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Should I go get some news, or stay here and talk about it?

Cisco’s Charlie Giancarlo is a pretty smart guy (he’s chief development officer, so that’s more of a job requirement than a compliment), but I’m not sure he has as tight a hold on differing forms of information as he does on different kinds of data.

In a blog yesterday, he seemed to recommend that reporters spend as much time talking online about their stories as they do researching and writing:

Some publications are even requesting (aka requiring) their reporters to blog as a part of their job. I would argue that tracking your stories in the blogosphere and participating as the bylined reporter in the conversation is more important than authoring your own blog as a reporter, but far be it from me to suggest what a major media outlet should have their employees doing…or not doing.

It’s not a bad point. News outlets typically stink at two-way conversations with readers, not least because journalists are often as thin-skinned about criticism from readers as the people they cover are about criticism from the media.

But what’s the benefit to readers of having a reporter write a story, then spend a ton of time blogging back and forth about how it should be interpreted, the research behind it, and the value of the sources or comments in it?

There are two reasons it’s not a good idea. The first is just logistical.

Reporters who spend all day talking about their last story aren’t working on their next one. Talking with readers about stories is unquestionably valuable — that’s how we do our research.

Our audience is the channel, and people in the channel know the most about the stories we cover, both the business and technical implications. So that’s who we interview. If we do our reporting right, we’re getting input from “the comunity” at the same time we’re doing our research on the story. If not, we have to re-evaluate how we do our reporting.

(Technical audiences are not shy about pointing out a factual mistake or misinterpretation, by the way; if you’re the one person in America not spending enough time on e-mail, prove that to yourself by speakign critically of either Linux or the MacOS in an online forum and that mailbox will fill up right quick with “corrections,” “critiques,” and “death threats.”)

The second reason has more to do with how much a reader can trust the information we’re offering.

Reporters who go into a story with an opinion firmly formed, and who stick with that opinion through all their information-gathering, are not writing news. They’re writing fiction or, at best, the kind of first-person analysis you get from Gartner or Yankee or any other analyst. Either way, readers have to pick carefully through the bias to find the facts.

Opinion and analysis must be labeled as such. Those pieces have to be accurate, too, but readers should have no trouble figuring out what’s an expert opinion and what’s a straight news story.

News stories are supposed to reflect the reality reporters can see, not what they think about it. Reporters use their judgment deciding what sources are credible and what information is relevant, not who’s right or wrong. Their responsibility is to deliver stories that are as fair and objective as possible, not to be trolls, or to put out linkbait.

(This is, incidentally, not the least-discussed issue among journalism geeks.)

If we’re covering the right stories, readers will respond because we’re touching on stories that matter to them. We put our names and e-mails on stories so readers know who to blame, and who to contact with corrections or follow-on story ideas.

We encourage readers to discuss the stories in our forums or elsewhere, and we offer all kinds of our own staffers – primarily editors, columnists or ask-the-expert types – to continue the conversation. Talking to readers and packaging the information readers need is their job; they should be actively engaged in those conversations every day.

But reporters (me included) should report, not opine. The more we talk about past stories, the less we work on future ones. We do our best to get our facts right and interpret them accurately.

That means we’re sometimes more boring than competitors whose headlines scream implications that aren’t supported by the facts; but we’d rather be accurate. It’s a lot easier in the long run.

And it’s always been my opinion (yet to be refuted by a reader) that audiences are a lot more interested in what we learn than in what we think about it.

So, yeah, Charlie’s a smart guy, and he has a point. Someone from a news outlet should be out in the blogosphere every day, having that conversation; it should be someone who knows the topic and can change how we cover stories, or initiate new ones.

The trick is not only making sure you cover news as well as opinion – it’s in separating one from the other so readers know which one they’re getting and when.

Journalism’s not a one-way street, and it shouldn’t be. When you write about a community you’re missing half the story if you don’t let it write back.

But watch what you wish for, Charlie. If every reporter was out there talking about opinions rather than facts, where would you go for the facts? Whose stories could you trust?

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