Building our own communities

“If we want people to stand up for our journalism, and to trust us again, we need to bring them closer to our work, to learn more about them, and to offer a range of ways to have a meaningful impact on what we do.”

In 2017, newsrooms will finally push back against Facebook. We will create our own community spaces on and offline — not to replicate the social media giant, but to carve out a lucrative niche around what Facebook does badly and journalism does best. We’ll do it because it’s our best chance of survival.

We’ll do it because:

It will improve journalism

andrew-losowskyDo you believe that there are smart, interesting people among your audience, people who could be potential sources or even potential hires? If so, how could you find them?

Up to now, as an industry, we’ve mostly failed to give our audiences any real avenues to engage with us on an ongoing basis, beyond letters to the editor and an occasional Google form. Even when people do reach out, we keep no record of it, and a few days later we’ve mostly forgotten who they are.

There are exceptions. ProPublica has created a database of more than 3,350 stories about Agent Orange by reaching out and creating a sustained community around the topic.

Earlier this year, the Financial Times hired a new columnist after a comment he left on their site went viral. Last year, The Atlantic named Yoni Appelbaum as politics editor — he was originally hired after being spotted as a talented commenter on one of their blogs.

These are rare examples. Due to a vicious circle of abuse and underinvestment, many journalists proudly say that they never read the comments on their work. In a forthcoming study The Coral Project has commissioned from the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas, more than 9,500 commenters across 20 news sites around the country were surveyed. 58 percent of respondents said they wished that journalists actually contributed in the comments. Better tools and a culture change are long overdue. (The Coral Project is working on both.)

This year, we’ve seen a lack of trust in news organizations increase as we’ve become worse at listening to what ordinary people are saying. While we lament our bubbles, a diverse audience that enjoys our work and wants to contribute is right in front of us, begging to be taken seriously. Why should our readers listen to us if we don’t listen to them?

Strong community will diversify your business model

A report this year in MIT Sloan Management Review, based on five years of research by Gal Oestreicher-Singer and Lior Zalmanson, draws a clear link between onsite community and a willingness of people to pay for services. We’re starting to see this being applied to journalism: technology news site The Information uses its strong comments section as a selling point to subscribers. Dutch news site De Correspondent runs its own speakers agency for its journalists.

Hosting community is also financially smart for those who include time on site in their key metrics. It should be no surprise that people who read and write comments spend longer on the page than those who just read the article. Advertisers take such numbers seriously. Do you?

Healthy democracy relies on healthy debate

Social media filter bubbles are real. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter aren’t incentivized to burst them — and even if they were, they structurally can’t have an opinion about what makes for an interesting or useful editorial contribution.

This is where journalism steps in. We’re all about identifying what is meaningful and relevant, not just socially optimized for clicks. We can set the terms for the discussion, and then focus our reporting based on the community’s areas of interest. We need to invite and find useful contributions across the ideological spectrum — and include them in our journalism. Facebook can’t do this. We can.

The time is now

We need to take back ownership of the relationship with our community members. If we want people to stand up for our journalism, and to trust us again, we need to bring them closer to our work, to learn more about them, and to offer a range of ways to have a meaningful impact on what we do. This is not a nice-to-have any more.

The days of broadcasting from the top of the mountain are over. Our audiences need us, and we need them. In 2017, we will finally learn how to sidestep the big blue thumb, and get engaged.

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