Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Public radio and reciprocity – I’ll help you if you help Hao Wu

So, I got an email Friday from Marketplace, the excellent business and finance show carried on WAMC, my local National Public Radio affiliate. According to the email, “You can help Marketplace cover the news”.

I’m glad that Marketplace is trying to engage citizens in their coverage. American Public Media – formerly Minnesota Public Radio – is experimenting with a process called “Public Insight Journalism“. The idea is that a breaking story can be made more personal and direct by involving the insights and opinions of listeners who have knowledge on that subject. This is a pretty good idea – it was raised by a few people at the Beyond Broadcast conference hosted by Berkman a month or so back.

So why does Marketplace want me, specifically, to help them cover the news?

“A while ago, you contacted Marketplace to share your insight or respond to our coverage. Thank you. Even if we didn’t get back to you, your comments and insights help us do what we do better.”

Right, I remember now. I did contact Marketplace. And they didn’t get back to me.

Specifically, I contacted Marketplace because they aired a brief story about Hao Wu’s illegal detention on March 23rd. Hao had appeared on Marketplace on January 19th, speaking about piracy in China as part of host Kai Ryssdal‘s trip to Beijing. Hao was arrested and detained about a month after – a month after that, three days after we launched the freehaowu.org site, I was thrilled to hear his name mentioned on the radio. The mention promised, “We’ll tell you more when we know it.”

I immediately wrote a note to the Marketplace staff, thanking them for the mention, and offering to cooperate, share information and generally work together on calling attention to Hao’s case.

No response.

So let’s get this straight – Marketplace isn’t able to answer email from listeners, even when those listeners are offering to help them work on getting a former contributor out of prison. But Marketplace is interested in having me fill out a 19-field form so they can contact me via email and, if neccesary, call me for a quick soundbyte on an upcoming story.

Guys, citizen’s media isn’t fairy dust that you can sprinkle on an existing program and make it magically interactive, bloggy and web2.0 compliant. If you ask your listeners to help you shape your coverage, we’re going to expect to be part of the conversation, not just a natural resource you tap every now and then for a pithy quote. This is what Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor are talking about when they refer to “the former audience” – your listeners are going to demand to be part of the conversation around stories, and your unwillingness to acknowledge their voices, critiques and requests except when they’re immediately useful to you is not, long-term, sustainable.

Public Insight Journalism is a neat idea – it’s fairy dust that’s already showing good results for a couple of APM programs. But it’s something that works best when added to a program that’s already doing a good job of engaging with its listeners. Add it to a program like Marketplace that can’t engage in the most basic of listener communication and there’s bound to be disappointment and disconnect.

By the way – I sent an email giving a shorter, more direct version of this rant to the authors of the email I received on Friday. No response yet – will post or summarize if I hear back from Marketplace.


More than four months after his arrest, Hao Wu is still imprisoned, still not able to contact his family and still without access to a lawyer. We’ve been relying on his sister Nina’s blog posts to keep track of the story, but she’s been ill – in part from exhaustion from this ordeal – and her blog has been silent lately.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article by Geoffrey Fowler about Hao Wu that gives excellent background information on the subject. It focuses on the limits on artistic expression in China and the dangers someone like Hao Wu faces when he makes films, blogs… and speaks to international journalists, like Marketplace and the BBC.

8 Responses to “Public radio and reciprocity – I’ll help you if you help Hao Wu”

  1. fontaine says:

    E-mail is usually the worst way to try to get in touch with a reporter about stuff. As much as the Internet has transformed the way journalists to their jobs, I’ve seen hundreds of reporters (especially ones in their 40s and older) ignore e-mails. Also, unless you sent it to a specific reporter, addresses like newsroom@publicradiostation.com usually prove to be pretty worthless; messages get lost in the ether.

  2. fontaine says:

    Just for future reference, btw.

  3. Ethan says:

    I don’t disagree, Fontaine, and I generally work with the media by contacting reporters I know. I just thought it was highly ironic that a newsroom that doesn’t have someone answering general email that comes into their inbox would look for more reader input… why not take advantage of the input they’re getting already?

  4. “So let’s get this straight – Marketplace isn’t able to answer email from listeners, even when those listeners are offering to help them work on getting a former contributor out of prison. But Marketplace is interested in having me fill out a 19-field form so they can contact me via email and, if necessary, call me for a quick soundbyte on an upcoming story.”

    Umm, yes – in other words, Marketplace is interested in you working for free as a contributor for them. They are (sadly, regrettably) not nearly as interested in having you set business priorities. Which is the two-step of “citizen journalism”.

    “If you ask your listeners to help you shape your coverage, we’re going to expect to be part of the conversation, not just a natural resource you tap every now and then for a pithy quote.”

    Ethan, I realize that as you speak from, in general, a high-status, high-attention position, you may be offended when you’re blown-off. Let me share my hard-earned cynicism, from someone who usually speaks from a (relatively) low-status, low-attention position:

    As a general rule: NOBODY CARES WHAT THE AUDIENCE HAS TO SAY, EXCEPT TO MARKET TO THEM!

    This idea of “conversation” is pure marketing hype, to deceptively stroke the egos of the audience with the idea that they have some influence. They don’t. They can’t (except as an aggregate mass or pressure group), because there’s too many of them. When A-listers (not meaning present company) talk about “conversation”, they mean WHAT A-LISTERS WANT TO TALK ABOUT! They do not mean exchange of views, equality of participation, a goal of understanding. They mean they pontificate, they set the agenda, and everyone else reacts, hopefully sycophantically – something very visible whenever the reaction gets a bit unpleasant.

