BRUSSELS – I’m on a bit of a hiatus from the project this week as I am taking part in a delegation of journalism graduate students to the European Union. Each day we have been meeting with diplomats, representatives from the EU, NATO, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, career journalists and other students trying to make it in this field.
When surrounded by such intelligent people who care a great deal about journalism as public service and a tool for democracy, one topic, be it over Belgian waffles, mussels, chocolate or beer inevitably comes to the surface, “Where is journalism headed?”
I find the silver lining in these admittedly gloomy conversations knowing that this project could help answer this question.
One thing that consistently comes to mind is the importance of experimentation. Like the pack mentality of the EU press corps, the journalism industry has been waiting for someone to write the lede so the rest can follow suit.
Instead of waiting for someone else to find the answers, I appreciate the unique opportunity the Cedar Rapids Gazette has given us to experiment, succeed, and even, fail.
Our charge is simple: foster community interaction. Comments and discussion boards are the reigning formats for user-interaction. Yet, hardly anyone would argue they are the ideal systems. For the most part, users use them as soapboxes and rarely engage in dialogue with fellow readers. When dialogue does occur it is rarely the intelligent conversation newspapers aim to foster.
In a hypothetical world, a reader visits her local newspaper’s website one morning and an article about a robbery in her neighborhood catches her eye. No one was hurt and only $75 was taken from the till, but still she is worried. She has been reading about crimes in her neighborhood more often lately – it used to be such a safe place. But this woman is not a bystander; she wants to know how she can help. She logs into the website and notices 16 other registered users are reading the same story. She poses a question, “Does anyone want to chat about what we can do to stop the rising crime rate here?” Three users respond and they begin to chat about the problem, live, much like people do on AIM, MSN and Google Chat.
I’m certainly not saying this model is a winning solution. It probably assumes far too much about the level of civic engagement in American communities, and news organizations would likely worry about their inability to monitor such conversations. But it is an idea nonetheless – an experiment. It could fail. It could succeed. Much like the experiments we will test out as part of this project may fail or succeed. The important thing is we refuse to do what is already being done and we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to try something new.