What comes first for newspapers: the community or the community platform?

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Guest post by Ben LaMothe

At last week’s news:rewired event at City University London, there was one session dedicated to discussing the state of online local news, and where it’s headed.

Among the presenters was Sarah Hartley, local launch editor for The Guardian. The discussion veered toward launching an online community platform within newspaper web sites.

In news, a community platform is meant to offer another place where readers can interact with stories they read (preferably on the newspaper’s web site), write their own blogs, and upload varied things.

I’m a fan of them. They do offer an alternate outlet for discussion and the sharing of resources. And they do have the ability to bring a community together.

Instead, what I want to address is the “Field of Dreams” model for developing online communities. In this 1989 US film, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer who is told to build a baseball diamond in his field because “If you build it, he will come.”

News organisations often take the approach that they know what is best for the community they serve (e.g. readers). They take their cues on where to drive content production by their circulation figures in print, and the number of unique visitors in a particular section.

When building online communities, often this approach is used. This is the build-it-and-they-will-come part of the “Field of Dreams” model. The thinking goes that a news organisation should develop online communities for every major residential community that exists within the readership area. Once the platform exists, people will flock to it and populate it with content.

This buckshot approach is not very strategic. It assumes that everyone will naturally make their way to their local community online, and all will be good.

Local people will find their community and they will use it to engage with others. But taking the longview, you will see that most of the communities you built for readers will be sparsely populated. However a handful will be doing very well, adding members regularly, and conversations ongoing.

If it were a normal web site, the “underperforming” online communities would be shut, with resources re-directed to the communities that are performing well. But since you’re running an online community for people to interact and share information, you can’t just close it because it’s not very full.

A better method would be “Field of Dreams” in reverse. Don’t build it until it’s clear why you are building an online community, and that the community itself wants it. Publish a story online asking for reader comment, or make a poll.

If it’s clear the community wants something like that to associate with their online experience of the newspaper, build it. But don’t build it for them — build it WITH them.

Go through product iterations, do user testing, find out what people like and what they don’t. Determine which communities in your readership area would likely benefit most from an online community for their area, and which are the most likely to have higher levels of engagement.

Having a more strategic approach to developing online communities within a newspaper also helps in the community management process. It means there are fewer communities to focus on, which means the manager can provide a better experience for those who are in the communities that were developed.

Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of developing online communities and going all-in by developing dozens of them, newspapers should see it as a business decision by asking themselves this: What is the most value for the money, time and energy that will go into developing and maintaining these communities?

Once you have that answer, you’re better prepared to develop an online community that will better serve your readers’ interests and needs, and ensure the newspaper isn’t wasting its resources.

Ben LaMothe meets Shirley Brady, BusinessWeek’s community manager

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BusinessWeek Names Me As One of Four Social Me...
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Guest post by Ben LaMothe

In June 2008 Shirley Brady joined BusinessWeek as its first community editor. In this first of a two-part interview, Shirley explains what the newly-created role of community manager means at BusinessWeek and how she engages with the magazine’s influential-yet-niche readership.

Before joining BusinessWeek, she was a writer/editor for the U.S. trade magazine CableWorld, where she launched and managed its website, Cable360.net.

Prior to that she was a writer/editor at Time Inc, working for Time in Asia (based in Hong Kong) before moving to the Time Inc mothership in New York in 1999 and working for Time and People. She’s also won awards for her work as a TV producer, writer and on-air presenter, including the Canadian public broadcaster TVOntario, Discovery Channel Asia and CNN International. She has been based in New York since 1999.

As community editor of BusinessWeek.com, what does your job entail?

Suffice to say I’m passionate about this role and truly have one of the greatest gigs in journalism! BusinessWeek is among a handful of media organizations that’s really putting resources and aligning itself to be open and responsive to readers, which is what attracted me to coming onboard last year. So what do I do, on a day-to-day basis? As part of BW’s senior management team, I manage our engagement efforts with the goal of increasing participation (quality and quantity) of participation by BW’s regular readers and online visitors. Rather than have users post comments and zoom off, we want to build loyalty by having them connect, collaborate and share – with other readers and with our journalists.

