Criticism is free

The Guardian has taken the Comment is Free model and extended it to arts and entertainment.

That model: They take their columnists and throw them into the conversation (whether they like it or not). They add in new voices and opinion leaders from many different perspectives to broaden the conversation more than the bounds of paper could ever allowed. Then they open the gates to anyone to comment and converse, discovering more interesting voices. It’s a wonderfully rich and spicy stew. In a short time, CiF has become a platform for opinions and, like its foremother, HuffingtonPost, has been used as a place to announce positions (e.g., Jimmy Carter and the Euston Manifesto on CiF, John Kerry on HuffPost).

So now the Guardian brings this to arts and entertainment, which makes perfect sense. Now critics find themselves in the conversation . . . with other critics (formerly known as the audience). What’s so right about this is that the conversation is going on anyway; by helping it to come together, the Guardian puts itself in just the right position, in the middle of the talk. It becomes the water cooler. If I started Entertainment Weekly today, it would look like this, with links to stories, clips, sites, and more.

I can see this working beautifully in sports because, again, it only facilitates the conversation that is going on already among fans — and any opinion there is about as good as the next. [UPDATE: Proving once again that I am not a real man, I never look at sports sections and thus didn’t see that the Guardian had already put up its sports columns CiF style; thanks to the real man in the comments who informed me.] The paper becomes the pub. I wonder whether it might work in business or at least in market coverage — why not provide a place for the crowd to dissect, for example, the Google/YouTube deal because we are doing this already. And I think a variation of this can work in local, only instead of trafficking mostly in opinion, this becomes a means for people to share reporting as well. More on that in a minute.

Many months ago, I sat in the office of Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger as we talked about the extension of the CiF model and he drew a diagram showing the new relationship of the journalist — columnist and critic but also, I believe, reporter and editor — to his or her public. He drew a funnel with talk flowing in and out and I can’t recreate that now. So I’ll give you a very mixed metaphor: Journalists should no longer act as choke-points in that funnel but instead as pumps and filters, keeping the flow of opinions and information going in, around, and through — and contributing to and improving that flow along the way.

And that is the important thing to watch here: What is the role of the journalist in this new, networked world? Moderator. Enabler. Even educator. I think the Comment is Free model works beyond merely opinion and conversation as journalists’ roles change.

First, there is the informational role. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the journalists saw questions, curiosities, or misinformation swirling around the conversation and then went and fixed that with reporting: ‘Since you asked . . .’ ‘Here are the facts. . . .’ That is their first contribution. Of course, this is what jounalists do already: They report. I’d like to see the reporting and the conversation around it come closer together in the CiF model. And then, of course, the reporters aren’t the only ones reporting. This becomes an example for anyone; it empowers us all to go get facts, to improve the conversation, to make the crowd wiser.

Second, I think the journalist-as-moderator needs to be more of a magnet, to both attract and actively go out and find the really interesting voices and the knowledgeable experts and bring them into the conversation. Again, this is what reporters do already when they find the right people to quote. But now they can do more than quote those people; they can invite them to the party. And the party only gets better.

Third, editors should see themselves more broadly. I hesitate to say that they should edit and educate the crowd, for I can hear the crowd shouting back at me, ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ editing!’ But at CiF, when comments started to go wild, I suggested that instead of concentrating on the bad guys, they concentrate on the good guys and they found and highlighted some great new voices. That is one role of an editor: finding and cultivating talent. I also think an editor’s contribution to a conversation — as to an article — can and should be to push to make it better, to ask the right questions, to focus the narrative, to push for more reporting. That is how editors will operate in Yes, in this sense, we are all editors. Except I think what’s missing is for the paid editors to bring those skills to the conversation. And the conversation will be better for it.

I think that the CiF model is an important step on the way to networked journalism, for it brings together the pros and the ams to do new things together.

  • If only the RSS feed would work, since I have no intention of refreshing the site every half hour when I’m at work.

  • The Guardian have been presenting their sports columns (and other columns when that post happens to refer to sport) in a CiF format for a while. It doesn’t work for the same reasons CiF doesn’t work — most of the comments are dross and there’s no way I can hide them from my view, and most columnists don’t respond to comments in the comments.

  • I find your blog very interesting, and this is just the reflection of what I think.
    The Internet taught us a big lesson, taught us that it was possible to substitute the monologue of the written paper into a dialogue, a discussion, an exchange of ideas, that also a piece of virtual paper could speak.
    The Internet became the landscape of the mind, the worldwide living room.
    And the new actors of this new world MUST adapt to it.
    “I suggested that instead of concentrating on the bad guys, they concentrate on the good guys ” the bad guys are the ones who transform a conversation in animated discussion and there is where most people come in.
    News get more “personal”, because people comment them:
    many tongues, many eyes, one big discussion…I love that

  • Dave Hinton,
    You are right that the writers should engage in conversation with the commenters. Some do, and I certainly encourage my team to do so.
    (Full disclosure: I am editor of

  • Esther

    I have to second Dave Hinton’s comment. It may be because the topics I am interested in are so controversial anyway– (iran, islam, other religions, middle east…)– but I find the comments on CiF so disheartening and so extreme (I had a whole list, but disheartening and extreme seem to sum the list up just fine) that I have lost respect for the Guardian as a whole. There is no conversation in the comments on the posts I read, just vitriol and sloganeering. What is the solution? How can real debate and argument be fostered? That is the real question.

    The whole thing makes me long for a letters section instead. Could it be that the Guardian should consider actual moderation?

  • Lism, yeah, sorry about not having those RSS feeds ready at launch. They’re working now. Movable Type wasn’t doing the several of the million and one things that we were asking it to do at launch, including making lots of the content, not to mention the RSS feeds, invisible. Stealth technology is not really useful for a website.

    We’ve got the feeds back up now. Sorry for the delay. Hopefully, they’ll find a place in your feeds.

    (Full disclosure: I’m the Guardian’s Blogs editor.)

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