Direct the conversation

Our readers are pulled in different directions and spoon fed information from all angles. Torn between Twitter, Facebook, other publications, newsletters from their school or college, or old-fashioned word of mouth, students need a voice of reason to just make sense of it all.

Newspaper editorial pages used to be the place to put the noise into context. But editorials alone aren’t enough. It’s time for us to direct the conversation, says Chuck Baldwin, professional journalist in  University of South Dakota.

Mr. Baldwin spoke at the College Media Advisers national convention in Louisville, Ky., this weekend about breaking out of the editorial page rut. His advice? Pretty simple.

Shut up. Let the people talk, but direct the conversation. Take a strong leadership role in getting people to talk about issues without just mumbling to ourselves.

Easy, huh? Well, yes. Here are some suggestions to improve the dialog on our campus. Some of them we are doing. Some we aren’t. Some we can improve on. All are pretty good reminders that it’s the student body’s, not The Shorthorn’s, voice we’re after.

PERSON ON THE STREET: Correlate with things in the news (midterm elections, etc.), not how someone feels about chocolate on Halloween. Ask the question that will get meaningful answers. Don’t run crappy answers or wishy-washy statements. You need a minimum of five to six people who can make an intelligent comment on a serious issue. Don’t just do it in print – show the faces and voices online, too, in audio or video form. Do a video poll each week – and promote the heck out of it. You must direct the conversation.

STORY COMMENTS: Instead of leaving open commentary on each story, ask a specific question to lead the conversation. On a story about budget cuts at the university, ask the reader how he or she would cut the budget. On a story about increased tuition, ask the reader whether fees should be offered for specific classes (and what?!). The answers could surprise you – and lead to more stories. Again, you must direct the conversation.

POLLS: Polls don’t necessarily need to be related to stories. They can be fun and important. Either way, you are directing the quality of the answers and the data you collect with the quality of the question you ask. That data can be useful in editorial and news content. Why aren’t you doing this yet? (His words, not mine.)

COMMENT GROUPS: Get a group of individuals together to talk about an issue, then write your editorial or a group editorial out of that discussion. Find a dozen people representing different groups on campus – Greek life, housing, Black Student Association, health services, etc. – talk about different aspects of campus life. When you have a particular issue come up, ask this group of people for its opinions and record that dialog for consideration. This is leadership: You select the group of people to ensure diversity of background and direct the question as the moderator. Bonus: Each of those groups will have a stronger tie to the newspaper – their investment is also your investment.

PUBLIC EDITORIAL MEETINGS: Who knows whether the editorial is written by a group of vocal individuals or a guy in his dorm room, wearing boxers and writing between bouts of World of Warcraft (no offense, gamers). Hold your editorial meetings in public. Stream the meetings for people to watch. There may or may not be interest in watching them, but the leadership it shows in being transparent (which we demand of our sources). Don’t keep secrets – we’re about public information. Bonus: You might find sharper discussion because people will prepare.

VIDEO: Video editorials in story format (not woman reading editorial). Instead, it’s a one-sided video story with a plot line. Show what you’re talking about. Or, try a pro/con in video format.

PUBLIC TALKS WITH OFFICIALS: Meet with your sources in public for big issues. Or small issues. Just do it! If there’s an issue with two groups that disagree (guns on campus, for example), host a public event for people to listen to the newspaper interview both sides. Video it, and edit the conversation for online. Cover the heck out of the event (promotion, etc.). Not only are you directing the conversation – and showing leadership – you can get good publicity for doing so.

FORUMS: Same kind of thinking, but much more issue based. Plan in advance and select panelists or speakers on issues that will provide meaningful information about a topic. Direct the conversation by selecting a moderator who knows the topic well. Partner with other student media to accomplish this. But hold public sessions to both inform and direct the conversation on campus.

The bottom line, Mr. Baldwin said, is that we have to break out of the idea that people are coming to us begging for information. They aren’t. So journalists, through the editorial page, can step up and demand the attention by showing an interest and leading the conversation. But it takes thinking through which method will work best for the issue at hand, and being consistent with it. Polls, forums and commentary are an easy way to build an audience each day. Don’t wait to start – someone else might dive in before we can.

– BF

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One thought on “Direct the conversation

  1. Taking Mr. Baldwin’s advice, here’s my question for staff: What can The Shorthorn do TODAY to “direct the conversation”? Person who posts the most specific answers gets something rad. If we follow through on it, cupcakes for staff tomorrow.

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