In practical terms, this entails overseeing BusinessWeek’s efforts to include readers and incorporate user-generated content (comments, suggestions, longer form opinion pieces) in BW’s journalism, elevating our readers’ participation on the same level as our journalism.

That includes soliciting reader participation in special issues, slide shows and other editorial projects; guiding BW’s journalists to respond to comments on their blogs and articles, which we feature on the “belly band” or scrolling bar on our homepage; helping point our writers to reader-suggested story ideas that they report for our “What’s Your Story Idea?” initiative; commissioning and editing “MyTake” essays from readers who’ve posted smart comments on our site, which provides more space to expand on their views, on the same level as a BW writer or contributor; produce our In Your Face series, which features thought-provoking reader comments on the BusinessWeek.com home page and across the site; produced our first list of the top 100 readers on our site (in tandem with our journalists, particularly our bloggers) and our first reader dinner, which gave us amazing feedback on our efforts from some of the most engaged (and vocal) members of our community; oversee BW’s social media outreach including Twitter ; serve as editorial liaison for the Business Exchange topic network; track and share insights into online traffic and other metrics, including BW’s reader engagement index; work with my colleagues in tech, art, interactive, edit, marketing, research and other departments to implement these initiatives and improve the user experience on our site; and in general, develop best practices and raise the bar for reader engagement and BW’s digital journalism strategy, internally and externally.

In the first year, we were pleased to see BW’s reader engagement index increase 31% with nods from PaidContent, Folio and other media brands, with John and me speaking on numerous panels and interviews such as this to discuss BW’s engagement efforts. But it’s only the beginning!

In addition to the above, I spend a great part of each day in our reader comments, across our articles and blogs, to gauge our online conversations and find/identify thoughtful commenters to follow up with. That reader zeitgeist gets fed back to our news editors and informs BW’s editorial. We don’t moderate comments on our articles (they are posted automatically unless something in our spam filter – an offensive word or a link – places a comment into the pending queue for review).

We also review any comments flagged as offensive by members of our community, and I’ll weigh in on whether a comment should be taken down. So a significant part of my job is monitoring and maintaining our standards, which helps elevate the conversation and helps make BusinessWeek.com a more engaging place for our readers to feel welcome, to share their points of view and want to come back on a regular basis.

I should add that reader engagement is by no means a one-person effort. For example, comments on our blogs are moderated by our journalists, who are encouraged to nurture their respective communities of readers who frequent their blogs.

I also work closely with BW’s online management team, news editors and channel editors to foster these efforts; Celine Keating, a veteran BW copy editor who assists me in reviewing user comments and flagging any discussions that get out of hand; Ira Sager, the online editor who manages our blogs; Francesca Di Meglio, a reporter on our Business Schoolsteam who has done a great job building our thriving b-schools community of lively MBA forums and guest writers for our MBA Journal franchise; Rebecca Reisner, who produces our popular Debate Room series (arguably, BW.com’s first foray into reader engagement); Greg Spielberg, who worked with me from January to August as our first reader-engagement intern; and BW’s business-side team (Ron Casalotti, Michelle Lockett and Maki Yamasaki) who oversee user participation and outreach on BW’s award-winning Business Exchange, which launched in Sept. 2008.

As a side note, it’s been fascinating to see how Twitter has informed our efforts and my job. Many of our readers post their Twitter handles in their comments, so we continue the conversation between our readers and journalists by being active in the conversations that bridge BusinessWeek.com and Twitter. We’ve now got more than 60 staffers just from BW editorial on Twitter; incorporated Twitter widgets on some of our blogs and within Business Exchange, which earlier this year enabled users who linked their BX profile with their Twitter accounts to simultaneously comment on both platforms – the first Twitter integration by a major media brand, as far as we’re aware. We also recently launched an official BusinessWeek Twitter feed.

In Part Two of this interview, we deal with the interaction between the Community Desk and Editors, and how Community Management in news is changing BW’s evolving strategy.