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The Person on the Street Becomes the Commenter in the Thread

by Jake Mohan 

Tags: media, new media, online journalism, beat reporting, beat blogging,

"Beat blogging" is emerging as an online-media method for gathering public opinion, a web-friendly alternative to the traditional “person on the street” approach long utilized by print journalists. Patrick Thornton at the Journalism Iconoclast describes how, rather than interviewing people for quotes, online reporters can rely on the comments section of each story to supply a potentially unlimited array of opinions from the public.

The old model of quote-gathering required time-consuming phone calls and footwork in search of opinions from “real people.” But online news organs that open their stories to comments can instantly acquire a sampling of views from real people—or at least the ones who populate the internet. Journalists can concentrate on core reporting in their initial stories (the lede, nut graph, and data of a typical newspaper story) then open that information up to readers for corroboration, dispute, and commentary (the body and context). What began as a conventional news story morphs into a dialogue.

Of course, this model isn’t perfect—reader comments represent a diversity of opinion, but only within that segment of the population with the time and motivation to comment on a news story. Furthermore, a theoretically infinite quantity of comments doesn’t guarantee a quality of insight or eloquence. The New York Times quickly discovered the promises and perils of online discussion when it opened some of its stories to reader comments last fall; public editor Clark Hoyt documented what happens when the readership becomes the rabble.

Still, beat blogging has a lot of potential. Thornton elaborates on the idea at Beatblogging.org, a network of 13 online news organizations attempting to harness the news-gathering capabilities of social networking. Their successes and failures in this quest might provide an accurate picture of online journalism’s future.