Monday, January 30, 2006

Feedback on feedback

Almost every journalist I have ever known is incapable of being objective about his own skill level. And even the least talented journalist in a newsroom tends to think he has mastered his craft. But every once in awhile I have the distinct pleasure of meeting a reporter who wants to get better at his job.

The advice that I give such ambitious reporters is to ask their readers for help.
Putting a feedback function at the bottom a story, I tell them, is the single best way I know for a reporter to get better at what he does. Readers will tell you when you've got something wrong and when you've done something right. Readers will tell you when you've missed something important or found something interesting. Readers will tell you when you're on the right track or heading in the wrong direction.

I've been very pleased to see BusinessWeek's use of feedback functions. And in some stories, such as this one, the input from readers enhances the work of the writer. But I've been disappointed to find that while feedback functions are becoming more common in the mainstream press, they have not caught on in B2B. The message I keep hearing from B2B executives and journalists is that they expect the worst from the readers -- rants and viciousness and inaccuracies. I understand that fear. I've seen how a feedback function can turn on you. But I believe the advantages outweigh the risks. And I believe that the advantages are greater for a B2B publication than for any other product -- because a B2B audience by definition is filled with people who have the specialized knowledge to improve a story.

Rich Skrenta, the CEO of, recently added feedback functions to the stories on his news aggregation site. He's "astonished" by the level of participation and says that many readers are posting "first-person accounts of news events from across the country" that are often "raw" and "heart-wrenching."
Read what Rich has to say. Ask yourself when was the last time you were "astonished" by anything at your publication.
Then ask yourself when you're going to let your audience help you create a better product.

ADDENDUM: A beta version of Yahoo's news service is also offering a feedback function. Take a look.

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  1. We don't have the technology to let people comment as they would on a blog, but we did try doing a crude e-mail version, which we then would post for readers. No one responded, so we dropped it (they also seldom comment on our blogs either, though the blogs are among the top-read things on our site). I'd be curious to know if other b2b pubs have had better luck with feedback functions, or if it's just us.

  2. Hi Anonymous,
    I'm not surprised that the email version didn't work well. I never post comments with them myself, they feel too removed somehow. I get the feeling that sites with such functions don't want to hear what I have to say.
    On the other hand, McGraw Hill's Diggin' Deeper blog uses such a system and gets a fair number of comments.
    Lots of B2B publishers seem to get a lot of activity with old-style discussion forums. And I'm pretty pleased with what G.I.E. has done by putting a link to the forums on the bottom of news stories.
    But no B2B publisher I can think of has yet to try a blog-like feedback function on news stories the way BusinessWeek and some newspapers have.
    As for feedback on blogs ... here are a few worth noting:
    ComputerWorld seems to be getting some decent response levels. Technology Review has tons of blogs, and some of them generate a lot of comments. Furniture Today does a nice job with its blogs (and you can read them without registering, which is an improvement over the rest of the site). And although comments seem a little rare, they tend to come from knowledgeable industry insiders. And that's quite an accomplishment.