Don’t let curiosity be killed off

When people complain about being stuck in traffic, there’s an annoying riposte that often drops from the lips of non-drivers.

‘You’re not stuck in traffic – you are the traffic,” they say, in their virtuous way.

And of course, they’re right. That’s what makes them so annoying.

There are parallels with a very different sort of traffic, too.

There’s a tendency in newsrooms for journalists to moan about the readers.

Often – or maybe it was just me in my grumpy old man-ish newsdesk moments – the moaning is very much in the vein of Basil Fawlty’s desire to ‘go and hit some guests’.

I took such a trip down memory lane the other day after spotting what I thought was a brilliantly-conceived piece on the Somerset Live website.

Written by my friend Laura Linham, the site’s Taunton Crown Court reporter, it asked a veteran defence solicitor how speaking up for evil villains sat with his conscience.

The inspiration for the piece came from those people. You know, the readers.

“How do these lawyers sleep at night,” people had ranted at the bottom of Laura’s stories.

So she took them at their word – and found out.

I loved the piece – and I told Facebook as much.

bbk-lawyer

Here we were, responding to the questions at the forefront of our readers’ minds. Public service journalism at its best.

Except they didn’t really want to know.

The story as near as dammit bombed in newsroom analytics terms.

All of which takes me back to one of my favourite quotes about journalism. One I’ve shared before.

saying

But I’m trying not to be disheartened.

I’m trying not to be disheartened because responding to readers is at the heart of the sort of journalism I want to see succeed.

One strand is hyperlocal journalism – and some new research involving one of my heroes, Dave Harte from Birmingham City University, has highlighted the role of what it calls ‘reciprocity’ here.

Many hyperlocal sites have been set up to cover stories and issues overlooked, ignored or beyond the resources of the traditional regional media, which in the past may have thought it knew best rather too often.

But there’s also the American project Hearken which seeks to help traditional media tap into audience power and views more effectively, and the Curious City initiative on a radio station in Chicago.

hearken

The radio project seeks to answer listeners’ questions on topics from gambling to beach cleanliness, and seems to be thriving.

It will always be tempting to wring one’s hands over the fickleness – and at times, tastelessness – of our audience members.

But we journalists – and our friends, and our families – are also audience members ourselves.

As I prepare to begin teaching the basics of news reporting to a new group of first-year students, some enduring values come to mind.

There’s determination and empathy – the two most important personal qualities in any journalist’s armoury.

But there’s also curiosity.

And the day we give up trying to answer our readers’ questions – spoken or unspoken – is the day we should give up on journalism altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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