You can’t mandate your own authority online. You can’t demand that people trust you without giving them good reason to grant you that trust. The Post-Dispatch, like other news outlets, assumed that the mere invitation to discourse was enough—and it assumed that the Post-Dispatch imprimatur would be enough to entice readers to participate in a lackluster feature. But fiat authority will only take you so far. It’ll take you to where most papers are today, with sites that people visit out of habit more than any real volition. That’s not authority. That’s indifference.
Real authority, I think, comes from acknowledging that your community members come bearing gifts, and engaging with those gifts in good faith. When members do become invested in a community, it is usually because the community takes its members seriously enough to make it worth the investment.
The extent to which media outlets are attuned to the communities they serve is of paramount importance in determining their authority and credibility in those communities. As Internet journalism evolves, these outlets must rethink the role they have traditionally played in dominating and defining their communities. The legacy media need to stop treating their online audience like an audience, and to start treating them instead like members of a community: less like listeners to a talk show, and more like friends talking. To do otherwise is to court mistrust, scorn, and eventual irrelevance. As one Post-Dispatch commenter wrote regarding the Greenbaum affair: “Kurt - it’s 2009. It’s no longer about you, your paper, and so-called journalism principles. We readers, viewers and listeners - it’s about us. WE’RE your judge and jury. Period.”
For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Megan Garber’s companion piece on narrative authority in a fragmented world, click here. For an overview of the Press Forward series and links to older content, click here.