Heidi MacDonald (The Beat) moderated C2E2's panel on comics media and I was immediately impressed with the diversity of the panelists chosen to participate. Lucas Siegel from Newsarama described his primary audience as loyal comics fans who split their time between his site and Comic Book Resources looking primarily for previews and Q&A pieces, but he also expressed excitement about reaching out to a general audience through his Yahoo feed.
Rick Marshall from MTV’s Splash Page sees his role as kind of the opposite of that. I’m paraphrasing – as I will through most of this report – but his primary audience is a general one that wants to enjoy comics without having to know the ins and outs of the industry. He says that he enjoys taking his readers deeper by covering more than just the mainstream stories, but he’s also thankful that his readers aren’t as hardcore as Newsarama or CBR’s.
Caleb Goellner (Comics Alliance) and Ron Richards (iFanboy) didn’t describe their audiences so much as talk about their approaches to writing for them, but if I’m reading correctly between the lines, they both provide content for educated comics readers that’s sort of a second level from the straight news and press releases; more focused on thoughts and opinions.
Heidi described her own audience as educated insiders who enjoy reading about the business side of comics.
Johanna Draper Carlson from Comics Worth Reading says that her readership is made up of “non-typical” comics fans with a diversity of tastes. She also indicated though that she keeps a general audience in mind as she’s writing and avoids using a lot of insider language.
Noah Berlatsky from the Hooded Utilitarian didn’t exactly describe his audience either, but if I can put words into his mouth, he seemed to appreciate the esoteric tastes of his readers. Or at least that he was able to write about some really obscure stuff for them without their going away. At one point, Johanna remarked on Noah’s intellectual curiosity – comparing him to a grad student – and he seemed to agree that he approaches his subjects with that attitude.
Writing for diverse audiences, first vs best, and journalistic ethics after the break.
Many of the panelists talked about their approaches to writing for their diverse audiences. Ron Richards says that he thinks of iFanboy’s audience as a group of friends sitting around and talking about comics. Caleb says that Comics Alliance tries to keep their content radical and gives Editor-in-Chief Laura Hudson all the credit for balancing the various writers’ tastes and styles.
Brigid mentioned the challenge of writing multiple blogs for multiple audiences, but also talked about how fulfilling that can be. Johanna seemed to be able to relate to that too and talked about creating Manga Worth Reading and DVDs Worth Watching to help scratch those itches. Lucas also said that it’s nice to be able to sneak a video game review or whatever into Newsarama’s content occasionally. That’s a refreshing break after covering 20 panels and conducting 40+ interviews at a convention like C2E2.
The balance between writers and readers’ interests kept coming up over the course of the discussion. When Heidi asked about how journalism styles have changed from print to web, Noah’s immediate response was that the web offers opportunities to write about things that you can’t publish in print. He wasn’t talking about censorship, but how the low costs associated with online publishing means that writers can take a lot more chances with their subject-matter.
MTV’s Rick Marshall answered the question by talking about the struggle between being first with a story and being best. That resonated with a lot of the panelists.
Lucas lamented that evergreen feature writing is missing from most online coverage right now. Though previews and Q&As are Newsarama’s bread and butter, he wishes there was more room for features. Johanna added that negative pressure creates the temptation to focus on short, quick pieces rather than longer, thought-out ones.
Rick then noted a huge drawback to this style of journalism: that the push to be first can supersede fact-checking. Johanna’s also noticed this trend and said that at some point reporters have to learn journalism ethics.
Noah disagreed. “Not on the web you don’t.”
Heidi contradicted Noah though, stating that – in the absence of editors – teaching and feedback comes from the readers instead. While Brigid learned journalism ethics by writing for newspapers, Johanna said that she learned hers during her Usenet days from other contributors who kept her honest.
Brigid added that writers need to realize that they’re talking about real people and to be professional. Noah again disagreed, saying that honest writing shouldn’t be concerned with people’s feelings. Lucas suggested that people get way too upset about all this, adding, “It’s just comics.” a statement that he was quick to clarify as meaning that he was somewhat bewildered by the drama and hurt feelings that can occur when people write about comics. His point was that – though writers should approach their work with integrity – writing and talking about comics should be fun.
The tone of the discussion then changed a little by getting back to the idea of being first. Ron Richards pointed out that the rush to be first has been made harder lately by creators on Twitter who often break stories themselves. Lucas added that the publishers are doing it too, citing DC’s Source blog as an excellent example.
Johanna appreciates this trend and expressed hope that without the pressure to break the news, journalists will be able to focus more on writing better articles. Ron agreed. At iFanboy, opinions on the news are still drawing readers; replacing the need to get the news first.
Heidi then asked how exactly is quality affected by breaking quickly. Rick talked about bartered exclusives, something that he’s uncomfortable with at MTV. Ron agreed with this too, mentioning the risk of becoming a corporate tool.
Citing the mainstream coverage of events like Spider-Man’s revealing his identity and Captain America’s death, an audience member then asked how the panel thought the media should deal with spoilers. Johanna and Ron both thought that warnings are important, but that ultimately it shouldn’t matter if the story is good.
Rick shed some light on the mainstream stories the audience member referred to. Publishers, he said, are offering these stories to news outlets that don’t know anything about spoiler sensitivity. When Marvel contacts the New York Times (or whomever), they’re just telling the paper that they’ve got a hot story. The Times doesn’t realize that there are all these comics readers checking the news before they go to the store after work on Wednesday.
Another audience member added that this is a great advantage for reading webcomics because you don’t have to worry about a plotline being spoiled in Previews three months before the story comes out.
Continuing the audience’s participation, another member asked about the stigma of blogging as an activity for amateurs who can't get work in "real" journalism. Rick went back to Heidi’s earlier point about readers' keeping news outlets honest. Since they’re really the only check that bloggers have, readers need to work together to make blogs accountable for good journalism and writing.
The panel closed with an audience question about competing with Twitter and Facebook. Johanna responded that journalists simply need to do a great job. Lucas added that there’s an opportunity for journalists to use social media too, but that it requires a lot of hard work. The other panelists agreed with this and Ron and Rick offered specific suggestions. Ron said that you have to inject your personality into it. Readers won’t follow you just to know the news that they can get anywhere. They’ll follow you because they’re interested in what you think about the news.
Rick added that writers need to use Twitter and Facebook creatively, not just as RSS feeds. He also cautioned about balancing between your primary outlet and social media. With social media requiring so much hard work, where do you put your energy?
And it was on that comment that the panel ran out of time and had to end, leaving everyone edified, if not entirely satisfied. Seriously, the discussion could have gone on for another hour or two without running out of material. Many personal thanks to Heidi for putting it together and to the panelists for keeping it fascinating.