Letting the crowd direct Parliament Hill coverage

Photo: Chris Mikula, Ottawa Citizen

Albeit quietly, there was an interesting journalism experiment conducted on Parliament Hill this week.

Every day, there is a list of committee meetings, panels and other goings-on in Ottawa. The trick for most journalists on the Hill is figuring out which one to attend, and which event will hold the most interest for readers.

So Macleans‘ Nick Taylor-Vaisey decided to ask his readers to decide: to tell him where he should spend his day.

It was a simple enough concept. Under the heading ‘What should I cover?‘ he wrote this:

It’s time for a little experiment. I’m going to tell you about a few things happening today on Parliament Hill, and then you tell me what I should go watch—and, following that, report on. There’s plenty of action on the Hill today. Eight parliamentary committees, including three Senate committees, are talking about various studies and pieces of legislation. The list is below. So tell me: Where should I go?

He then included the following list with links to each meetings’ agenda:

  • Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development
  • Veterans Affairs
  • Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Finance
  • Public Safety and National Security
  • Banking, Trade and Commerce
  • Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Readers were asked to tell Taylor-Vaisey his choice via Twitter DM, email or the comments below the story. In the end, he ended up covering the Aboriginal Affairs meeting, which is looking at Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, and wrote about it here.

I was interested by the process, so I asked Nick about it:

What made you think of the idea? How did your Editors feel about it when you suggested it?

Asking readers what’s important to them just feels natural. I spent two years on an OpenFile team that focused an astounding amount of energy on those kinds of conversations. I don’t think any of us will ever approach our jobs the same way. On the Hill, there are obviously a lot of reporters and a lot of stories told every day. I thought this might be a way to offer readers something different. My editor, Sue Allan [Managing Editor of Macleans], was completely on board with the idea—something I won’t take for granted.

Did you have any concerns about asking ‘the crowd’ to tell you what to cover?

Absolutely. There are a lot of competing interests on Parliament Hill, and it’ll take a critical eye to make sure partisan suggestions don’t control the conversation. It wouldn’t be all that useful if this experiment devolved into the same kind of partisan bickering that pops up elsewhere on the Hill. Finding a larger audience who will tune in might take a bit of time, but I think it’ll be worth the effort.

What do you think are the benefits of asking the crowd for direction? 

What readers want to hear about matters. It’s that simple. It’s not because I can’t find stories on my own, but because readers might point me somewhere I wouldn’t have considered. That happened regularly at OpenFile, geared to a local audience. I can’t wait to see what the national audience watching Parliament Hill might suggest.

What are the pitfalls at being at the whim of the crowd?

If no one responds, that’s not much fun. If people who do respond don’t seem to care all that much, that’s not fun, either. If you get too many responses, it could be overwhelming. You want to accommodate as many readers’ wishes as possible, but there are obvious limits. If the crowd gets angry, the conversation’s not fruitful. There are all kinds of things that can go wrong.

You provided a list of choices for coverage. Did you have a preference?

Yes. And, to be clear, my preference is still important. I don’t remove myself from the conversation. I’m still the guy who sorts through what readers suggest, and figures out what would make the most important, or most fun, or most compelling story. What’s vital to this experiment is that I’m listening and responding, and not ignoring or disregarding.

What kind of response did you get? Was it what you were hoping?

It was a good first try. Lots of readers responded, some in more detail than others. Part of that is because I didn’t really outline what I was asking for, since I didn’t want to complicate matters too much off the bat. There was less a conversation among readers than several conversations between me and individual readers. Hopefully, that evolves over time.

Were you and your editors happy with the experiment? Would you do it again?

That’s to be determined. I’ll definitely try, try again.

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