Hope not hate: what makes stories fly online?

 

I’ve always thought that, as journalists, we see the best and worst of human nature.

The best comes in the shape of stories about health battles with adversity, heroic rescues or selfless charity fundraising.

The worst can raise its ugly head in the form of horrific crime, political cynicism or corporate incompetence. Not to mention terror attacks like last night’s in Nice where we struggle to find the right words.

And then there’s the bear pit, free for all that is social media – particularly Facebook.

Last weekend, I felt for Chris Humphreys, political reporter at one of my old papers, the Swindon Advertiser.

He led the coverage of a heart-warming rally against racism in the Wiltshire town, and used Facebook Live to stream video footage of the event.

It was then that the coverage was hijacked by the very people whose obscene outlook on life sparked the show of strength.

 

adver humph2

 

 

I tweeted Chris to congratulate him, and I like to think this print headline was also a defiant message to those poisonous web trolls.

sw ad p1

We have a love-hate relationship with the people formerly known as the readers.

I’ve often quoted one of my favourite journalistic pearls of wisdom:

saying

In the  newsroom where I’ve been moonlighting to keep my hand in this week, I’ve watched as the newsdesk battle to second-guess the great British public.

My friends could be forgiven for simply serving up a diet of ‘grimy crime’, car crashes and viral videos.

Luckily – from the point of view of ensuring that the essence of journalism with a heart and soul is preserved, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Despite the wealth of data in the analytics-driven newsrooms of today, we still don’t always know exactly what turns our audience on.

Material that works a treat one week may flop spectacularly the next.

And we can end up feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled as we serve up content which we think might attract people with a different world view to our own.

Although for many regional news websites the audience reaction has moved to Facebook, there is a useful debate to be had on readers’ comments and how to make the most of them.  The New York Times is making  new efforts to forge more constructive links with its audience, so that its journalism becomes more of a team effort.

Ultimately, the dream – and it may well be a naive one – must be that the audience develops such a relationship with you that it allows you to tempt it out of its comfort zone.

That certainly, seemed to be the direction of travel of an interesting thread from American media guru Jay Rosen.

 

 

 

 

 

And, now and again, those fickle, frustrating readers can surprise us. In a good way.

My temporary colleagues at the GloucestershireLive website stumbled across a lovely story about a wartime Spitfire engineer who was reunited with one of the aircraft at the age of 95.

I had my doubts as to whether it would, well, fly online.

But it did. And how.

plane ken fairford

Ken Farlow at Fairford. Pic: Gloucestershire Airport

It became the most viewed story that night, and for some time afterwards. And more importantly, triggered a lovely response on Facebook.

fbook spuitfire

The horrible incidents that followed the Brexit vote revealed a nasty underbelly to British society, reflected in those Adver comments.

But we need to remember that they don’t – can’t, shouldn’t – represent Britain.

And to cling to the hope that the response to that heart-warming Spitfire story is the one that truly speaks for our nation.

There’s another source of hope, too.

It’s a vote of confidence in the most rewarding sort of journalism: talking to interesting people and telling their stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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