I get asked that question a lot and it occurred to me the other day that it is getting increasingly harder to answer because the #backchannel seems to be so many things to so many people.
This self-reflection began last Friday night when I got a tweet from someone I hadn’t seen on the backchannel before. “@Missive” was complaining about a link I’d posted a few minutes earlier…a news item out of Arizona about a man so high on meth he put his baby in the freezer because “the kitchen floor was dirty”.
“Very impressed by backchannel.” @missive wrote, “But RT-ing news about meth-head idiots will take this project exactly where local news is–gutter.”
Now, as you all know, I agree that local news spends too much time in the “gutter”. We spend far too much time covering fires, shootings and murders and not enough time covering stories about “good people doing good things”. But I also believe you can’t just ignore the bad stuff. It’s not going to go away just because TV doesn’t talk about it. So in the interest of balance I use Twitter in general and the #backchannel specifically to present what I believe is a more “balanced” news source. I find a story about a meth addict tossing his baby in the freezer “instructive” if for no other reason than to answer the question about why the law chooses to prosecute “victimless” crimes. I think the baby might take issue with that position.
But along with that story I also tweeted the story about the Garden City family who started a salsa business that saved the family home and paid off the son’s college tuition. Balance.
But @missive was unswayed. ” How does that man’s story lift your city?” she tweeted, “How is it newsworthy? This space needs news that changes things. Not a tabloid.” What I found interesting about that comment is that @missive is telling me what the #backchannel is supposed to be and I’m the guy who invented it!
But @missive was so disappointed by my retweet of a story about a meth addict with bad parenting skills that she told me she was less likely to use the backchannel as an example of a “media paradigm shift” in the city. To her credit I believe @missive understood that just the fact we were discussing the issue was an example of a rather radical “media paradigm shift”. I mean, when was the last time a TV station actually listened to anybody’s complaint?
Now you’re old news with a new toy
I thought we were having a pretty civil discussion until she threw that bomb into my tweet stream. “Now you’re old news with a new toy,” @missive wrote. I admit, after 30 some years in TV I certainly qualify as “old news” but the suggestion that I think of Twitter and the backchannel as a “new toy” that, by implication, I will tire of and toss away is simply unfair.
But it does raise the question that is at the center of this blog. “What is the #backchannel?”
First you have to answer a much bigger question. “What is Twitter”.
I think of Twitter as kind of like those ice skates in Tom Hanks’ “Castaway”. They were pretty useless on a tropical island as skates, but invaluable as a tool for everything from chopping wood to rope-making to dental procedures.
Twitter, for me, is kind of like those skates. It started as a fun way to reach out and meet people. But on my little TV “island” the skates seemed to have very limited value. I mean, I can “connect” with 200,000 people in one sitting…what’s the value of talking to one person at a time? So, like Tom Hanks I had to come up with a new way to use the skates…turn the toys into tools.
The tool turned out to be the #backchannel. A place for people to meet both during and between newscasts to socialize and to make connections. A place for everyone, not just me, to post news of interest and impact. From the fund raising cancer walk on Belle Isle to, yes, the meth addict who shuts his baby in the freezer. But in the incredible interaction that quickly evolved I saw another opportunity. One of the most pervasive comments in those early days mirrored @missive’s complaint that TV news was in the “gutter”. So I issued a challenge to help get us out of that gutter. Come up with those stories about “good people doing good things”. And just so you understand how TV news got to where it is I further challenged you to figure out how to take that good news story and make it visual and interesting. I think you’re beginning to understand that its not as easy as it seems.
But I believe this “crowd sourcing” will eventually turn the tide. Together we can show “old media” that there is a new game in town…and if you can find “good” stories why can’t we? Does that mean the “bad” news will go away? No. I think there needs to be both…but a balance of both.
That’s what I think the backchannel is…. I want to know you think.
After all, I may be steering this ship but you’re the motor.