Newspapers — community newspapers especially — have a duty to inform, entertain and engage. How well we do these three things is directly related to our value, our impact, and our stature.
I think we do an excellent job in relation to the first two, but struggle with the third. Paradoxically, the best way to improve our engagement may be to eliminate the online commenting system. More on that in a bit.
First, some definitions. We inform by telling our readers what we believe is the most interesting and the most important issues going on about town.
This, of course, can cause friction among those who disagree with our choices, but given our finite resources, there are hard decisions to be made about what to cover and what to ignore. Does this get people upset? Sometimes, but as Kurt Vonnegut might say: "So it goes."
Entertaining readers is trickier. Writing news, sports and feature articles in a way that makes someone want to read them is a difficult skill to learn, and one that takes a lifetime.
Most journalists are either natural writers — better equipped to present the information in a way that will make people care and understand — or natural reporters — gathering that information in the first place.
Coaching a writer to do both well is hard work — for that person and his/her editor. Still, I'm continually impressed by the level of skill our reporters possess, an opinion our journalism peers apparently share, seeing they give our staff literally dozens of awards and honors each year.
The last part is engagement, something that newspapers, and media companies generally, struggle with mightily. We interact with our readers in two main ways: the Forum page (aka "Letters to the Editor") and online comments.
Both are, to put it mildly, extremely limiting. The letters page suffers from space issues, as we can usually only run a handful at a time. Additionally, because we verify the authorship and fact-check claims, it can take a few days to a week for something to get published, an apparently unthinkable delay.
But the online space, while technically limitless, so often devolves into a bunch of pseudo-anonymous talking heads, screaming at one another from the glow of their computer screens.
In addition, should anyone of Armenian descent be accused of essentially any crime, big or small, my staff has to go on high alert, for the bigoted roaches will surely come out. And, even worse, these comments occasionally get through because we simply don't have the time to delete all the crap.
Online comments, for the most part, are a waste of time for my staff, used mostly by the same people spouting the same arguments again and again, or by vicious trolls and haters who want to engage in sociopathic behavior.
Comments were intended to be a way for readers to directly — and publicly —engage with reporters, editors, and each other. But it is no longer that way. The number of comments has decreased recently, perhaps because more and more people fear a brutal response to even the most benign of comments.
The business side likes comments, because they believe it increases the amount of traffic on our websites, making it more valuable to advertisers. But what if that's not true? What if we took down the current online commenting system and there was more traffic because people felt more welcome? Seems like it's worth a shot.
Besides, there are better ways for this newspaper and its staff to interact with readers. Here are some ideas:
First, I have no problem with expanding our Forum pages. As soon as I get more letters, I'll do so.
Second, I'm going to be sending our notices for our second Community Advisory Board meeting for Glendale and Burbank in the coming weeks. If you would like to be involved, shoot me a note via email and I'll make sure you're on the distribution list. Make sure to let me know which board you're interested in.
Third, I'm going to ask my reporters and editors to consider making more public appearances around town. I'll take the lead on that one. By seeing us in person more, I believe people will be more comfortable letting us know what they like and don't like about our coverage. Potentially, this could also lead to more people writing in letters.
And fourth, I'm going to look into the creation of an online letters form, one that would make it easier for people to submit honest-to-god-letters, ones that would go through our normal verification process.
Mind you, nothing has been decided. I'm writing this to find out what you think. So tell me. I'm easy to find.