We’ve all heard the complaints ad nauseum about comments on news organization websites becoming a nasty ghetto for trolls. Advice on how to prevent that from happening and to cultivate community and more constructive contribution abounds (I’ll share some of my favorites at the end of this post), but many news organizations still see engagement as a waste of scarce time, beneath them, or simply haven’t thought about it much at all.
Maybe more concrete examples are in order now that BeatBlogging.org is mostly shuttered. Ken Ward, Jr. is a reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, where his hard-hitting beat reporting on mine safety has won an IRE medal, a Scripps Howard Foundation award for environmental reporting, and numerous other accolades.
Although Ward has clearly mastered all the traditional ingredients of exemplary beat reporting in helping to keep mine operators and public officials accountable, he has also embraced new and social media. In his blog, Coal Tattoo, he decided early on not to ignore comments. He said:
I handled it completely differently — I started out being very involved and hands on and interacting with readers. And, to a large extent, it drove the trolls away.
And this engagement has had a direct payoff in terms of cultivating leads from sources and material for stories.
Early this month, NPR and the Gazette were reporting that two Massey energy executives were underground unsupervised for hours after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, raising concerns they tampered with evidence. In addition to his own, earlier story, Ward wrote a blog post noting what NPR was reporting. The Massey general council responded to this post, a quote which Ward would later use in a more fleshed out story the next day.
Another example popped up last week, Ward told me. In the comments section of a post about Energy Secretary Chu’s appearance in Charleston for a talk about greenhouse gases, a reader pointed out a new National Geographic article that discussed a scientific paper about “peak coal” production. He turned that into the lead post, giving the reader credit for pointing it out.
Look through the Coal Tattoo comments and note how substantive Ward’s responses to his readers’ are. That’s the way to do it, folks.
Here’s a few of my favorite pieces on handling comments better: