Hiltzik, The LA Times, and Social Media Do’s and Don’t’s

I want to do a couple of posts on the LA Times, triggered in part by the Hiltzek news, over the next few days.

There are two issues here, one petty and one serious. Let me get the petty issue out of the way first, and then let’s spend some quality time on the serious one. This overlaps my professional life enough that I want to both approach it with care, but also to claim a little bit of authority in that much of what I’ve done for the last three years has been to advise major companies – including one publisher – on how to respond to “Web 2.0″ and the rise of “social media” – like blogs.The petty issue is pretty simple; the LA Times gave a column to a business writer who was well-credentialed (a Pulitzer, no less) and aggressive, but whose politics and worldview were, in my eyes, so doctrinaire that very little of what he wrote was original; we could have cut-and-pasted policy papers from SEIU and press releases from the state Democratic party and had an equivalent level of analysis (note that both the SEIU and Democratic party do engage in analysis – often very good analysis, but it’s deeply partisan analysis). He was, to boot argumentative and rude, and when challenged, was fundamentally just irrational and bizarre.

So I disagree with him on some policy issues, don’t think much of his analysis, and found his behavior bad enough that I’d probably have banned him from Winds.

And then there was the sockpuppetry. He lost his column over that, was moved to sports, and over the intervening time has managed to position himself to get his column back, starting next month.

We’ll see whether his analysis has become more interesting, and whether he has begin to ‘get’ the kind of behavior that’s needed in the world of journalism 2.0, where the audience gets to talk back. I hope he does, on all counts, and sincerely hope that his column is a fruitful source of thought and debate over the state of things here in California – which are troubling.

That’s the petty stuff. Take a look at these posts on this site and on Patterico’s site for an overview. I can’t link you to Hiltzik’s side of things, or to the Times’, because you won’t find it on the LA Times – his old blog, and all discussion around this issue, appear to have vanished (or at least I can’t find them using the Times’ search engine).

For the serious stuff, I’d like to dig into this whole episode from the point of view of a Web 2.0 strategist, and offer the Times what I hope they will take as constructive criticism. Because, Lord knows, they need it.

By the current social media playbook, they have done pretty much everything wrong, and continue to do so. Now, I don’t think that social media is the automatic answer to any question, but one point I make to my clients is that regardless of what you want or how well you think it applies, your customers, employees, and stakeholders are increasingly used to engaging via social media – and they increasingly get that kind of engagement from other brands they are involved with. So even if you don’t plan to make it central to your brand presence, you need to figure out how to react to people who think you are.

So – late on Friday I went over to Jamie Gold’s blog and left a comment critical of the decision, in light of the history. It was a comment from the petty side of the issue (my disagreements with Hiltzik’s analysis and behavior). As of today (Sunday night) it’s not there. I doubt it will be there in 24 hours, although I hope it will.

Here’s why. The first thing all my clients say when we talk about allowing user-generated content onto their websites is “What about people who don’t like us? Won’t they say mean things?”

Yes, they will. And if you’re smart, you’ll engage those mean things in a thoughtful and engaging way, and if you do that well, you can make a critic into a fan. here’s what I consider to be the gold standard for that kind of online aikido:

Forget the brilliant execution (and resources) behind this video – think about the attitude that looked at a petty criticism like that and saw in it an opportunity.

People want to engage with the ‘megaphones’ that are in all our lives; on a micro scale, having this blog has introduced me to people interested in engaging with me. People want – and increasingly expect – engaged conversation with the people they see on TV, read in their newspapers, or even – God forbid – elect to office.

In the next few posts, I want to go through the history of the Times around this one issue and try and highlight what they did badly, and make suggestions about what they could have done that would have made it better. I’ll be interested in hearing what you folks all think.

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