    “your listeners are going to demand to be part of the conversation around stories, and your unwillingness to acknowledge their voices, critiques and requests except when they’re immediately useful to you is not, long-term, sustainable”

    Umm, why not? Look, you’re asking them to do something that more *right* than *popular*. Something that might cost them audience, but that you think is an important issue of justice. But I believe only a very small percentage of the audience will care if they chose the popular over the right. That sounds very sustainable to me.

    In fact, doesn’t your very own research bear this out? That most people wouldn’t want to hear the very story you’re promoting as for “the former audience”? In fact, arguably the more something is “bloggy and web2.0 compliant”, the more it’s focused on data-mining what’s profitable and appealing (perhaps for a niche) rather than what’s in the public interest and morally important.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I strongly agree with you about the importance of freedom. In fact, that’s what motivates my comment here, a passion for the subject. But the Kool-Aid isn’t going to do it, because, per above, the Kool-Aid is wrong.

  5. Ethan says:

    Thanks, Seth – that’s a useful response, rant and all. I think the disconnect for me is the fact that I genuinely believe that Gillmor et al are right and that the media dynamic is going to change. It may not be a conversation yet, but it’s getting closer, and I don’t believe the current stance Marketplace is taking is tenable.

    From your position – this revolution is mostly hype – I sound like a preachy B-Lister who demands to be heard. Wasn’t my intent, though the critique is certainly one I’ve left myself open to… My reaction was that as a listener who generally likes and supports the program who was disappointed by their failure to use the data people are voluntarily giving them (their comments and critiques), but interested in a much heavier-weight way of seeking feedback. I meant it mostly as a tactical critique.

    Regarding your question about whether my own research suggests that they’re better off not talking about Hao Wu – two responses. One, I didn’t neccesarily expect a story – I just thought they might benefit from the information we’ve been gathering on the case. More a “you met the guy, thought you might care about him” sort of thing. Second, I’ve never quite seen a story with legs like that of Chinese censorship. No matter what Rebecca or I write about the topic, someone picks it up and amplifies it. So no, I suspect this is one of those rare cases where doing the right thing would also gain them listeners.

    Thanks for the comment – appreciate you taking the time to offer a thorough and thoughtful critique.

  6. Michael Skoler says:

    I appreciate your point about the recent note inviting you and others to help inform Marketplace coverage – and I promise we haven’t spent 3½ years creating Public Insight Journalism as fairy dust to sprinkle on as a veneer of partnership with the audience. I run Public Insight Journalism (PIJ) for Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. We are working hard to continually tap the knowledge of the public to make our coverage even stronger and more relevant to listeners.

    We pioneered the PIJ model for our regional news network in Minnesota and surrounding states and have used it to inform over 150 stories. We have over 20,000 people in our Public Insight Network. Earlier his year, we started using PIJ for Marketplace and Marketplace Money.

    I understand your frustration about not hearing a reply to your e-mail to Marketplace. Just give us time. We need to put PIJ fully in place, along with its tools that allow a public insight analyst to efficiently read, organize and distill the insights we get from thousands of people. As we do that, we will get back to folks more regularly (but I can’t promise every time due to the volume of comments) and we’ll pass the insights to the right reporters and editors and producers of our shows. If you want to help, or keep us to our word, join the network.

    MPR/APM knows that the power of the collective brain is key to journalism’s future. So we have made a commitment to figure out how to partner with the public, and we are having strong initial success.

    I was in Amherst, Massachusetts last week at the Media Giraffe conference, where many folks were pointing to PIJ as an example of how to connect with the audience. Jay Rosen has agreed to be an advisor to our work. We’re not where we want to be yet… but we are working on it. PIJ is not fairy dust. What Ethan points out is really sawdust, as we build the structure to sustain our partnership with the public.

  7. Well, the other example of a radio show you cite, while quite open, hasn’t gotten back to me on every issue I email them about.

    I can’t defend Marketplace, but I did send a note to a friend of mine who’s a reporter for them, as well as to Michael Skoler, head of the Public Insight Network, whom I met last week.

    Yes, email is simple and personal. But it’s very difficult to audit response rates.

    The 19 fields do not seem so onerous, so let me propose this experiment: sign up as an expert on global human rights, but use a different email address from the one you used earlier.

  8. Ethan says:

    I appreciate you taking the time to write, Michael. As I mentioned in the original post, I’m quite enthusiastic about PIJ – I think it’s a worthwhile idea and one that will help programs like Marketplace do a better job of taking input from their audience. The point of my post was that I thought it should be a second-level interaction with their communities. My hope is that most NPR/PRI/APM shows will start using the tools already at their disposal – email and comment forms – to have basic interactions with their listeners. In other words, I don’t think I should need to become a member of PIJ to get Marketplace to respond to my email – perhaps that’s unrealistic, but that’s business as usual for other companies that try to do business online.

    I think PIJ can be a terrific tool for adding listener input to radio shows. But I don’t think it’s a replacement for some of the basic bits of customer service every program, product and business should be doing nowadays – reading and answering their email.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  1. Jake Shapiro » links for 2006-07-04 - [...] …My heart’s in Accra » Public radio and reciprocity - I’ll help you if you help Hao Wu “Guys, …
  2. infobong.com » linkdump for 2006.07.04 - [...] Public radio and reciprocity Ethan Zuckerman says “citizen’s media isn’t fairy dust that you can sprinkle on an existing …

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