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May 25, 2010, 3:30 p.m.

Engaging with journos: At GigaOM, there’s an app for that

Have you ever tried to get in touch with a journalist, only to wander her employer website’s labyrinthine maze of non-linked bylines and PR department messages and institutional contact forms? Have you ever, desperate but not optimistic, actually written a message into one of those contact forms, only to have it languish, unanswered, in what you can only assume is the cyber-equivalent of the Lost island’s Orchid station? Have you ever found yourself thinking, “This is not how things should be done”?

If so, you will probably love GigaOM’s new iPhone app. The app — a free one — has the comprehensiveness of the most effective media apps: As GigaOM founder Om Malik put it in announcing its App Store availability, the platform features “a unified experience of all our various properties — from our blogs to our paid subscription service to our events to our real-time Twitter feed.” One key difference, though: The app also offers a direct communications channel to GigaOM’s writers. Swipe to the final screen of the app, and you’ll be greeted with a list of those writers; tap on a name, and you’ll be led to the author’s iPhone-abbreviated bio — complete with a photo and an “Ask the Author” button.

Tap the button, and you’ll be sent to an email interface pre-populated with the author’s (direct! non-institutionally-mediated! hallelujah!) email address.

The direct-communication-with-authors approach is standard at GigaOM: “There should be no friction when it comes to our readers getting in touch with us,” Malik told me. “That was the premise of starting my company, and that’s the premise I hold true today. We are who we are because of our readers, and they should have the ability to get in touch with us whenever they want.”

The new app facilitates that ability. The communications interface is built into the user experience even more explicitly and directly than it is on the website proper: swipe, click, email, done.

But, then: Don’t the writers get overwhelmed by messages? Well, “some days it gets to be too much,” Malik acknowledges. “But people understand that you won’t respond right away.” Besides: While, overall, “yes, it’s going to take time — and, yes, it takes you away from your writing or reporting or whatever you’re doing,” Malik says, “customer service is a part of any business. And journalism is no different.” Communicating with users, both in taking direct feedback and giving it back, “is just good business practice.”

While the direct-email approach isn’t immediately feasible for bigger outlets with broader editorial interests (imagine if the New York Times’ app offered a direct communications channel to Maureen Dowd!), the overall, connection-is-key attitude is ripe for emulation. As much as we love to talk about “engagement” and “connection” and all the rest, the talking-to-journalists aspect of our press’s new approach to its old public mandate hasn’t, for the most part, caught up with all the 2.0 rhetoric. Easy, direct communications with reporters suggests the engagement side of news’s new frontier. And while, sure, GigaOM isn’t the New York Times, in size or attitude or mission, its emphasis on connection suggests the way we’re all heading: toward a more direct, and open, dialogue between journalists and the people they serve.

And that dialogue doesn’t just benefit readers; the value, as in any true conversation, goes both ways. “I have learned so much…by being able to communicate with people on a one-on-one basis,” Malik points out. “That, really, is what’s behind this whole thing.”

POSTED     May 25, 2010, 3:30 p.m.
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