print newsrooms consider complaints to be the exception rather than the norm. One complaint about something is bad enough, but get two or three and it feels as though something has badly gone wrong. And then there’s the day the crossword is wrong….
Twitter, and probably everything from email onwards, has made it easier for people to complain. That’s not a bad thing in itself, and Twitter is perhaps the easiest way to make a complaint. A quick comment and you’re off – hundreds, maybe thousands, of people seeing what you’ve said. They’ll respond, or retweet, and before you know it, if it’s your brand, it can feel like a deluge.
But with that power does there come a sense of reponsibility to check what you’re complaining about first? Regular followers of my Twitter profile will know I’m more than happy to rant about Virgin Trains – but I wouldn’t, for example, have a go at them if the trains were cancelled because it had snowed. Charging £5 an hour for wifi and then saying ‘well, lots of people were on it’ when you complain about how slow said connection is is a different matter.
I bring all this up because of the almost astonishing reaction to a blog post David Ottewell, the Manchester Evening News’s chief reporter, put out there today. (Regular readers of this blog will know this already, but at this point it is worth saying that the MEN is now owned by Trinity Mirror, which employs me as head of multimedia for the regionals division. I know David, but not well.)
David basically posted about hyperlocal news sites in the wake of a decision by Salford Council not to support the Salford Star news site with a grant for a number of reasons. David cites the Salford Star as a hyperlocal site which digs out exclusives, but then makes some broadbrush assertions about hyperlocal sites in general:
Too often, though, these sites disappoint. They end up simply regurgitating press releases, or ripping off stories from local newspapers, because they are one-man bands run by amateurs who don’t have the time, resources, or sometimes skills to dig out the news.
Often you’ll find the authors of these site blur the lines between news and commentary. Instead of finding exclusives, and dealing with them responsibly (by giving right or reply, say, and checking all facts are correct), they simply put their own heavy spin on other people’s stories. This isn’t ‘doing’ news, hyperlocal or otherwise. It’s commentary. And it is far less valuable. That’s what CP Scott meant when he said “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Finding the news is hard. Talking about it is easy.
The problem here is probably the label ‘hyperlocal’ (Philip John explores this here). I know many hyperlocal sites which wouldn’t fall into the description David used. And many of the people behind those sites have sought to put that point forward. Some have suggested that the elements David describes are also present in the Press too. I think we’ve long since established that in all areas of journalism there are factions we’d rather weren’t there, but the trick is not to assume the worst of everyone. That said, David set out his experiences, and people were free to reply.
Quite how David then ended up on the receiving end of a Twitterati battering for not posting people’s comments straight away, I don’t know. Actually, I do. Sarah Hartley, former head of online editorial of the MEN parish, (thanks to Sarah for correcting me on the job title) waited an hour after posting her comment on David’s blog before writing a post herself highlighting the fact her comment was still under moderation.
The post was promoted from Twitter as The MEN V hyperlocals: Blogging lesson one: Never walk away from a debate (as it appeared on Twitter from Twitterfeed). [This has since changed to MEN Reporter v Hyperlocal]
Putting aside the issue that one reporter’s blog clearly isn’t ever going to be there to speak on behalf of a newspaper, the main issue here was the suggestion that David/the MEN had somehow walked away from a debate because the comments had been published instantly.
Lots of chatter on Twitter about this (not to mention much misreading of it, not least claims David said hyperlocal shouldn’t do comment) – but it seems no-one actually made the effort to contact the MEN to find out what was going on. Sarah did, in fairness, make the point that David could be on his day off which is why the comments didn’t appear. He could have been, or it could have been something much worse. A simple phone call or email could have answered it, or alerted people to the fact the comments were queuing up in the system.
In that context, I don’t think this is particularly fair:
It’s very possible and reasonable that David’s just stepped outside on his day off – perhaps he could leave a message to say so. But now the twitterati is somewhat indignant at having the opportunity for response closed off. Only it’s not. Ooops……….
There’s a debate to had around David’s thoughts, but I really don’t think there was any suggestion that the opportunity for response had been closed off. All the comments are now there, in their full glory – and many of them I agree with.
In fairness to Sarah, at least she put a suggestion forward as to why they hadn’t been posted. Others weren’t so thoughtful. Inside the M60 [a local site in Manchester] co-founder Louise Bolotin put forward the idea that ‘Ottewell had gone to ground’ and suggested:
Just why has the MEN gone so silent? Surely it can handle a bit of criticism?
I shall, of course, update this blog post if the MEN ever does approve its backlog of comments on this…
Moments later, Louise did update to say the comments had appeared. But why blog about a perceived problem rather than actually try and find out what is going on?
How can you criticise without knowing all the facts?
As it is, it’s totally unrealistic to expect bloggers to monitor their comments 24/7. It’s also unrealistic to expect bloggers to say when they won’t be around to moderate comments. Why moderate comments at all? In one word: Spam. Mike Rawlins from Pits and Pots told a conference last week something like 85% of the comments posted to his site were unsuitable or spam.
Anyway, is it really so bad to have to wait a few hours (or about two hours in this case) for a comment to be posted? I posted on Marc Reeves’s blog the other day, and it was several hours before he approved it. I assumed this was because Marc has a life – and David makes a similar point in his subsequent post. Perhaps I should have posted my thoughts on my blog, safe in the knowledge that people therefore knew what I thought, instantly. Hardly the principle for an engaging debate online is it?
Not only has David published all the comments, and responded to many of them – he’s also done a subsequent post explaining why he doesn’t moderate comments around the clock. As examples of print journalists ‘getting’ blogging, I think you’ll struggle to find a better example.
A little bit of fact checking could have spared an awful lot of hot air on Twitter today. With the power of the social media, surely there comes a responsibility to make sure you’ve got all the facts. Twitter is a wonderful medium for communication, but it doesn’t come with a sense of perspective and proportion built in. As journalists, we should bring both to the party.
Footnote: Thanks to everyone who commented on this – your comments have also been republished on Louise Bolotin’s blog (Louise is one of the commenters below). I’m not sure why – but you can go there to see the context they’ve been used in.