BusinessWeek’s Shirley Brady on online communities and crowdsourcing

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

Last week, we posted part one of our interview with Shirley Brady BusinessWeek’s first community editor. In this second part, Shirley explains how she interacts with BusinessWeek’s news desk and how the BusinessWeek community management strategy is changing, including how BusinessWeek utilises crowdsourcing.

How much interaction is there between you at the Community desk and the editors on the content-producing side? Do you advise on what you believe will get the desired reaction from the BusinessWeek community?

I’m constantly interacting with my colleagues to parlay reader feedback and suggestions to editorial. Part of this job involves standing up for the reader and voicing their concerns and desires (enough of them know me by now, and on Twitter, to email or DM me to express their views. My email address is also listed on our featured readers page.

And another part is almost media literacy – involving readers in our journalism, opening up our process while inviting and respecting their opinions on a subject. You’ll see our reporters on their blogs and on Twitter, for example, posing questions and gauging the sentiment on a story as they’re reporting it. They’re not only cultivating sources and building their own communities, but getting more informed about each story, and their beats, in the process. We create hashtags, put up daily polls and ask a lot of questions – it all helps inform editorial decision-making in terms of what will resonate with our readership.

Community management is becoming increasingly important in the news industry as organizations begin crowdsourcing aspects of coverage. How is BusinessWeek’s community management strategy evolving? What’s next?

How BusinessWeek’s community strategy will evolve will depend on the new owner, assuming McGraw-Hill reaches a deal to sell the brand (bids closed on September 15th). Hopefully whoever acquires BusinessWeek will value community-building and reader engagement as much as we do now, if not more. There’s a ton to still be done and ideas to take this to the next level, which I won’t detail for competitive reasons but hinted at above.

As for other news organizations starting to embrace reader engagement: hear, hear! It’s been gratifying to see the New York Times name its first social media editor, Jennifer Preston, earlier this year; and impressive to see the variety and inventiveness of strategies employed by my peers such as Mathew Ingram at the Globe & Mail in Canada, Andrew Nystrom at the Los Angeles Times, or Andy Carvin at NPR, or to see what the Wall Street Journal is doing with Journal Community and the NYT with TimesPeople – all smart media organizations that understand the need to foster their communities in ways that breathe life into their brands, engage people with their content and enhance their mission and value proposition to the reader. Everybody’s trying something different, and while it might not always take off with readers, this inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit is clearly invigorating journalism at news organizations such as the ones I’ve named above and countless others, including beyond North America (I’m inspired by, for instance, the BBC’s Have Your Say and the Guardian’s Comment is Free initiatives).

As for crowdsourcing, as noted above, we actively solicit and value our readers’ involvement and “invite them into our newsroom,” as John Byrne puts it, to inform our news decisions and editorial process. But I also believe that excellent journalism (reporting, writing and editing) has to be at the core of what BusinessWeek and other news organizations do, even as we open our doors to our readers. We’re building community around our content, injecting readers into the mix, and shaking up any old notions (if they ever existed) that journalists have the market cornered on analysis and reporting – the Internet put paid to that idea, gladly.

As John’s fond of saying, it’s about treating each story (blog post, slide show, photo-essay, interactive graphic, podcast, video) as a spark that creates a camp fire, or in John’s words, “the journalism then becomes an intellectual camp fire around which you gather an audience to have a thoughtful conversation about the story’s topic.” I love that metaphor, as it really embodies what I love about journalism – the storytelling.

In addition to being a reporter and writer throughout my career, my first full-time job in journalism was on the TV side of this business as a producer for TVOntario 20 years ago. Even then, I jumped at the opportunity to set up forums and discussions on early BBS platforms (Genie, Prodigy, CompuServe) as I was eager to engage our viewers in what we were producing and get their feedback as we shaped our programming, lined up interviews and planned our on-air schedule. It also helped build buzz and interest in seeing the final product, and always sparked additional ideas for us to pursue.

It’s not far off from what I do now, although the technology has advanced, as the online community is just as lively and eager to get great content and contribute to what you’re doing: they’ll share ownership in your success if you’ll let them in. Give them a stake in your process and they’ll come back, especially if they’re treated as partners and not just pageviews. I think it also helps that I approach this as a journalist, which helps elevate and promote the smart conversations around what’s going on in the news, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, around the industries and business topics that matter most to our readers.

New York Times becomes more social

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The New York Times launched a beta version of TimesPeople over the weekend. It’s their first step at adding a social layer onto their site - a recommendations service and mini-social network. It’s works rather simply:

  1. Sign-in as a registered user of www.nytimes.com
  2. Find ‘friends’ in the database or by importing contacts (currently only from gmail)
  3. Recommend or share articles that you enjoy or that you think that your friends would enjoy.

It’s the beginnings of a social network and maybe even an online community, and it’s great to see the New York Times add a social layer like this, but I really hope it’s the first stage of a broader social media strategy.

The opportunities for publishers to leverage the power of social media and social networking is huge. Sharing and recommending articles is just one of the things that people might want to do with a publisher brand and is also something that might be better done elsewhere. I can share articles from any site with my friends on Facebook; I can recommend news and content on Digg. I don’t necessarily need to do this in a site that is controlled by just one publisher.

What I want to do as a publisher site is to make the most of the content my brand produces. Understand what people enjoy reading, get them to comment on it, gather data on them and build a real understanding of what they do and think. I want to combine my editorial content with the UGC created by my readers. Get them to contribute to my content and enter into debates with other readers and the authors. I want them to rate content and by this I can know which of my authors produce content that is of most interest to the readers.

There are some publishing firms doing really interesting things at the moment. I met a large B2B publishing firm at a conference recently who award bonuses to writers based on the ratings their articles get on the site. The BBC News site has been developing, organising content by theme, engaging readers with comments and exchanges and making it easy for people to take their content with them to other sites.

TimesPeople seems to be a simple social layer added over the New York Times’s main site. I’ll be interested to see how successful it is, and to see how it develops. Will people actually use this comment and recommendation tool, or will they continue to do this in other ways and through other networks? Will the social elements of the New York Times grow to include some of the more exciting things that publishing firms can do?

Publishing is about content and content is about opinion and debate. Social media and social networking allows publishing firms to provide the stimulus for debate and provide the online community where this debate can happen. It’s going to be exciting to watch as firms develop in this area and TimePeople could be a first step in this direction.