It has been a while since I last reported about the changing work practices at Belgian business newspaper publisher Mediafin, but, as you may have noticed, something has gone horribly wrong in the financial services sector in the interim.

In Belgium, our biggest bank, Fortis, was taken over by the French bank BNP Paribas. Another one of our largest banks had to be rescued by the government.

Journalists were working around the clock, but we found time and energy to experiment with new ways of dealing with our audience. Researchers may have spiffy names for those experiments, but it just boils down to having a conversation with members of your community. Only, this time the audience virtually invaded the newsroom.

What We Did

We set up a live text-based coverage, not of some conference call, but of our very own editorial morning meeting. I used CoverItLive, the live-blogging tool I discussed in a previous post

The newsroom managers and those leading the different sections of the newspaper meet every day at 10.30 a.m. to plan the day’s main stories. The meeting is typically limited to people inside the newspaper, of course, because newsroom managers have no intention of letting our competitors see our game plan.

When I explained to my colleagues that I was continuing my live chat session while in the meeting with them, they reacted with raised eyebrows and a moment of silence. However, because of the special situation, they accepted the experiment. The only complaint I got afterwards was that I typed too furiously.

Via chat, I informed the readers that we were discussing how we would cover the financial crisis, asking what they would want us to cover and which questions they would like to hear answered.

Later that day and in those that followed, I started yet another live chat. I told the readers that we were receiving contradictory incoming reports, with rumors spreading about the demise of the biggest bank. Journalists were scrambling to learn what was really happening, trying to combine banking, market and government sources into a coherent narrative.

I told the readers that the chat channel was open (but moderated), that I would not be able to give a coherent commentary but that I would put out all breaking news as soon as it would be available. I asked the participants to share their insights and information with us and each other.

A normal chat session at Mediafin runs for 45 minutes and is more like a show — a dialog or live interview with backchat — but this chat session developed into a mass gathering with about 3,500 participants and ran for more than 10 hours.

What Readers Wanted

The editorial discussion at our meeting focused on how the crisis woud affect institutions: What will the impact be on the Belgian financial services sector? How will the government and the European Central Bank respond? What should authorities do? But readers were much more interested in asking, “How will this affect me?”

Many of our readers work in the very institutions which were in deep trouble. They wanted to know if they could lose their savings, if they should sell their stocks, if their jobs were at risk.

But they also wanted more. They asked how we intended to bring them the news. Some readers accused us of being too academic and institutional and should run more human interest stories — illustrating the impact of the crisis on real people. This was a difficult point to realize, because the news managers wanted our coverage to remain unemotional and business-like. I had my doubts about this, but there was no time to have a discussion of what human interest could mean in this context. Reader questions also made us realize that we, as journalists, did not have enough specific information to give detailed answers.

To help answer reader questions, we asked our colleagues at our personal finance magazine to collaborate on the site and in the print newspaper. News people and personal finance writers rarely work together, but this new cooperation was a direct result of reader interaction and demand.

What about the marathon chat? The same specific questions came up, but readers also provided tips and information that proved to be highly useful. Some reported how difficult it had become to do wholesale dollar transactions in the market. A banker told us how trust between institutions was collapsing even as he wrote his lines in the chat box.

One person active in the money market insisted that we should write less about stocks and instead explain more how the interbank financial flows work, because that was the lifeblood of the system that was now collapsing. The same person explained to other participants — and to us, the journalists — why the interbank market and the dollar trade were that important to us in Belgium.

The interbank issue was, of course, very important, and we were one of the first newspapers, either in print or online, to focus on that issue. This again was partly in response to reader requests.

The Community Organizes Itself

Needless to say, this whole exercise was extremely useful. It helped us to talk about the things that mattered to our readers. Instead of 130,000 unique visitors a day, we got more than 350,000. People were writing us to thank us for the quality of the information and the speed with which we got it out. We added stories about the interbank market on our website and in our newspaper, as well as more stories with a “What’s in store for you?” focus while collaborating with the personal finance editors.

Journalists were bewildered by the stress of the extreme workload and massive influx of suggestions from the community. At the same time, they realized that there was a mass audience out there, making contact, looking over our shoulders as we wrote stories, sending in stories that could be useful to us, and sharing every shred of information they could find which they believed we should integrate in our newsgathering. They literally co-directed our coverage.

The exercise was about more than just getting interesting ideas and information from readers. It was very much about emotions and a community in shock. A few days later in the crisis, we limited the number of hours we went live. There was too much work, and we were getting pretty exhausted. Journalists started complaining that they were journalists and not a consumer help desk — but those same journalists still kept asking how many reactions we were getting, and what people were saying.

Late one evening, I was monitoring the reactions on the website articles. One person issued an invitation to come to an IRC platform, where he would open a chat channel called “Tijd” (the name of our newspaper is De Tijd). In other words, the audience was organizing their very own live event, called “channel for sleepless readers of De Tijd.”

I logged on, not as the operator of the chat session but just as a regular participant, and received a very warm welcome. People there told me that the chat sessions were not only informative, but also important on an emotional level. “We work in those banks. We cannot sleep because of what is happening. It helps me to talk about it with others,” one man told me, adding that while he typed these lines, he was in bed (it was after midnight).

“We lost savings invested in banking stocks, believing those stocks were conservative investments. We not only need information, we need to deal somehow with this,” another participant added.

I looked at the words and lines in the chat box, a rapid succession of stories, rumors, and feelings. I suddenly had a vivid awareness of what we journalists are, and what we always were: storytellers, enabling a never-ending conversation.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.