Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Interactivity isnít only for Facebook

by John Halverson

April 19, 2012

Please note the photo accompanying this column.

Pretty cute.

But neither I nor any other member of our staff can take credit.

It came about out of desperation that turned into serendipity, and turns out to be a great example of citizen journalism.

The desperation came two Saturdays ago when I was shooting pictures at the annual Easter egg hunt in Lake Geneva. I snapped a couple photos and then my camera froze.

Luckily, I had one shot worthy of the paper. But for awhile, I was desperate - so I passed out my name and e-mail address to parents who were also shooting photos of the event. Send me your best shot, I said, or words to that effect.

Christi Bogdan of Genoa City responded to my plea and her artistry appears on this page.

A week earlier I was stumped about who the characters were in a historical photo we ran about the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva (now Grand Geneva). Several people responded with the answer and appeared to have a good time remembering.

Their responses enriched the paper the last two weeks and are examples of what I think newspapers need more of, if they're to compete in this increasingly interactive world.

Some optimists in our business say that newspapers on newsprint are going to be around forever. I sure hope so.

But to put it in historical perspective, newspapers as we know them have only been around a few hundred years. It's a relatively new means of communication that's already faced challenges from radio and television.

And now it's tweeting and Facebook and similar means of electronic communications. Whether newspapers on newsprint survive is debatable, but the information they produce will remain important. And if newspapers want to survive it's my feeling that they need to dig into their pasts for something they've given up on - interacting with readers.

It is said that citizen tweets played a large part in organizing and reporting recent uprisings around the world especially during the Arab Spring.

Facebook has been a phenomenon for years now.

That's how neighbors communicate these days.

What those new mediums have that newspapers, radio and TV lack is interactivity≠ — people communicating with one another, talking across the proverbial fence. Deep down we all want to live in a neighborhood and newspapers can help move us toward that just like Facebook has.

We still have some interactivity in the paper, mostly via our letters to the editor forum. The most obvious example is on our website where responses are often less than thoughtful.

But we've lost some other forms, like "personals" where people would report that their aunt visited town the week before.

Some of the drop in citizen journalism came about because of historical shifts. Cities are smaller and life is more mobile. As a result, your aunt visiting doesn't really have broad appeal.

But those features also disappeared because of a shift in journalism that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s.

Newspapers became more uniform, especially after the advent of USA Today.

Journalists thought people wanted something more sophisticated, less small town, sleeker and more like television than the chatty, busy papers of the past.

Don't get me wrong. I think newspapers of any size need to cover the news. I like sharp, focused news that doesn't back away from power, and strong editorials. But we can have those things and a little bit of light and color, too.

In the examples of interactivity I mentioned above, I'm sure Christi was happy to see her son and his friend in the paper, and so were her kids and their friends and - well, you get the idea - a lot of people. Those who responded to the historical feature seemed happy to help, too, and the fact that so many responded says it was a pleasurable experience as well as an informative one for the paper.

We had the newspaper talking to readers responding. It was like having a bit of Facebook on newsprint.

Back when I started old-time editors used to say the paper should be full of "names and faces." That's what sells papers, they said. Young bucks like me used to reply, "well, let's just print the phone book then."

There's a middle ground in there somewhere, and I'd like to find it.

Halverson is the general manager and editor of the Regional News.