BASIC Principles of Online Journalism: C is for Community & Conversation (pt1: Community)

In the final parts of this series I look at two concepts that have become increasingly central to online journalism in the post-Web 2.0 era: community and conversation. I look at why journalists need to understand how both have changed, how they are linked, and how to embrace them in your work processes.

Conversation and community have always been the lifeblood of journalism. Good journalism has always sought to serve a community; commercially, journalism has always needed large or affluent communities to support it. And good journalism – whether informative or sensationalist – has always generated conversation.

Now, in a hyperlinked world, community and conversation are more important than ever.

But they have also changed.

The community is now the media

The bar has been raised.

In a networked world the faceless, passive, amorphous masses of print and broadcast journalism are an anachronism. Journalists can no longer stand outside communities supplying them with information. Communities can supply themselves – and each other – thank you very much:

  • When your former audience has the same tools as you to publish, publishing isn’t your unique selling point.
  • When they have access to the same information, newsgathering isn’t your unique selling point.
  • And when they can pass on news at the click of a button, even distribution isn’t your unique selling point.

When your community has this much power (if this is the Green Ink Brigade they have undergone significant rearmament), you are best advised to stop trying to beat them, and start learning how to join them – or at least form a peaceful alliance.

Journalists need communities more than ever before – not just as buyers, but as active contributors, moderators, and editors: a 21st century ‘news organisation’ doesn’t have walls; it has networks. And persuading users to join your network is one of the biggest challenges facing journalists. For some online journalists, it is becoming the core of their job.

“Community organising IS media”

David Cohn puts it this way:

“It’s often said that the job description for journalists are changing and that part of the new job is ‘community manager’ – sometimes called the ‘network weaver.’

“What they do is organize communities – and while it might not FEEL like media, it is. We may not call them “journalists” but they are helping to inform citizens so they can make decisions in a healthy democracy. They collect, filter and distribute information. Sounds like journalism to me.”

But it’s far from easy, and requires a change of focus.

While news organisations have lost their monopolies on publishing, information and distribution, journalists can still contribute to a community on a number of important fronts:

  • Time: whereas most users can only contribute to a community in their spare time, a professional journalist employed as a community manager is paid to do the job full time, has more time for ‘social grooming’, and can break Dunbar’s limit on group size. In the 1-9-90 rule, journalists can be part of the 1% who are heavy contributors (the other 9% are occasional contributors, and the final 90% do not contribute).
  • Experience: for the same reason, journalists – particularly those who move into community management – are likely to have more experience of organising, motivating, and communicating with people (if they haven’t, they need to start building it).
  • An eye across a number of sectors: journalists cannot always compete on expertise – they are generally paid to be ‘jacks of all trades’, generalists who can move from motoring to business news – but this has its advantages in having contacts across sectors and sometimes seeing the bigger picture.
  • Financial support: it can be tempting to believe that ‘if you build it, they will come’, to trust in throwing money at technology to serve up a platform that will attract users. But it’s not that simple. A recent study found that despite 6% of commercially built online communities having over $1 million spent on them, “A disturbingly high number of these sites fail.” Why? “Businesses launching online communities repeat a series of blunders. First, they have a tendency to get seduced by bells and whistles and blow their online-community budget on technology. Businesses [should] spend resources identifying and reaching out to potential community members instead of investing in software that makes predictions, or even social-networking technology.”
  • A brand: think of it as the big 19th century statue in the city centre: not useful in itself, but an obvious landmark to congregate around. News websites have the advantage of thousands of existing users, and so don’t have to build from scratch. But the brand can be as much of a handicap as an advantage. It means users come with a number of preconceptions about your motivations (commercial; mercenary), previous bad experiences, and expectations (what’s in it for me?). These all need to be addressed very early on.

Plug these into community management and there is the potential for success – but this is only part of the picture. Another part is a change in how we see community in the first place.

When is a community a community?

Too often community is used as a synonym for ‘market’. A community of “middle aged upper class readers in Newstown” is not a community: that’s a demographic. “First time dads in Newsdistrict” are more likely to be a community. Indeed, so is “first time dads”, and that’s why magazines seem to have an easier time of this, focusing as they do on:

  • Communities based on shared passions or hobbies
  • Communities based on shared beliefs
  • Communities based on shared employment

But with the web we can go further still:

  • Communities based on shared history (e.g. school, event)
  • Communities based on shared problem
  • Communities based on shared cause

These markets were too small and/or too volatile previously to support a publication – now that’s no longer the case. The costs of publishing online are so low, and the lead-in times so instant, that it has become incredibly easy to set up a publication aimed at a community almost as quickly as that community forms – or even before.

In comparison, the idea of setting up a publication to serve ‘news’ to people living within a 50-mile radius becomes unsustainably generic in an online environment: the individual communities that make up that market can be picked off one by one.

So. All that talk about “serving the community”? Now journalists need to prove they mean it. Through providing information, yes – but also support, tools and platforms, something that Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube woke up to long ago.

Whatever you do, you need to start by joining a community’s conversations.

Read part two: Conversations on Thursday.


13 thoughts on “BASIC Principles of Online Journalism: C is for Community & Conversation (pt1: Community)

  1. peter

    w is for whats working
    n is for niche

    the essential difference between a niche and a community is that niches are “opt-in” communities aren’t. Kind of like friends vs. family.

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