Why journalists should ditch a ‘no comment’ stance

Those two words I placed in quote marks in the headline prompt a certain reaction from journalists when sources, official spokespersons and other figures we cover decide they’re not going to respond to questions we ask.

It’s what reporters especially hate to hear the most: “No comment.” I don’t do as much reporting as I did before I became a Webhead, but I still find that convenient, clichéd, usually lawyered-up reprise absolutely maddening.

That phrase came to mind last night when I received a comment on this blog about a post from last week. It made me slap my forehead in frustration (figuratively) that I’m not doing more of this myself. I’ll explain that below. But first, a couple highlights from that reader comment. The subject I detailed was about the “daunting, but hopeful prospects” for displaced journalists. Here’s someone whose gone where I and many others like me are now newly traversing, and gave us a glimpse of what he’s learned:

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as I did when I was a daily reporter, but I also don’t think I’ve ever felt so stressed and beat up on a day-to-day basis. . . .

“But for those who truly thrive on telling stories, finding other writing-related jobs, even in PR, doesn’t mean ‘selling out’ or ‘going to the dark side.’ If you love telling stories, you’ll continue to tell stories and enjoy it no matter what type of gig you have.

“It’s not the same as being the first to wheel up to the curb at a crime scene and hop out and start interviewing cops like you’re entitled to special treatment because you’re press and you’re the first to arrive. But at the end of the day, it still leaves a sense of satisfaction to be doing some form of writing and being true to your own voice in all that you put down on the page . . . regardless of whether it’s a printed page or a computer screen.”

Now this is exactly the insight that all bloggers hope to generate, no matter the subject. They’re conversation starters from the kind of readers who will pass your blog link along to others. It’s essential to building an audience and continuing a dialogue with people who are interested in what you write and who take the time to tell you so.

They are bloggers’ gold, and they are your best conduits to becoming better-read on the Web.

I have known this for a while, but still have been negligent about adding my own comments to blogs I read. And I read an awful lot of them. Nice example I’m setting, eh? So here’s the latest installment in How You Can Learn from My Mistakes:

'We don't comment because we don't have to . . . We're journalists' / webpan.com

Whether you like a particular post or not and feel moved to comment, don’t hesitate to chime in, ideally on topics related to your blog niche. Journalists are sometimes very reluctant to wade in. We’ve been trained NOT to become part of the story, NOT to offer opinions, NOT to express anything that might be considered “biased” or unprofessional.

Please, please rid yourself of this thinking now. You are only hindering your efforts to develop your online brand and become a go-to source on your blogging subject. Placing outside links on your blog posts is just one way to do this. Commenting on other blogs is a vital linking strategy to let people know who you are.

Not only does your blog traffic increase, but you may even get written up — in a good way! An online journalist and educator mentioned my work recently on his own blog, which in turn led to multiple speaking and writing appearances that have helped me spread my authority. How did he find out about me? Because I posted comments on his blog. Some of his readers offered me the invites. And I’m still getting the post about my blog as an incoming link several weeks later.

I also received a nice shout-out this week from a fellow Atlanta blogger who took time out of a busy schedule chronicling the follies of the Georgia legislature — which are considerable. In this case, it’s good being B.A.D.!

Also notice what I failed to do in either case above: Place a thank-you comment in reply. It’s a habit that I need to develop more vigilantly.

Don’t regard this practice as back-scratching, which is what I initially thought. It’s the typical reaction stemming from a traditional journalistic mindset. What you’re trying to do is to get your work — and your NAME — to break out of the wilderness of the Web. When someone else links to your blog, or a particular post, they are helping you accomplish this.

One other thing about commenting: When you do respond on another blog, make sure you include a link to your own blog or some other Web address. An e-mail address won’t cut it. It needs to be a living, active URL. Otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of introducing yourself on other blogs and allowing readers to see who you are. If all you have is a Facebook page or Twitter account, then use that as your default link. (But you really need to get busy with The Blog Thing above all!)

Here are some more tips on how commenting on the blogs of others can help you with your own:

Why commenting is good for you. Understand what commenting is all about. Don’t just say “nice job,” but add something of value. Because comments really do matter. And when you generate comments, you’ll only want to generate more.

In any case, make sure they’re good ones.

3 thoughts on “Why journalists should ditch a ‘no comment’ stance

  1. Very, very good stuff, Wendy.

    If I could expound a bit on the whole “back scratching” thing. I’ve always wondered why journalists bowed up at the linking and you’ve shown me an interesting perspective.

    Here’s what I think some people miss. We don’t consider ourselves as sitting in silos. We see ourselves as a part of a community and hell, the root of the word community is communicate.

    An analogy that might help some of your colleagues. Think of this new world as a massive virtual bullpen (or whatever you guys call the newsroom these days). Linking is the equivalent of walking over to someone’s desk and saying, “Hey, did you see this? It’s pretty cool.”

    And if anyone thinks I’m an unrepentant backscratcher, they should talk to some of the journalists I’ve jousted with at the APC. 😉


  2. Thanks for the thoughts, griftdrift. For some reason I used to think that thanking someone for linking to me was falling for a ploy on their part just to get attention, instead of trying to have a conversation.

    Maybe it was just me in a much more cynical phase, afraid of the world outside the newsroom.

    I just did a quick read on this, but Salon’s Gary Kamiya has a long, detailed post called “The readers strike back” that has quite a bit of relevance here.

    I may have to take this all in and then take it up in a follow-up post.


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