January 30, 2007

By Pat Walters
Naughton Fellow

The Internet has given readers new — and sometimes nasty — ways to interact with writers.

We’re in the midst of a “reader revolution,” a time in which every reader is a writer, Gary Kamiya argued in a Salon.com essay Tuesday. It takes little more than a mouse click — no forethought required — to lash out at a public figure, an aquaintance or another writer. Maybe one day, Kamiya imagined, readers and writers will play nice, or at least adhere to some rules of decency. It isn’t clear whether or not he really believes such a day will ever come.

Despite his concerns about the current state of the dialogue, Kamiya concedes that the Internet — specifically, blogs, e-mail and blog-style story comments — has given journalists an enriched understanding of their readers. I’ve noticed that many news organizations have even been finding ways to use reader input as content. Some newspapers, for instance, quote from comments left on stories by readers.

Using reader-generated content is not a new practice. Newspapers have been printing letters to the editor for decades. But the practice is changing.

One particularly interesting development appeared at the San Francisco Chronicle a week ago. The newspaper started podcasting messages left on reporters’ and editors’ voice mailboxes. The feature is called “Correct Me if I’m Wrong …”

The first one, posted last week, is absolutely hilarious.

Listen to it here.

Readers or, rather, listeners, have responded enthusiastically. One called in to leave a voice mail in response to the podcast. Another listener remixed the podcast and posted it on YouTube. Someone else cut it up so snippets of it can be played on a cell phone.

Judging by the reactions of my coworkers, my response was typical. I laughed. Really hard.

But after I wiped my eyes, I started asking questions.

When is the last time a newspaper Web site cracked me up? What’s the point of this podcast? Is it good journalism?

In Tuesday’s New York Times, executive editor Phil Bronstein said he came up with the idea, and explained its purpose in this way:

“This is about listening to your readers … Newspapers used to
be a lot more lively than they are now, and they could definitely stand
some of that.”

Agreed. Energy is refreshing, particularly when it shows up in the newspaper or on its Web site. But still, I wondered: What exactly does this kind of content do for listeners?

When I called Bronstein Tuesday, he told me the point of the podcast is to “add to the conversation” between the newspaper its readers.

“I think there are letters to the editor, that run in the paper,” he said. “And
there are comments, that go on the Web. And, I think, ‘Correct me if I’m
wrong…’, these go somewhere in between.”

Bronstein said letters to the editor and, to a lesser degree, online story comments, are often written guardedly. Sometimes this caution results in a thoughtful piece of criticism. But it also has a tendency to snuff out whatever fervor prompted the reader to respond in the first place.

Voice mails, on the other hand, aren’t always so well thought out. They’re different, Bronstein said. They’re passionate.

“Because this is an
audio feature, I think [you get an added] intensity and uniqueness,” Bronstein said. “These are not
things that you’ll hear in the normal course of the day. … [They’re] unpredictable. … In audio, you can sort-of hear how people feel … Whether they have
conspiracy theories, or they’re complaining about a headline.”

Speaking of conspiracy theories, a Washington D.C. lawyer named Brian Lehman claimed on a blog that last Friday’s voice mail podcast was a hoax. He argued that the story the caller was complaining about didn’t exist, and that the complaint itself was carefully orchestrated by none other than Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons.”

It turns out that the story in question does exist. Richard Geiger, library director at the Chronicle, dug it up for me Tuesday — an August 2005 Associated Press piece. It’s not clear why Chronicle staffer Ken Howe, who received the voice mail about the piece, saved it for so long. As for Lehman’s Groening claim, I’ll defer to the readers of the Freakonomics.com blog.

Bronstein acknowledged that the Chronicle makes no effort to determine if callers really mean what they are saying. “We’re presenting it as it is,” he said. It’s a voice mail to a reporter or an editor.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the voice mails are genuine. Imagine you are a reader of the Chronicle. As you drink your morning coffee and read the paper, you notice that a certain reporter is sprinkling semicolons all across the page. This gratuitous use of punctuation angers you, and you call the writer to express your rage. You leave a voice mail. Maybe you get a little out of hand. Okay, a lot out of hand.

The next day, you’re clicking around on SFGate.com, and you find “Correct me if I’m wrong…” Click to play. It’s a familiar voice. It’s your voice, railing about semicolon addiction.

Should you have expected the voice mail you left to have been saved and broadcast?

Bronstein would say yes.

“You are calling a newspaper, a media organization, and our role in
culture is to publish,” he said. “You are leaving a general voicemail, a
recording of your comments.”

Any messages that contain confidential information, news tips or what Bronstein described as information intended “for a specific reporter about a specific story” won’t be broadcast.

The point, Bronstein told me, is to present people’s opinions, general comments about the news, the paper and life in general.

“[Listeners are] able to hear what other people are feeling and thinking,” he said.

Is broadcasting a voice mail legal? Looks like it. Poynter Online associate editor Meg Martin and I checked out
California’s wire tapping laws. While it is illegal to record a
telephone conversation without alerting the person on the other end of
the line, that doesn’t seem to cover voice mails.

“Please leave your message after the tone.” Okay. I consent.

We found nothing that indicated it might be illegal to broadcast a legally obtained recording.

But the more important question, I think, is not whether this practice is legal, but whether it is ethical.

Bronstein said the voice mails the Chronicle is broadcasting are coming from folks who want to be heard. They’re opinionated people, the kind you might find on Speaker’s Corner in London, standing on a soapbox, shouting into crowds. They want to be broadcast.

But what about the readers who aren’t career blowhards? What about the person who comes unhinged in a voice mail simply because it’s a voice mail, a message she assumes will remain between her and the journalist she’s calling. “It’s not like I’m writing a letter to the editor,” she might tell herself.

If she’s calling the Chronicle, she’d be wrong — it is like writing a letter to the editor.

Listen to the Chronicle‘s second voice mail podcast here. This guy thinks Bronstein is controlling his brain. He raves about it until the machine cuts him off at two minutes.

It’s pretty clear that these podcasts are designed to entertain, and to do so by making fun of certain wacky readers. The written introductions to each installment are snarky. And both blog-style postings are tagged only as “comedy.”

For the journalists who listen, the podcasts give particular gratification. “Ah, I’ve totally heard that guy before,” we might think. Or worse: “Hah, take that. Last time you’ll to call in and yell at a reporter. Jackass.”

In certain ways, this podcast works. It clearly attracts readers. And it gets them involved with content, talking about it, writing about it and playing with it. But what does it actually do to further the mission of the newspaper?

We’re journalists. Everyday, we set out to tell stories, true accounts of people, places and events that might help our neighbors better understand the world. Interacting with those neighbors, particularly the ones who read our work, is becoming increasingly important, a challenge that is at once simplified and complicated by the Internet.

I think back to Kamiya’s hopes for a world in which writers and readers
interact peaceably. Harmony between writers and readers, categories that increasingly overlap, is dependent on respect. But when a reader calls to leave a voice mail, are we responsible for warning her that the recording she’s about to leave might be broadcast to a million people?

Should the content of a voice mail — serious news tip, grammar rant or personal tirade — affect the way we treat the caller who left it?

At what point does our struggle to be popular with readers start to pull us away from our comittment to informing, teaching and inspiring them?

You tell me.

I’ve set up a voice mailbox to catch your calls — leave a message at 727-456-2357.

Give a call. Tell us what you really think. But consider yourself warned.

We might just publish what you say.

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I'm a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times Magazine.I also produce…

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