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In Praise of Chats

A journalist's core competency is, in theory, her ability to write articles. But I've been interested lately in the value that can be added by other parts of the writing process. Publishing interview transcripts, for instance. And conducting Q&As with readers.

The online discussions are actually one of my favorite features at The Post. They're sprawling and unfocused and unedited and, quite frequently, many times more useful than the article, or blog, they're based on.

For instance: The Food section had a cover feature today on canning and making jams. Good article! But this afternoon, they hosted a chat where a chef with a jam and canning business answered reader questions about the process. It was nice to read about the chef this morning. But it was far better to get a quick course in canning and making jams. For instance, a reader wrote in to say his fruit took forever to boil and the resulting jam was unspreadably thick. In reply, the chef said something I didn't know:

Very rarely will you ever need water when making jam. Fruits have so much natural water, you should be good to go.

Useful! Similarly, Steve Pearlstein wrote a very nice column this morning on the myth of small-business job creation and the weird and not-entirely-honest role the sector plays in health-care reform. Good piece. I was actually going link to it later today. But it wasn't actually as useful as his live chat, which featured him reprising his argument, adding some parts that didn't fit in the original piece and defending it against legitimate counterarguments.

None of this is to deride the utility of actual articles. They are, for one thing, where the discussion starts. And the process of researching and writing articles is how writers learn about their topics -- without the articles, there would be no interviews, no useful discussions. But too often they're also where the writer ends her involvement with that topic. And that strikes me as a needless waste. The role of a blogger is a bit different here, but there's no doubt that the majority of the impact my longer articles have generated has come in all the blog posts they subsequently informed.

In any case, this was all really a way to link to those Q&As, and maybe direct you to the full Q&A schedule. It's good stuff.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 8, 2009; 3:03 PM ET
 
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Comments

I think the canning example is an especially good one. There are some complex topics where reading the rabble is not all that helpful, and it's best to just read a well-written piece of reporting. But there are other topics where people can really learn a lot from one another. The discussions on the garden and food blogs I read (and the one I write, Gradually Greener) are often as useful as the posts themselves in terms of picking up knowledge and know-how. And political discussions where people get to air their points of view in the comments can also be extremely informative - provided they are duly moderated, of course. When comment sections devolve into flame wars, everybody loses.

Posted by: ameliashowalter | July 8, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Another element of "core compentency" in journalism is to avoid starting off with bad writing that is both innacurate and patronizing to readers, such as to put off a portion of your readership from getting to the rest of the story at all.

Such as when you call me, a journalist, "her".

Here's a tip I use when writing and editing: When you want to write in a gender-free manner, write in a gender-free manner. It's easy! For example: "A journalist's core competency is, in theory, the ability to write articles..." See how easy? Any competent journalist can do it.

To use (the factually inaccurate) "her" is nothing but a gratuitous injection of one's own personal politics where it doesn't belong: "A journalist's core competency is, in theory, her -- see how progressive I am, sisters! -- ability to write articles..."

If a "his" is to be scuppered because not all journalists are men and it is annoying to a minority of readers (in spite of its usage as a universal in the English language, well, forever) how can "her" possibly be better?

It is just **bad, egocentric** writing.

Posted by: oldnasty | July 9, 2009 1:56 AM | Report abuse

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