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A word from the Redditor-in-chief

Jack Riley

 A word from the Redditor in chiefMaybe it was unfair of me to describe Reddit as a "wonderful, warped, geeky collection of links, pictures and videos" last week. Its culturally-literate users have a dedication to liberal thought and politics which marks them out from the community of certain other news aggregator sites (*cough* Digg *cough*). I stand by what I said about it having come of age over the course of the election though, and a large part of that process has involved establishing strong ties with the traditional media. In that spirit, The Independent recently launched their own sub-reddit, which is growing steadily with content from these blogs and independent.co.uk, and in anticipation of the collaboration I interviewed the site’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian about the future of news.

Here’s what he had to say.

What effect does handing editorial responsibility to a community of users have on reporting current events?

Alexis: For the benefit of a well-informed citizenry, one would hope to see a diversity of what is ‘news.’ Not all redditors will choose to get thisbreadth, but they at least have that option and can cast their vote. The traditional (read: editorial) format doesn’t give readers any opportunity to interact with what became news of the day. That said, neither is without its flaws.

Sites like reddit helps the traditional model because stories can be written for their own merit (not to be on page A1) and still have a chance to do well, that is, be read by a lot of people.

How do you think the fact that many news aggregator sites began life reporting tech news affects the way news is reported?

Since many of our early users were technologists, the culture remains to this day. Specifically, there’s a very low tolerance for PR-speak and rather strong affinity for relevance. That is, a typical reader would prefer to read about a story as it unfolds, knowing that early reports are more prone to error and speculation. No need to let the ink dry; there’s so much other good content competing for attention that you don’t find tired stories being belabored all day like on your favourite 24-hour cable news network.

And while many of our top stories come from blogs or other online technology, mainstream media known for more thoughtful and thorough analyses (say, in the form of a New Yorker article, which is owned by my parent company, but that I respected a great deal before working here) also do quite well.

It happens quite often that a story in the field of science and technology breaks on reddit long before my dad tells me about having read it in the New York Times. The ease with which Diebold voting machines were hacked, for instance, was a significant story on reddit because our community immediately understood the flaw and its implications.

There’s also a certain type of humour on a site like reddit that you simply wouldn’t find anywhere other than on the Internet: http://xkcd.com/327/ . That’s funny, trust me

What do you think the traditional media can learn from reddit? Can old and new media news outlets get along better than they do already?

We’ve always seen it as a symbiotic relationship. We’re the oxpecker to your rhinoceros (or the other way around, but I realize we’ve got a ways to go before we reach the scale of traditional media and I do fancy the word "oxpecker"). While the comments on reddit are often great content themselves, the real substance of reddit is predominantly supplied by the tremendous reporting of traditional media.

The most valuable asset at a newspaper is still the journalist – this is even more true now. News aggregators like reddit, and the Internet in general, have diminished the brand power of media companies. Now we’re only a click away from leaving one newspaper for another. We don’t need to buy a newspaper or even change a channel. What matters now is content; sites like reddit are brand agnostic.

The best lesson to learn from reddit is to stop thinking of a news website as a newspaper that’s just online. The Internet makes sharing content from a variety of sources easier than it’s ever been, so there’s little incentive for readers to stick around if you’re not putting good content in front of them – even if it’s not yours. Letting them vote to determine the frontpage (or at least one view of it) is just one way of doing that.

Is YourWeek (Reddit’s ill-fated foray into broadcast news) a natural next step for news aggregators, and is it generally practicable for sites like reddit to present the content posted to them in new ways?

We certainly believe something like the YourWeek model is a natural next step. Frankly, we’ve always operated with the assumption that something new will come up next week and we’ll adapt when it happens. I’m not sure what our exact course is, but I’ve got a foggy destination on the horizon.

Since the start of mass media, these companies have tried to give news consumers (emphasis on consumers) what they want with the obvious hope that they’ll keep their attention (and thus keep consuming). A site like reddit just does it in real-time through voting. I believe this is a model that can be applied to a wide range of content in a variety of forms.

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