Every media brand in existence is working to build a community.
Most of them won’t succeed.
Many won’t succeed because the business organizations that are trying to implement the communities are themselves crumbling, caught in a downdraft of declining revenues, causing cuts resulting in declining quality which leads to declining audiences who pay less and are less valuable to advertisers – and so on.
And some won’t succeed because they are doing community wrong – treating it as an adjunct, a bolt-on feature, or a simple expansion of “letters to the editor.”
That’s not community, it’s not going to drive audience “engagement,” and it's not going to lead to sustainable new business models.
When I speak at conferences, I explain social media (the technological implementation of community) as being a part of a hierarchy:
•Traditional media: you pay, I talk, you listen
•Interactive media: you pay, I talk, and then you and I talk about what I just said
•Social media: I’m getting a cup of tea; you all start talking among yourselves and I’ll come join youFreestanding comments attached to stories are ”interactive” media, not ”social” media, and community doesn’t get nurtured in the context of interactive media.
The first is to understand that the key word for the next decade is going to be ”conversation.” Now, we all know what conversation is in our daily lives; as adults we have some greater or lesser skills as conversationalists – we understand context, we share space in the conversation, we show respect for the other participants, etc. Standing in our living room during cocktail parties, we don’t engage in long monologues, then leave the room so others can comment.
But in fact, that’s what many media companies do today. Not all of them – there are some good examples out there (the Guardian UK is doing a number of interesting things) – but too many of them.
And in response, the communities that spring up in the standalone comments sections often embody the worst of Internet behavior – from profanity to incendiary rudeness.
What’s the problem?
The problem is bad conversation. Where people don’t feel heard, they feel the need to scream.
The first place to begin is by understanding how the rules have changed. Just as newspapers (and local TV stations, and magazines) are no longer advertising monopolies in their niche, they are no longer ”authority monopolies” there either.
It’s simple. The journalist used to be the authority; what was written in the New York Times or Washington Post was the authoritative take on the events of the day. That’s no longer true. In fact, it was never true, but we all acted as though it were.
People always talked back to their newspaper; it’s just that in the past their audience didn’t reach beyond the family members gathered around the breakfast table. Today, in a world of readers with their own blogs, readers may have audiences approaching the size of the newspaper itself.
And let’s finally admit that reporting has always been imprecise; reporters are not deep domain experts in everything, and perspectives on events change over time. Science accepts that concept, and it’s a given that there will be conversations about findings and that initial impressions may be wrong. Over time a consensus will emerge – and that over longer spans of time, that consensus will likely get overturned.
But up until now, the only one with a microphone (a microphone loaned to him or her by a media company) was the reporter, so that kind of open discussion has not usually been a part of journalism. But now all of us have microphones, and not only do we have them but we want to use them and expect to be heard when we do.
And, unsurprisingly, some of us know more about specific things than the journalists reporting about them.
This moves the reporter from being the authority to the role of an authority. This implies acceptance of the idea that that a one-way broadcast of information about something is less valuable (and less interesting) than two-way conversation about that thing.
What are those skills, you ask, and what do those media properties look like?
•Leading conversations will be the first skill, and it starts with the ability to tell a story without monopolizing the conversation – by including the knowledge and viewpoints of others who have something to contribute, and by respectfully dealing with those who are not as knowledgeable and leading them toward knowledge with a chain of facts and logic.
•Curating will be the next skill, because it implies the ability to find stories told by others and bringing them forward to a broader audience. Remember the “It’s not news because it’s not in the Times” attitude? That is changing, because there is a lot of news out there and no news organization – even in the heyday of news organizations – can afford the staff to cover all of it.
Now the citizens and readers – going about their daily business armed with phones that can take pictures and post to blogs and Twitter – are the front line of news.
How do you build a media property based on leading conversations and curating outside content and still cover important stories (that don’t involve wardrobe malfunctions or planes landing in rivers)?
Let me make a suggestion.
Politically, there are 15 Council districts in the city, and five supervisorial districts for the wider county. Geographically, there are probably 10 ”districts.”
So imagine for a moment, a part-time blogger/journalist who covers only the politics within one council or supervisorial district. It’s a niche product, of interest to residents of that district, political activists and the professional lobbyists and political staffers who have business there. Daily they post three or four (or more) short stories and occasionally a longer, more in-depth piece. Readers will comment and authors respond in an ongoing dialog as stories develop or are uncovered more deeply.
At this level, the readers and the journalists can have an ongoing conversation – and need to, because the journalist is going to be farming readers for story leads, knowledge about story topics, and as critics who will help identify the weak points in any story.
Once in awhile – maybe three or four times a week – a story develops that is of wider interest. That story might get published on a site covering a neighborhood – one of the ten neighborhood sites managed by the Times – or even on the main site for the Times itself. It might lead to more resources being put into it, to dig deeper, based on an editor’s judgment or popularity.
That model can be extended past politics to local news, culture or lifestyle. There’s cycling, cars, movies, visual arts, exercise, health, dining out, education, etc.
What used to be called ”beats" that competed for a four-inch column once a week in the main paper now become standalone sites, running multiple short stories each day, each competing in a kind of evolutionary explosion to create stories that gather wider interest – but each one sustained by the interest of the niche followers.
Beats will be added and dropped, some writers will fail and some succeed, and all of it will take place not hidden behind the walls of a newspaper building orchestrated by a cadre of editors, but in public, with the audience ultimately driving topics and the hard work of curating and orchestrating all of this falling to a new breed of editors in a new kind of news organization.
A few concrete steps:
1.Start with the idea that comments on stories are not for other readers only; they need to be continuously engaged by the journalists who wrote the story. Talking to the audience is as much a part of the new journalist’s job as writing the story. That kind of dialog will lower the tone of vitriol in the comments sections, as they are valued and seen to amount to something. On my blog, I talk about ”Quality as a community metric” and there’s a great article in Slate about how MetaFilter improves community quality.
2.Allow stories to ”evolve” and grow over a few days as users add content and comment; update the core stories (while keeping the older versions – dropping things down the memory hole is seen as dishonest) and highlight the changes and corrections.
3.Develop a journalist culture that values shaping conversations over standalone storytelling; don’t monologue us to death and get offended when we want to say something back. Don’t become defensive when corrected; scientists welcome correction as moving science toward truth – journalists should as well.
Every day, media businesses see the ground under their feet eroding away. Every day journalists and other media professionals feel more and more insecure. Some advocate a path backward to what looks like safety – behind pay walls and a belief that we can somehow go back to the journalism we had for a generation or more – but that path is riskier than the path forward because the audience to support it has left the building.
The path forward moves journalists to the center of conversations that are already happening in places where customers are already gathering and toward a journalism that will, once again, matter. As a consumer of journalism, I look forward to it.
Marc Danziger has been envisioning and implementing technology to solve business problems for more than 15 years, and evangelizing for social media and peer-to-peer production for over three years. His clients have included Toyota, Manpower, Inc., Fast Company, Warner Music and other large companies, as well as startups in media and eCommerce. He lives in Southern California with his wife Grace, is appropriately proud of his three remarkable sons, and thinks Italian motorcycles are the solution to most of the world’s problems.