What Is The #Backchannel

Posted: August 31, 2010 in Uncategorized

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.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Clark, Stephen Clark, Howard Collens, Laura R. Charron, Cameron Aspenwall and others. Cameron Aspenwall said: RT @tweetmichigan: RT @sclarkwxyz: What Is The #Backchannel: http://wp.me/pY8Hd-5S […]

  2. Becky Johns says:

    Stephen, thanks for sharing what the backchannel is to you. This post is a good example of showing us how important it is to listen first, but then also be willing to speak up. You’re right about steering the ship but the community is the motor. The fact that you recognize that is a pretty good indicator that this system is going to continue to work.

    You’ve been in media long time. You know there are always people that disagree with you and you’re never going to be everything to everyone. Keep doing what you’re doing. Let the haters hate. Listen to them, think about what they’re saying and try to take them as opportunities to learn and improve.

    The beautiful thing about online community is that it will mirror what’s happening in real life. If only bad news is happening in Detroit and no one is doing anything to try to change that, then the backchannel will reflect that and you’ll have a finger on the pulse of the ruin of the city. But when good news is happening and people are out there hustling to make improvements and redefine the city in a positive way, guess what, you’ll have a finger on that pulse, too. Letting the backchannel amplify what’s really happening is the best way to continue to build this thing with its help. I have no doubt your respect for your community will guide you to continue to do that.

  3. Interesting discussion. As you may recall from some of my previous comments, I have been boycotting “traditional” news sources for years, ei., TV, newspaper & radio. I’m so sensitive I just can’t take the horrible stuff.

    The #backchannel has given me an opportunity to tune into the news stories of my choice. And because of some of your tweets, I have actually watched a couple TV segments as I knew in advance they were about a positive local story.

    I’m inspired with your ability to engage your twitter community. To me, twitter is an opportunity to connect and engage … that’s it!

    I LOVE your leadership in asking for positive stories be filmed and submitted by the #backchannel & twitter community. This is where it’s at: BE the change you want to see in the world. Even if the story is not aired, the effort producing the piece means something.

    I support the #backchannel.

  4. Pat Williams says:

    I’ve been one of those people who is very excited about #backchannel. I stopped watching news because it was too negative, too sensationalized, too depressing. Tossing a baby in a freezer is horrific. Do I want to hear about it? No. Unfortunately, just because I choose not to hear it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
    The news has been too negative for too long but I don’t think a pendulum swing in the opposite direction is the answer. There needs to be balance that replicates real life. Sometimes life is great, and sometimes it sucks. I’d love to keep my rose-colored glasses on, but that’s not reality either. Steven, you’ve done a wonderful job with #backchannel – trust your instincts and do what YOU think is right – you’ll never please everyone.

  5. Pat Williams says:

    My apologies for spelling your name with a ‘v’ rather than a ‘ph’! Where’s the edit button?! It seems my fingers forget to engage my brain while typing… (the stephen with a ‘v’ is my next door neighbor! LOL)

  6. Matt Boltz says:

    Excellent post, Stephen. I agree that local news generally spends too much time “in the gutter,” but I also think hearing the negative stories is important and even beneficial.

    I love hearing the positive news, especially stories of local interest that highlight the great things happening in the community. Detroiters and Michiganders are doing some amazing things, and are capable of enacting tremendous change. But I think there’s also a place for those negative stories that many people understandably don’t like to see – they need to be reported to promote awareness and inspire action. We need those stories to get us fired up enough to do something about it. Ignoring the bad news won’t make it go away, and it certainly won’t bring about the awareness and anger needed to spark the change that will help improve things.

    Ticked off about animal cruelty stories? Volunteer to help a local animal shelter and/or adopt a homeless pet (or two). Sick of hearing about drugged up idiots doing senseless things to innocent kids? Donate to or volunteer with a local organization that helps drug addicts and their families. Or help a Big Brothers Big Sisters-type organization that works to give these kids a fighting chance in our society. Document the things you see and do, and share them with the #backchannel 2.1 – create your own positives from the negatives and inspire the rest of us to do the same.

    It can be easy to block out the bad things, and if the negative stuff isn’t reported it quickly becomes a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” If we don’t see the bad things that are happening around us and if we don’t get mad about the injustices our neighbors suffer every day, how are we going to do our part to make positive changes?

  7. Story – line about 2 good news people who took an Idea and made a Village out of it. 2 great International Associations born locally.
    Ken Rogers – Automation Alley & Neil Dekoker – Original Equipment Suppliers Association – both in Troy. Many Cudos.

  8. Brad Gilbert says:

    The sad truth about the whole, “The old news is the gutter news” bit is skewed because the only reason they are shown is because they get ratings. If so many people are really tired of watching it – then that is exactly what they would do, stop watching.

    I think the real danger with the #backchannel is that the online community can turn in to what we hate about actual communities – a development of cliques.

  9. jenziewright says:


    You mentioned that you were thinking of posting on this, which I encouraged and was looking forward to. I was surprised today when community members came to me via DM on Twitter to let me know this had been posted and that you didn’t at least shoot me a note so that I could respond. I was also surprised that you published DM’s without asking permission and without full context. Perhaps I’m the one mired in the “old guard” of best practices and publishing etiquette.

    This is a form of putting sensationalism first, before people.

    But in a karmic way, it lends itself well to my argument, which I stand behind completely. It was a comment—not a mandate. It was me as a person telling you that I was saddened by the change. It was me giving you feedback, which you were free to do with as you pleased. I appreciate feedback. In my years on Twitter, I’ve never told anyone how to Tweet. I follow. I unfollow. I watch and I learn. And sometimes, if I feel something good could benefit from an outside observance, I comment. Social platforms are human and they reflect the full myriad of humanity. If I don’t like something, I don’t follow. But I was genuinely (and those of us who work in this space will know what I mean) excited to see someone from the old news paradigm stepping into this space and not only getting it, but pushing it further than it had gone in awhile. I meant what I said. I respect what you’ve done.

    And to be fair, if I allow one tweet to represent your entire time here, then I should live by the same rules and apologize to my community more often than I do for my droll.

    #BackChannel is yours. Absolutely. And what it becomes is completely up to you and those using it. And who uses it will absolutely be dictated by the content posted.

    But there’s a difference between News and Spectacle. They serve very different purposes in shaping our culture. Are meth heads and the tragedies they beget newsworthy? Sure. When paired with cultural causes and action plans for change. But not when they’re only held up to make people feel better because their lives are slightly less horrible.

    As I said before, I appreciate and respect your goals and wish you the best of luck finding out what the #backchannel is to you.


    Jen Wright

    • sclarkwxyz says:


      Thank you for your continued and spirited examination of the backchannel. As you correctly point out it continues to evolve… but it is not solely mine. It has always belonged to those who use it. Also, just for the record in my 30 years as a journalist is has been a well understood practice that any correspondence to a journalist or journalistic enterprise, whether written, spoken or electronically transmitted shall be considered “on the record” unless expressly agreed to be otherwise.

      I posted your DM’s specifically for the purpose of providing full context.


      • Jen Wright says:

        I read “any correspondence to a journalist or journalistic enterprise” and thought, but I wasn’t talking to him as subject/source, I was speaking as fellow professional. And that’s the beauty/struggle with defining “this space.”

        Just wanted to pop back on after thinking about this more (you really have pushed me to think). Working in social has caused me to be more of a watcher these days than a participant. Sometimes I mistake watching for real engaging (creepy, right?!). Because I had been watching, admiring and as Shannon Paul said, gushing, about your progress, I felt as if I ‘knew’ you, when I sent that note.

        I regret sending that having never properly introduced myself or even participated in #backchannel community. It’s one thing to critique a mutually respected colleague or friend. It’s another to shout a critique into a crowd as a stranger. The latter is something I dislike even more than sensationalized news.

        Mea culpa. My second DM of “But perhaps I should have said, nice to meet you,” was a sad attempt to do things in the right order.

        And as I also wrote that, “I’m always pleasantly surprised at having my mind changed,” I can honestly say you’ve done that. Twice.

        I genuinely appreciate the challenge of creating content for scheduled programming and also appreciate you challenging those who complain about content to put their money where their mouths are and create better content themselves.

        Thanks again for working through this with me respectfully and pushing me to think hard about this. I look forward to meeting you in you in person and introducing myself properly.


      • sclarkwxyz says:


        Above and beyond all the points of our discussion here I hope everyone recognizes that we ARE discussing. That to me was the first building block in what has become the backchannel…I wanted to get rid of the glass that has traditionally blocked two way communication.

        You have also pushed me to think every time I forward a link with a backchannel hashtag. I ask myself whether it informs, educates or enlightens. It may be a broader litmus test than others might use but that’s what I think the #backchannel is.

        I also look forward to a meeting you in the “off-line” world.

  10. I continue to be fascinated by how media reinvents itself every time it hits a new technology. Thanks for putting this discussion in the open about how “gutter news” – or, in lots of other online news worlds, things I’d characterize as “link bait” – gets treated and what it does to the thoughtful discussion of the rest of what goes on in a city.

  11. […] snafu the other night, and Stephen had to address the issue “off the channel”, on his blog. A local Twitter user made a valid, but somewhat disparaging remark about the use of the […]

  12. […] by using the hashtag “#backchannel” on Twitter, but he challenges them to pitch him, and the #backchannel community, with positive news story […]

  13. […] Clark, Action News anchor for Detroit’s WXYZ and creator of the #Backchannel, was kind enough to grant an interview with me in preparation for The Reinvention Summit. Clark […]

  14. […] them in real-time by using the hashtag “#backchannel”, but he challenges them to pitch him, and the #backchannel community, with positive news story […]

  15. Thanks , great blog . Good Infomation .

    Cheers Bill

  16. […] a real-time feedback loop that can connect stations, shows, and personalities with fans – a la “The Backchannel” here in Detroit.  Audience access and instantaneous feedback offer new content and material, as […]

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