Transforming The “Engaged Reader” Into A Journalist

The concept of reader engagement championed in the blogosphere is now making the rounds in the traditional publishing world.

BusinessWeek serves as a good exhibit A.

MediaShift captured changes afoot at BW in a far-reaching post that included an interview with the big cheese himself, EIC John Byrne.

On the topic of reader engagement Byrne shared:

“We have had a very rigourous, very lively reader involvement on the site for a long time. In any given month, roughly 15,000 people participate in conversations on our site, but they are largely hidden from view. You have to either go into a blog and see how people are responding, or you have to go into a forum to see how people are exchanging views, or go to the end of a story to see the comments on it. We want to elevate those conversations and make them more apparent to everyone that these conversations are occurring …

“This is about elevating our conversation and giving credence to the rhetoric that everyone has, that the web is a dialogue and not a lecture. The truth is that very few people are delivering on it, having reporters actively engage with readers or elevating comments and saying, ‘This is as important as any story we have, any video we have, any audio we have.’”

Byrne went on to say:

“Time spent [on the BW Web site] is not as important to me as making a contribution to the site. I look at it as input and output. In any given month, we probably publish 800 to 1,000 stories on the site and get 15,000 comments in. So that’s about a 15-to-1 ratio and I want to triple that by the end of the year. So for every story we put out, I’d like to have 45 contributions from our readers.”

If BW inspires readers to pontificate with posted comments, no one can argue the virtues that come with such engagement.

John ByrneSo far I’m with you, Mr. Byrne.

But here’s where things go off track.

BusinessWeek is now looking to its readership to generate genuine editorial content as part of its engagement mantra.

Under the banner, “What’s Your problem? You’ve got workplace issues. Together, we’ll find answers,” the book is looking to readers to contribute essays, photos and even videos about the challenges that come with coping in today’s workplace.

Can the average Joe write compelling content?

Can people who don’t write for a living storytell in a way that captivates?

I’d say not likely.

And if you’re a grizzled reporter – or even an ungrizzled reporter – how do you feel about the arrival of amateur hour?

I’m guessing mixed feeling to say the least.

It will be interesting to see how this workplace content comes together starting August 14.

In the meantime, Mr. Byrne’s July 11 blog post hypes a new milestone at BusinessWeek: A column by an everyday reader cracked the top five most-read stories.

Ironically, the post didn’t generate one reader comment (as I put this view to rest), so reaching utopia in the form of a 45:1 ratio of user comments to story just took a hit.

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4 comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Erin Collopy July 21st, 2008 12:37 pm

    Can people who don’t write for a living story tell in a way that captivates? I’ll have to respectfully disagree that the answer is “no”.

    I do believe storytelling is a skill that can be learned and fine-tuned –in business -or any other setting. But when it comes to quality storytelling, I think of those people I know personally who tell an engaging story -ripe with details and colorful language. And it occurs to me that none are classically trained in the fine art of “storytelling” per se. I feel confident that some of these great oral story tellers could fairly easily translate those to the written page, perhaps not with the grace of a professional writer, but with all the drama, passion, great characters and conflict that makes for a great story.

    The Web in general, and BusinessWeek in particular, are providing individuals with a new, public way to share stories that were only scribbled down in a personal journals or told to friends over coffee before. Who better to talk about the challenges faced in the workplace today than the people working? An editor from BusinessWeek interviewing 10 or even 50 workers could not get anywhere near the same perspective as the stories told by those who actually lived them.

  2. Lou Hoffman July 21st, 2008 12:57 pm

    Appreciate the comment Erin.

    Unfortunately, the typical corporate environment propagates a control mentality — control the message, control the spokesperson, etc. — which handicaps the indivdual’s chance to story tell.

    In light of this limitation even the few who can do more than put a verb in front of a noun will need a bit of courage tell their stories with verve.

    We’ll see.

    Lou

  3. Roger Tompkins May 29th, 2009 4:38 pm

    It’s nearly a year later and I am reading and re-reading this post and its two comments. I’m doing so because this post represents a sort of milestone in the analysis of the relationship between the professional writer and the typical reader and I am fascinated by the early take on this.

    Byrne was of course right. As was Erin, the commenter.

    “I feel confident that some of these great oral story tellers could fairly easily translate those to the written page, perhaps not with the grace of a professional writer, but with all the drama, passion, great characters and conflict that makes for a great story.”

    Absolutely, sir Erwin.

    Countless examples abound in history. Jack London, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill.

    Lou says .. “We’ll see.” Very correct at the time.

    And, Lou, your comment that the citizen speaker will need a ‘bit of courage’ is spot on.

    Ten months later … have you seen enough?

    There’s a lot of courage out there, Lou.

  4. Lou Hoffman July 8th, 2009 4:51 pm

    Roger,

    Apologize for the delayed response.

    Yes, I agree there’s a fair amount of courage out there.

    I also agree that great oral story tellers could absolutely make the transition to the written page.

    The crux of the issue lies in determining a media property’s dependence on the amateur. Byrne’s op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor at http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0908/p09s02-coop.html sheds some light on this topic.

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