THE great revolution yet to come in journalism will parallel the societal civil wars between individual and collective, between comment and debate, between private and public (private ‘rights’ and public ‘good’).
We present unified, singular news products but demand individual feedback and responses. We sell to advertisers as capturing a collective ‘audience’, even as advertisers can only measure individual proof that their advertising and marketing efforts work (“How did you hear about us?”).
The technologists out there advocate trying to tailor news to individual consumers, letting them construct their own news sources or ‘feeds’, and ‘tracking’ website users to ensure ads match their interests or desires.
While fracturing society further into individual parts, this approach doesn’t ultimately change the dynamic that a news item is a singular object delivered to the masses.
News requires the opposite of blogging where one individual is merely shouting his or her opinion from the rooftop. A news story initially transcends individual opinion.
But offering a poll question on such a story to gauge collective reaction isn’t a solution either because it requires ultimately ‘my vote’.
Imagine a train. Its destination and departure points are fixed, singular points. Within its carriages are dozens or hundreds of passengers all going to different destinations for different reasons but contained within that unified vehicle.
A news story comes from an event or an uncovered truth or a snapshot of someone’s life. It has a fixed origin, and as a print product or broadcast or web post, it maintains that singular directions.
But thousands, millions if you’re lucky, ingest the story at different points in their lives or days and from a multitude of opinions or backgrounds. It is a loose-fitting collective of individuals.
So they are already bound together by the common news vehicle they’re being presented with. We deliver a singular service to a collective but treat our passengers like each has their own unique train. Corny as it sounds, if you have millions of trains heading in the same direction, you get a crash. As with carpooling, there are distinct advantages to making collective journeys with a news service. It drives agendas, provides more debate than back-and-forth commentaries or letters pages. We just have to remember that the participants in the carpool are headed off to different jobs when they arrive.
So we might have to change the language in which we pose our reaction questions (not to mention multi-lingual options for the entire content).
What would happen if you forced someone to think about his or her neighbour (either directly down the hall or digitally on the other side of the planet)?
Rather than “What do you think?”, you would have “What does your colleague or mum or pupil think?”
Either they suddenly engage in active conversation with someone in person or over the internet, or they pause and think about someone else, if only for a moment.
It might even force someone to turn away from their computer screen, but they would most likely return, and perhaps make a second hit to the web page in the process.
This approach is still user-centred – it’s just centred on the person you interact with, not you yourself. We talk about digital communities, and this could help create them.
The current approach to ‘audience interaction’ is to digitally slap someone across the face and say, “React.” What would happen if we somehow gathered several readers together and handed them a cup of tea and said, “Discuss?”
If we want angry readers who despise each other’s virtual selves, then we can stick to the first option. If you want to build a connection with your community of readers as a service industry, then we need to consider the second.
Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a freelance reporter and photojournalist operating as the W5 Press Agency.