SXSWi: Conversational Journalism

SXSW Conversational Journalism

By Trisha Creekmore

Austin Tex. — The idea of journalism as a conversation has been bandied about since the first newspapers brought their brands into the online space in the late ‘90s. If traditional journalism has been more akin to a lecture or discourse between elites, what does it mean to bring citizens into the dialogue?

Many traditional journalism distributors have experimented with conversational journalism over the past 20 years, but there has, up to now, been a dearth of data to show editors and publishers whether these plans are resonating with users or, as some fear, damaging credibility.

Doreen Marchionni discusses conversational journalism at SXSWi.

Doreen Marchionni, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University and 17-year veteran of newspapers, decided to use her doctorate to measure the phenomenon of conversational journalism. What, exactly, is this thing and which real-world applications might allow it to coexist with core journalism values such as credibility and expertise?

Marchionni found, not surprisingly, that haphazard implementation of community and crowdsourcing can mean a loss of perceived credibility, authority and likeability. But organizations that do it well can create sustained interest and repeat engagement with their sites.

She began the panel by reiterating that conversational journalism is real. Anyone with Internet access and a few web tools can create and distribute news, collaborate with professional journalists in real time, and select which news stories and sources to follow. The gatekeeper no longer sits in the newsroom.

Twitter is the preferred discussion tool at SWSWi.

A theme that popped up throughout her research is perceived humanity and likeability of the journalist. She found that modern audiences are constantly sizing up authors, looking for similarities with themselves.

Marchionni presented tips for bringing the community into the news process, all based on her research:

  • Add photos and bios of reporters and writers to a website. This is an easy way to give users the familiarity they’re looking for.
  • Put reporters and writers on video if possible. Marchionni found that video was a very powerful way to humanize the people behind the news. Audiences responded extremely well when reporters talked about themselves and how they covered a story in a short video clip.
  • Write with voice. Users in her study trusted a reporter with a distinctive voice over a reporter who wrote straight AP-style inverted pyramid stories.
  • Voice is good, informality is not. Too much informality, especially in hard news stories, became a problem. A balance between a journalist’s and organization’s credibility along with a conversational tone helped create and maintain a community.
  • Use social media tools to crowdsource stories. This probably wouldn’t have been true even five years ago, but now audiences expect it. Be explicit if a story was crowdsourced: audiences appreciate the candor.
  • Don’t use Twitter only to broadcast a message, use it to engage the audience.

Marchionni pointed to Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Network as a good example of conversational journalism in action.

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