Dan McGowan (@danmcgowan): News Editor, GoLocalProv.com
Tim Murphy (@politifactri): Assistant Managing Editor, Public Policy Desk, Providence Journal; Editor, Politifact RI
David Scharfenberg (@d_scharfenberg): News Editor, Providence Phoenix
Erika Niedowski (@eniedowski): Reporter, Associated Press, Providence Bureau
Ian Donnis (@IanDon): Political Reporter, Rhode Island Public Radio
Ted Nesi (@tednesi): Digital Reporter, WPRI
Tim White (@white_tim): Investigative Reporter, WPRI
John T: A connectivity exists nowadays between all of you, between all of you and the politicians you're reporting on, between all of you and the audience. There are all these different levels of connectivity, and people are more accessible now than ever. How does that change the conversation? How does that change the job?
Dan M: In terms of the connectivity among the inside baseball crowd of politicians and reporters, that's one thing that has probably been very beneficial to all of us. If Ted reports something, one part of the story, then I know that's probably true. There is a sort of unspoken collaboration where I say, “Okay, that's one part of the story; here's my part of the story.”
At the same time, there’s the commenting culture on websites. I'll be the first to admit our commenting culture makes me incredibly queasy; I think you would say the same at the Journal. However, there are times when you do get a beneficial comment or tip. And there are times when someone's telling me, “You really suck.” Your story might have actually really sucked and maybe you should reevaluate. There is no question that that happens. There's benefit to it.
Ted N: Don't forget, this is the only media world I've ever worked in. I hear about the old way. I think it's interesting. But I've only known this version, where we're on Twitter and reasonably accessible and everything's online.
Ian D: It can make for some really unusual moments. Something comes to mind: I was monitoring Twitter, as a lot of us do, and Curt Schilling was getting in a dispute. Tim had the interview with Don Carcieri and went to press him on his responsibility, his response to how 38 Studios blew up.
Ted N: Ed Fitzpatrick tweeted it to Schilling, and said, “What do you think?”
Tim M: Carcieri said, “You were a crappy businessman.”
Ian D: Right, so Ed Fitzpatrick approached me and some other people. We started communicating with Schilling via Twitter, and it was just bizarre. The Journal had an interview with Schilling, but he had been very sparse with his responses to media outlets. My organization tried getting an interview with him. Here he was communicating with me and other reporters through Twitter, because Schilling sees that as a pure format where his words aren't twisted around. It was just kind of bizarre.
Tim W: But that's a downfall, in many ways. I remember that night vividly. My tweet to him was, “We'll give you thirty minutes commercial-free. It won't be edited.” His response was, “Oh, I disagree with you, Tim. This is the purest form of communication.” But it is homogenized at 140-characters at a time. He couldn't be challenged with questions that he needs to face.
Ian D: Yeah. And you tweeted something to the effect, “This is not the best way to have an intelligent conversation about this.”
Tim W: Absolutely. For some, including Curt Schilling, it's been just another way to spin their message into the comments section. I can't stand comments sections. There was a time when you could still be critical of reporters – which people absolutely should be – but it didn't have to be cloaked in anonymity, which is where these awful, mean-spirited things come out. It’s not only about the reporter – which is fine, we all have thick skins – but about the subjects you've been writing about. I just wish websites would require more of a letter to the editor type of format, where you couldn't just remain anonymous and throw spears.
Ian D: There are a couple of websites that do require people to register to be able to make a comment, but I think those are a minority.
Tim W: When people email me about a story – and I tick plenty of people off – I always respond. But I can have a two-way conversation with this person.
Dave S: Why is that bad? It's vitriol – how does that hurt you?
Tim W: It doesn't hurt me. Sometimes I feel bad for the subjects of the story.
Tim M: It's corrosive, and it's also misleading.
Dave S: But don't we all know that?
Tim W: But we're giving them a platform.
Tim M: People go to that platform and see those kinds of vicious comments. They often tend to be pretty much of the same point-of-view.
