In a Medium post entitled "Questions are the new comments," Jennifer Brandel -- a self-described "accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken" -- makes a fascinating argument: Instead of involving the audience at the end of a story via the comments section, why not involve them at the start of the story by soliciting questions they want answered?
"While comments can be contagious and create more engagement, it’s often in a negative — even toxic — way," writes Brandel. "Questions are the opposite: positively contagious."
As a hater of the comments section and a lover of more audience-focused journalism -- there's nothing more corrosive to journalism's future than reporters writing for other reporters -- I found Brandel's argument fascinating and convincing. (You can watch her entire 19-minute presentation, from which the Medium post is adapted, here.)
This chart from Brandel's post really stood out to me.
The truth of the matter is that, although Brandel is advocating for a more audience-centric or, maybe better put, "audience-involved" style of journalism, we are already way down that path. The era of a reporter as gatekeeper is effectively over -- whether or not reporters realize it yet. Between Twitter, Facebook, cable TV and the various other information-sharing services out there, there is no gatekeeper anymore on the news -- or even what is news.
The rise of Donald Trump is indicative of the end of the audience-last/reporter-as-gatekeeper model of journalism. In the months leading up to Trump's announcement and even for a considerable time after he got into the race, the political reporting class was openly disdainful of his chances of even being a factor in the race. (One dummy even wrote a post titled: "Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously, in 1 very simple chart.")
And yet, here Trump sits, at the top of every national and early-state poll. Trump's celebrity, knack for getting free media and the fact that his message resonates with lots and lots of Republicans have rendered skepticism about his chances from the political journalist class almost entirely moot.
As Brandel notes in the chart above, journalists are transitioning from being "responsible for every part of story cycle" to being "responsible for some parts of story cycle." Sure, reporters are still a major part of what voters (or citizens) learn and the frame through which they learn it. But we are no longer the sole point of entry for that information.
There is clearly a downside to that fact. People are now far freer to get information from a single silo that affirms what they believe on every subject. (This is an incredibly common phenomenon among political partisans.) But I think the good of the audience being involved throughout the reporting and writing process far outweighs the bad.
For those who say that allowing the audience in on the front end of the process means nothing but stories about KanyeWestKimKardashianWeirdAnimalThingsStuffDonaldTrumpSays, I say: Sure, there's some of that. But, for the billionth time, this is a both/and proposition, not an either/or. We can write about Kanye's 13-minute speech at the VMAs and do an interview with the pollster who produced the new Des Moines Register Iowa numbers, too.
Also, journalism at its root is about finding answers -- or trying to find answers -- to questions average people are wondering about. Why not, you know, try to develop a process by which you can actually solicit the ideas of your audience about what it would like to know more about?
We're trying to do some of this in The Fix already. Way back in 2010, we had a feature that allowed readers to choose the House race we should cover in a more in-depth way. (I think we can and should bring that feature back.) We've asked for reader ideas to build lists of the best political books, the best political movies and the best political reporters. Of late, I've started to ask people on Twitter what political transcript they'd like to see me annotate.
The point is that the way people interact with information and, therefore, journalism is already changing from a top-down model in which journalists dictate what people know and when to a bottom-up model in which people tell reporters what they want to know more about.
The best way to handle this change is to listen to what's bubbling up and do everything you can to report and explain it. Of course, that's always what good reporters have done.