Talking the talk

Warning: Guardian worship to follow. I know that I keep quoting those folks, but that’s because they keep saying good things. (Full disclosure: I write for them.)

At the Hay Festival in the UK, Georgina Henry, editor of Comment is Free, talked with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger about their interactive future. Henry said she has learned a lot after diving into the realm of community:

“When I started this, I did look on it as a newspaper journalist; these were things that we were putting up that you had to read. I didn’t really get the measure of the conversation that goes on.

“Two months on, I’m kind of humbled by it. You have to think in a different way about what exactly does divide your professional columnists and the people that I recruited to blog from the readers, who are sometimes extremely erudite.”

She also wrote about the experience in the paper:

Setting up CiF as a collective, group blog was, to my un-web-educated eye, more a practical solution than a philosophical one. We wanted to recruit hundreds of people – academics, politicians, scientists, environmentalists, writers, etc – and encourage them to blog as and when they wanted. We wanted to foster all shades of opinion. We had a tiny budget – a fraction of that spent on the paper comment pages – so we needed to offer freedom and space to write instead of big fees.

We also wanted to get our professional columnists to engage with readers by allowing people to comment instantly on their articles, but I admit I thought only in passing about reader reaction and the kind of conversation the site might provoke online. What I did not foresee was that two months on I would find myself in the middle of a raging argument about professionalism versus amateurism – with sub-headings covering language, anonymity, accountability, democracy, censorship and the art of conversation….

On good days I think this is the most exciting new frontier for journalism – the immediacy of the debate, the excitement at watching readers engage with the big (and occasionally trivial) issues of the day with wit, verve and insight make print seem sluggish, out of date, even a bit dull.

Other days, when I have spent hours removing the anti-semitism and Islamophobia that dances round any piece about Israel/Palestine, and the incoherent abuse, the swearing, the false statements, the ill-disguised misogyny, the intimidation and the downright nastiness that fuels so many comments, I wonder whether Guardian values – free comment, but fair comment too – are in danger of being drowned out in an anarchic, unmoderated medium populated, it seems, by weird men. I look with fondness at the rigorously edited paper, and the polite discourse on the letters page….

Stung by one particularly brutal comment on a piece by a young Muslim woman we had recruited to blog, I did what Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, advised and entered the fray myself. Why, I asked in an end-of-the- week post, was it necessary for commenters to personally abuse those with whom they disagreed? Why did so many resort to swearing to make their point? Would they behave like this if they weren’t hiding behind the anonymity of their screen names?

Some of the response was predictable (you can read it at [here]) – but I was struck by how thoughtful others were. And funny. Commenters whose names struck fear in me when I saw them popping up on our bloggers threads turned out to be unexpectedly reasonable. While they fiercely defended their right to take on the professionals, there were many useful bits of advice about the rules of engagement.

Last week Jackie Ashley and Polly Toynbee joined in. Ashley robustly defended professional columnists – in her case, with 25 years of experience of political reporting. She wasn’t claiming that she always knew more than her readers, but the least they could do was tell her so without insulting her. Toynbee attacked the anonymity of commenters and the aggression of their discourse – and revealed the contents of a particularly obnoxious email she had received that morning. (She got quite a lot of sympathy in return.) Both got plaudits from some of their fiercest critics for getting down and dirty and joining the discussion.

Is Bell right that the way to raise the standard of debate on the site is to engage properly with readers? …

Guardian columnnists have taken to heart that blogging is about more than just writing your piece and disappearing once the conversation starts. They have started, as a matter of course, going back into the debates they have generated to talk to their readers….

At Hay, Henry and Rusbridger talked about the nominal fees they give to bloggers whose pieces are commissioned or picked as featured posts. Rusbridger said:

“What we’re doing, which no newspaper has ever done before, is to take your elite stable of columnists, who are paid, and pitch them into the same space as people who aren’t paid,” he said.

“What is professional journalism and what isn’t, and how do they share the same space? We’re making this up as we go along.”

And then we have the paper’s media commentator, a journalism veteran at high levels, blogging — mainly aggregating media news (though I’d like a big more commentary on it) — and telling the paper’s readers:

It allows everyone to have a voice. To many journalists, especially editors, this is anathema. How dare the great unwashed usurp the customary right of the professional journalist to decide what should, and should not, be reported?

We are on our way to the demise of top-down journalism in favour of bottom-up journalism, and the journey is proving rather uncomfortable.

And you wonder why I like these people?