Traffic booster for big news sites? Reader-Writer Dialogue Boxes?

What counts more for Web-era writers of news or opinion? Coming up with snappy, credible, well-researched articles? Or improving dialogues with readers, in the best tradition of the Internet’s interactivity?

Short of cloning themselves or pulling off a Philip K. Dick android act, writers for many of the most popular news sites lack enough time for both writing and interacting.

And yet reader comments—well, visitor comments if you really want to be modern about it—can be more of a traffic draw if writers participate and if sites optimize Web-page design for dialogue.

I myself jumped into the comment area again and again when I owned and ran the TeleRead e-book site, which I eventually sold to the North American Publishing Company. TeleRead carried  a sidebar on the right, highlighting readers’ comments—it still does. Some publications even flag the comments of articles’ writers; the second image shows how the The Guardian identifies those from staffers. Look carefully and click on the image if need be for a better view. Notice how a Guardian man named Paul Harris is eliciting information from a reader of a story on police brutality in New York? Guardian fans can see the paper responding to them in the most direct way.

But here’s another wrinkle useful for large newspapers and other sites drawing scads and scads of comments. At the end of a popular news or opinion article, at least when the writer has enough time and chooses to enable this feature, why not insert a Reader-Writer Dialogue Box with his or her headshot in it? No, this would not be a dialogue box in the old programming sense. Rather the box would contain links to:

1. Readers’ comments that the writer considered worthy of response within the time available. In many cases, that might mean just a comment or two. But it would be far, far better than none.

2. The writer’s replies.

Imagine the goodwill that could result when journalists singled out readers’ comments for notice, whether or not they agreed with them. Newswriters might hesitate to share their own opinions, but they could at least comment on the facts and highlight the most interesting thoughts from readers (instead of forcing them to rely simply on “most popular” designations and the like). Opinion writers? Well, here’s one more chance to speak up. Perhaps in some cases the dialog boxes could even include videos where the writers read from and replied to the reader comments. Talk about personal branding to enhance the corporate variety!

While many journalists traditionally have demanded a certain distance between them and readers in the interest of prestige, I believe that that today’s audiences want more closeness even if it’s simply of the virtual variety.

Yes, Twitter and Facebook exist, along other social media, and I’m not suggesting that newspapers and other publications abandon them. But shouldn’t publishers try to encourage as much dialogue as possible on their own news sites, the ones carrying their own ads? And maybe even use Twitter not only as a pointer to their main articles but also to the dialogue boxes?

Fresh concept—Reader-Writer Dialogue Boxes? I’d love to know of any possible existing examples (in this context, not a programming one) and how well they’ve worked or have not. And if this is a first—well, the idea is there for the taking. Go for it!

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David Rothman

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