The Economist live debate highlights growing emphasis on reader/publication interaction

The Economist’s live debate and Facebook coverage on Friday about the upcoming German election raises interesting questions about the way in which journalists are trying to connect with their readers – and how developments in social and digital media are accentuating the differences between print and online journalism.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 17, 2013

The debate was publicised on Facebook, where readers could direct questions at Andreas Kluth, The Economist’s Berlin correspondent, by posting comments on a combination of graphs showing previous election results, and current opinion polls. As well as these written questions, by using the Hangouts feature on Google+, three members of the public where also on-screen and addressing Kluth directly, indeed emulating a ‘real-life’ conversation, which is what Google says is the aim of the app.

Although it initially seems paradoxical for a byline-free paper to present the name and face of a reporter, The Economist’s online blog explains that while ‘the main reason for anonymity… is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it… different rules apply on our website.’ Whereas in print the lack of bylines creates an anonymity that could suggest a collective voice, a reporter’s online presence, they argue, needs to be distinct so that journalists can engage and disagree with one another. Of course, that online presence gives the reader/viewer a chance to get involved too.

The increasing focus on journalist-reader connection highlights a shift in how news is expected to function. Social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter allow readers to engage with journalists on a relatively equal basis, and the writers become to some extent personalised through their online identity. (Although this can, of course, pose problems, as Michael Grunwald recently discovered, when lines between personal and professional life become blurred.) News events are becoming the subjects of more fluid debate where individual opinions – of both the journalist and members of the public – can stand out and be responded to.

Digital media in this sense can be seen as empowering for the reader, as the world of journalism becomes increasingly accessible to the public. These developments follow a continuing trend in wanting to engage on a personal level with readers, as Nieman suggested back in 2001: ‘To extend our reach and, perhaps more importantly, intensify the connections between our work and our readers or viewers, we might need to devote more time to exploring communities and considering what’s going on in the neighborhoods (both geographic and demographic) that we serve.’

The increasing use of live online debate and opinion polls, as well as the merging of private and professional worlds online, might signal a growing difference between print and online journalism. As debate continues over whether the internet has had a positive or negative effect on the transmission of news, the possibility for direct communication between correspondents and the public can surely only be seen as a good thing. Live debate necessitates immediate feedback and allows for an ever-widening variety of perspective and opinion.

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