Dan M: Oh, they're the same people.
Tim M: Probably the same people. There can be an assumption that that must be the public sentiment, or that must be where the opinion is going.
Dan M: I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with that. When I said, “comments,” everybody was sort of like ugh. I don't know that anyone mistakes the comments section for public sentiment.
John T: How has Twitter changed things? Tim M: It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's great to have that kind of back-and-forth and connectivity and be up to date and following people. But it's time-consuming. It takes your brain away from a higher level of thinking about issues and concepts that can't be dissected in a 140-word comment. For example, during the presidential debate, I had my iPad and my TV and I was following on Twitter. I was also re-tweeting a lot of what the Politifact nation people were doing, and I realized pretty early on that I could not pay attention to what was going on. My wife would say, “What did he just say?” or “What does that mean?” “I don't know.” What's the point of that? For the vice presidential debate I put my iPad down and I got a lot more out of the debate.
Tim W: But I think it helps to get people more engaged, and that might be the other side to it. There might have been more people dissecting certain policy issues because something was trending on Twitter. Unfortunately, Big Bird was the big thing on Twitter.
Erika N: It's very easy to get distracted. But it's our job; we're professionals. We know how to separate out, compartmentalize. In terms of connectivity, I think overall it has to be beneficial to us. People at this table being connected to each other makes us all better. I remember the Schilling thing exactly. I watched it with this weird mix of fascination and I hung on every single word, because he hadn't spoken to us. I was also horrified by it, because everybody had gathered around him in this way, and he was driving that conversation in the safe way that he wanted to. That was horrifying, because if we mistake that for interacting and getting information from Curt Schilling, then we're just shot. We didn't really learn anything about what happened with 38 Studios from Curt Schilling sending off tweets.
John T: If you have situations like Schilling interacting with all of you only through Twitter, because that's how he feels comfortable, or politicians at the State House following you guys on Twitter and knowing what you're saying, do we get into a territory where either you can inadvertently influence the news you're covering or the subjects can influence the way you're covering the news?
Ian D: People get their information in more different ways now. Social media, like most things, is a double-edged sword. I agree with what Tim said about the debates. I love Twitter. I was trying to watch the first presidential debate and monitor tweets, and it was just too much information. At the same time, I get a lot of good information every day via Twitter. There are a lot of smart people on Twitter; they link to their articles or other articles or other ideas. I did a blog post a couple months ago about how of the 113 state reps and senators, there are very few who use Twitter actively. You'll see some lawmakers start tweeting in August if they have a primary election and they'll put up links to their local papers saying how great they are. Other than that, they don't really use the media. It can be a very valuable way of putting information out.
Erika N: We still do shoe-leather reporting; that's what this business is about. It's not about collecting news on Twitter. I do find out just about everything I know via Twitter, but it's a tool – it's a tool.
Tim W: It's a promotional tool.
Erika N: It's not just a promotional tool.
Tim W: When you write a good story, I will re-tweet it to my followers, Ted may re-tweet it to his, and it sort of expands. That helps when you've busted your butt on a story all day long. I might put it on the six o’clock news and it's a flash and a pan. But when I put the story out and Ted moves it on Twitter – that's where I see the promotional value. The more eyes that see it, the better.
Dave S: I think that Rhode Island is sort of a fascinating test case. It's small enough that there is one major paper in the midst of this experiment where they're really trying to push the print part, because that's what is more profitable – to hold on to this older model. This is one place where it could, in theory, work because it's such a small place and such a dominant institution; there isn't competition. But it might not work, as evidenced by recent layoffs. We'll see. It's really a fascinating case study on new and old.
Ted N: I think the existence of things like Twitter is a huge reason why my job at Channel 12 exists, because you need alternative ways to reach people. Channel 12 isn't the blog show. I had to get people to come look for writing about the topics I cover on the site, and it was a good way to connect with people, to get things out there. You have to find ways to convince people to read what you're doing. And this gives people a tool that they might not have had otherwise.