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Reporter, readers and the man in the story meet online

August 7, 2008 |  5:38 pm

Marine_mitch_hood_edited1Reporter Jia-Rui Chong's Column One story on Mitch Hood, a former Marine whose two tours in Iraq left him facing, as Chong wrote, "a new enemy: sleep," included at the end this invitation: "Join us for a live Web chat at noon today as two Veterans Affairs experts discuss the influence of war on sleep and the ways that physicians try to treat the resulting problems. Go to www.latimes.com/sleepchat."

It was a new dimension for Chong and offered a chance for readers to meet Hood, the subject of her profile, online. The veteran showed up as well as the two experts, Dr. Thomas C. Neylan of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Steve Woodward of the Sleep Research Laboratory at the VA's National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Palo Alto.

Chong's carefully crafted published story, published Aug. 5, seems a contrast to the sprawling conversation online that involved as many as five people e-talking about different things at once, over the course of about an hour.

Lindsay Barnett, the online editor who moderates the chats for latimes.com, notes some limitations to holding chats. There’s that overlap in conversation when one person is typing an answer while another person has posted an entirely different question, for instance. But a live blog offers “a unique way for the reader to be able to interact directly in a way that you can't so much reading the story or e-mailing the writer of a story or commenting on a message board. There’s something about the immediacy, knowing they're there reading it at the same time you’re writing it."

As its own form of storytelling, it is time- and resource-intensive, involving at least one reporter, editors, sources and technical help all available at the same time. The number of people involved in producing the chat has to be measured against the number of readers who benefit (Barnett says that a chat might typically have about 20 to 50 participants; a celebrity- or sports-driven one might have 100; this one had about 60). But Barnett judges the success of a chat not just by the number of participants but by quality of the questions, and “if people are getting something from it." Many of the four or five chats a month The Times offers are for sports- and entertainment-related stories. Barnett says, “Sometimes the comments we just get are ‘omg, I love you,’ that sort of thing. For this one, there were thoughtful comments and opinions; people had interesting ideas to offer.”

The online doors were thrown open a bit before noon on Tuesday for a conversation that lasted more than an hour. How do Chong and the editor on the story, Steve Padilla, think it went? Their answers follow.

Question: How did it go?

Jia-Rui Chong: I thought it went really well. It was a little wild at the beginning with questions moving the conversation in many different directions, but by about 15 minutes in, we got a better handle on the flow. I was very pleased at the level of conversation: lots of good questions, very civil discourse, and lots of heartfelt personal testimonials.

Steve Padilla: The personal testimonials were indeed moving and frank — like the woman who said her vet husband hasn’t had a good night’s rest in 24 years. It was fascinating to watch the conversation unfold. It included technical issues — discussions of various medications and therapies — to heartfelt comments from veterans on their struggles with PTSD and sleep. One other thing hit me as I watched the online conversation. For years reporters and editors never knew how folks reacted to their stories — or if they even read them. But now, thanks to technology, we can see people react -- with us or with each other.

Question: What was the thinking behind doing a chat to begin with? 

Chong: Steve had the idea because he wanted to add a public service component to the story. A chat with just me would probably be boring and not very informative, so I suggested we try to get experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have heard many veterans complain about how difficult it is to get access to VA care, so I thought an online chat would help them get some of their questions answered.

Question: How do you think this chat added to your ability to tell this story?

Chong: We were only able to write a paragraph or two about different ways to treat sleep problems in the print story, and people often criticize newspapers for exposing problems without providing ways to fix them. I think the web chat gave us an opportunity to tie up those loose ends and give people some guidelines for treatment. Most of the questions in the chat, it turned out, were about various medications or behavioral techniques. People really wanted to know which worked best and what kind of risks they carried. It was also great when Mitch showed up in the chat room. A lot of readers connected with Mitch emotionally so they wanted an update on how things were going for him.

Question: Yes, I see that Mitch himself got help directly from someone signed on as "VFW Service Officer" who gave a live assessment of the former Marine's disability compensation. So did the chat accomplish what you'd hoped it would? What problems did you see come up? Would you do it again?

Chong: Yes, I would do it again. But not for every story. It took some effort (read: days) to coordinate with the researchers, editors and web techies. I think that it got vets, their families and the people who treat vets some good answers to their questions. It got people thinking about the issue. It connected people who wouldn't have found each other otherwise. It was also nice to see how much goodwill and warmth our readers had for the folks involved in our stories, especially since a lot of the discussion on the internet can be mean-spirited. As for problems: There was a bit of a tendency for some people to try to use the chat for self-promotion, but we sent private messages to some of these participants to tone it down. We told them we were glad to have them on the chat, but we also didn't intend the chat to be a platform for 800 numbers or repetitive pitches for their company. I worried that we might run out of questions at some point and I had a few in my back pocket so that I could jump in. But we never ended up having a lull!

Photo: Mitch Hood. Credit: Sachi Cunningham / Los Angeles Times. Cunningham also videotaped Chong's interview with Hood.

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