What Ben Domenech can teach newspaper.coms

What should newspaper website editors learn from washingtonpost.com’s Ben Domenech debacle?

Well, if the initial response is simply “don’t hire bloggers,” newspaper.coms will miss an enormous opportunity.

The Post deserves credit for courting readers through blogging technology more aggressively than perhaps any other U.S. newspaper. When the New York Times put its op-ed content behind a subscription wall, the Post took the opposite approach, not only soliciting links to its still-free content from bloggers, but returning the favor through linkbacks generated with technology from blog search engine Technorati. The Post has demonstrated an understanding that Web publishing ought to reflect a conversation, unlike traditional, one-way print publishing.

Newspaper.coms that are beginning that conversation shouldn’t fear bloggers dropping gigabytes of criticism their way. If bloggers are complaining, that means they’re still reading. Publishers should fear, instead, the calm silence of an apathetic Web that doesn’t read your site anymore.

Ben Domenech was a lousy hire. Not because he was a blogger, not because he was opinionated. He was a lousy hire because his history of work online revealed a dishonest, shallow writer who added bluster, rather than insight, to his pages. His shrill parting shot at the readers who exposed his plagiarism only further demonstrated his immature self-importance.

Fortunately, Ben Domenech is as representative of online writers as Janet Cooke or Jack Kelley are of newspaper reporters. But, in my experience, too many newspaper reporters and editors continue to assume that most bloggers are just partisan media critics. Such views of the blogosphere ignore the wonderful variety of blogs and independent sites online, some even published by former print and broadcast journalists.

The lure of the voice

Blogs are attracting readers in not insignificant amounts. BoingBoing serves two million readers a day, according to one of its writers. DailyKos serves hundreds of thousands of daily visitors. People want information. They want it presented in an engaging and comforting voice. And they want the writers presenting that information to believe in it.

That’s why newspaper readers love great columnists. People respond to a friendly, authoritative voice. Even Domenech’s blustery RedState delivers its “news” with uncompromising certainty. That isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t put out something they’re unsure about. But they do need to be honest and transparent about what they do — and do not — know.

Popular bloggers speak with an authoritative voice, but not a disembodied institutional voice. Good bloggers engage their readers, becoming a real person whom a reader wants to have a conversation with. And the best bloggers know their topic, and deliver and analyzing information that a generalist can’t.

Newspapers don’t need to hire partisans from the blogosphere to find such voices. Newsrooms and journalism schools have been producing them for generations. And that ought to be the lesson from the Domenech incident. The journalism industry doesn’t need more partisan blowhards. It does not need to turn publications over to right-wingers to hold on to its audience. It does need, however, to better connect with readers who are overwhelmed with media choices.

In addition to encouraging new voices that will draw and maintain readership, newspaper.coms should consider a different style of journalistic writing. Why keep making your writers turn out third-person, inverted-pyramid, “Journalism 101” articles if the public responds so well to different formats? Journalism developed its publishing conventions in large part to support the technical needs of print and broadcast media. With the Internet those needs no longer always apply.

Ultimately, we’re in the communication business, not the 15-inch-four-source-article business. Why not try new formats in an effort to better communicate? Don’t stick to the established online formats, either. The biggest winners in business are those who don’t copy the competition, but who find something new.

In search of the truth

Of course, writing format is just one of the problems here. A larger issue, one that is potentially more troublesome, is politics. Ben Domenech is a conservative, and many conservatives complain long and loud about the Washington Post. To the extent that conservatives point out errors of fact and unsupported assumptions in news coverage, their views should be heard and the subject of their complaints corrected. But if conservatives — or moderates or liberals for that matter — don’t like the outcome of truthful news reporting or well-researched and argued commentary … tough.

As someone who trained in social and lab science research long before taking a journalism course, it drives me nuts the way this industry misapplies the term “objectivity.” True scientific objectivity doesn’t mean promoting all views, no matter how poorly supported. Nor does it mean refusing to take a stand, no matter how compelling the evidence.

News readers want the truth. They always have. Indeed, with so many media choices now available, they crave someone to do the hard work of sifting through this information and to tell them what can be believed. So, instead of turning over their webpages to partisans spewing the latest talking points, newspaper website editors ought to build their audience by doing what the partisan sites will not — sharp reporting. At the same time, they ought to let their writers deliver that reporting in freshest, most engaging and conversational formats possible. Even if that ticks off readers from one party or the other.

With millions of publishers now reaching the global audience, someone’s going to deliver that kind of coverage. Newspaper publishers will have to decide whether theirs will be among the sites that succeed at that new game.