A gruff Sacramento Bee city editor was getting an earful from an angry reader on the telephone a decade or so ago, getting more agitated as he tried to get a word in edgewise. I was walking by the local news desk as the conversation wound up, and I could hear his frustration as he kept trying to interject.
Ma’am, he kept repeating. Can I say something? Just two words? After several attempts he yelled two words into the phone that I’m not going to repeat here, and slammed down the receiver.
If there is an upside to the difficult decade newspapers have come through, it might just be that we value our readers more than journalists did early in my career.
I can’t say that no journalist is arrogant or rude. But I do think the effort to stay at arm’s length from the community, lest we somehow lose our objectivity, has softened instead into a technology-enabled effort to engage with readers.
These days we might ask you to take a sports poll or chat with a reporter online or send us travel photos or talk to us on Facebook. Reporters and editors respond to as many emails as they can and talk to readers in the community. We launch crowdsourcing experiments in which community experts help us build collections of data.
Our goal is simple: to help connect all of you to your community. It’s a key part of our mission at The Bee, along with watching the powerful, reporting interesting things and saving you time and money.
Many of you participate in different ways:• We held at least eight sacbee.com live chats and 18 live blogs in January, most of the latter off Kings games. The live chats have included Capitol Bureau reporter David Siders breaking down Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal and garden writer Debbie Arrington on strategies to cope with the drought. Participation varies, with about 700 of you spending 45 minutes on the budget chat, as compared with roughly 4,000 people spending time on the Preps Plus Live chat on Fridays last fall. Chats give you the opportunity to ask questions or comment; we moderate them to stay on point.
• We typically receive 150 to 200 letters to the editor each week. Most are published online and about 10 each day appear in print. The Bee’s new editorial page editor, Dan Morain, said, “All you have to do is make a cogent point and you will get published online or in print” unless you are gratuitously attacking someone, including politicians.
• More than 100 Bee journalists have Twitter accounts, and while we primarily use them to break news or link to coverage, reporters also respond to readers.
• Bee staff members talk through issues on Facebook as well. Last Sunday, for instance, columnist Marcos Breton had a civilized but frank conversation there with some 20 readers. Breton has been clear he supports Sacramento’s plan to use city funds to help build a downtown arena. Plenty of readers stepped up to debate his view.
• Sometimes we just want to have fun. Most days Sports Editor Tom Couzens puts together a poll we publish in the Leading Off column on the sports page, or at sacbee.com/sports. In December we ran 23 of these completely unscientific polls, with more than 5,000 readers participating. Couzens said his goal is to “reflect what sports fans are talking about … what’s trending on Twitter, what the three guys on the barstools are worked up about.”
• In January we launched an experiment in crowdsourcing to encourage teachers and parents to participate in our survey about classroom temperatures across the region. This all started when Diana Lambert reported that some Twin Rivers Unified School District classrooms had no heat, and kids were staying warm with blankets and sleeping bags. So far 50 people have reported temperatures, and you can submit yours or find the map of temperatures at sacbee.com/education.
• Also in January, we launched a Q&A at sacbee.com/water in which you can ask drought questions. We find the answers.
• This week we introduced a fun way to share Super Bowl party food on Twitter. Tweet pictures of your food to #sacfeast; if enough participate we’ll pull together a photo gallery at Sacbee.
We’re still reinventing one of our most important engagement tools – our commenting system at Sacbee. Last fall we shut down our commenting system to rid the site of trolls, those who delight in insulting people or otherwise sabotaging the conversation. We switched our technology and invited subscribers to be the first to comment in the new system. Unfortunately we had some snags slow the process, but at this point subscribers who have activated their digital account at sacbee.com have been invited to comment. ( Make sure you activate so we can invite you.)
Now we’ll expand the ability to comment to non-subscribers, and soon will introduce a way to comment directly through sacbee.com as well as Facebook or other social sign-ons. The volume of comments likely won’t pick up until we’re done, but Director of Digital Sean McMahon already characterizes the tone as “more collegial.”
While I know from emails that some of you are unhappy with the pace of the rollout, I view the new system as a long-term investment in our ability to engage with all readers in a forum that invites broad participation, rather than chasing people away because they’re discouraged by the hateful tone.
We plan to continue to experiment with ways to offer a little fun and invite you to join us in polls, crowdsourcing or key conversations.