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July 6, 2011, 1 p.m.

Members Only: The Chronicle of Philanthropy builds a LinkedIn community by keeping people out

Velvet rope at a nightclub

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is building a community on LinkedIn by breaking a rule from the social media playbook: In this group, not everyone is welcome.

Membership in the newspaper’s LinkedIn group is free, but self-promoters, spammers, and people without at least a tangential relationship to the nonprofit world need not apply. Chronicle editors approve (or reject) every new member and sometimes play a heavy hand in moderating the discourse. The group is bustling, with more than 18,000 members and 75 to 100 new signups every day, and the ROI is rich: The Chronicle is getting more traffic to its website and more story ideas.

“Social networks aren’t exclusive, typically, but I think adding that layer of exclusivity does the raise the bar,” said Peter Panepento, the Chronicle’s assistant managing editor and longtime social media guy. “It sends the message a little bit that this is a group that has value. It’s not the Wild West. By becoming part of this group, it’s also something that I can lose my membership in.”

LinkedIn is the social network for business, so it’s a natural place for an industry-focused paper to build a community. Reader conversations range from “How do you say ‘Thank you’ to your donors?” (85 comments) to “What is your favorite and most inspiring motivational quote?” (584 comments). The editors get personally involved in discussions, sometimes to ask questions, other times to weed out the irrelevant bits and, occasionally, remind group members of the rules.

“Probably half of what’s posted here is off-topic, and we have to delete it. But I also know from pretty considerable feedback from members of the group that they really appreciate that we do that,” Panepento said.

It’s a lot of work, even with help from a colleague, but it’s every bit as much journalism as an editor’s other obligations. For example, Panepento noticed a member of the group was asking people to share acknowledgment letters, which are the thank-you notes charities mail out to people who donate. That turned into a story.

“We used that as an opportunity to reach out to her and say, ‘Hey, we’ll happily try to spread the word about this even beyond the LinkedIn group and our fundraising blog if you would be interested in sharing the results of those letters with us,'” he said. “She collected more than 600 letters from different charities around the country of people basically sharing these as a resource. And we’re now featuring one of those every week on our fundraising blog, interviewing the people that created the letters and using these as examples for our readers.”

By building a community by hand, the newspaper has amassed a database of the very people they cover. “You can actually do searches on the members of your organization on keywords,” Panepento said. “If I wanted to find an executive director of an organization in Texas, I could go through our 18,000 members and do a search on that and find everybody who has ‘executive director’ and ‘Texas’ in their profile.” (Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman recently wrote a guide to newsgathering on LinkedIn.)

Panepento said the Chronicle website has seen a sharp increase in referral traffic from LinkedIn since the beginning of 2011. In June, he said, LinkedIn accounted for about 11 percent of referrals, behind only Google and the Chronicle’s daily newsletter. That’s a 28-fold increase since January, he said. (TechCrunch recently reported a similar boom in LinkedIn traffic.)

He attributes the growth, in part, to LinkedIn’s more aggressive emphasis on news and link sharing, having launching a tailored news experience called LinkedIn Today and last month hiring an executive editor, Dan Roth, formerly managing editor of

The Chronicle is doing a little bit more experimentation with exclusivity. The paper offers monthly, paid training webinars. An upcoming session, “Proven Secrets to Fund-Raising Success: How to Inspire Donors to Give” costs $75 and comes with a perk: Those who pay up get access to an invitation-only subgroup on LinkedIn, where editors personally answer questions not covered in the webinar. Panepento said about 200 people had signed up for the subgroups after the first two webinars.

The exclusivity model might not work for newspapers that serve a general, rather than niche, audience. But it might be encouraging for journalists who feel overwhelmed, even alienated, by the chaos of online discourse. The vitriol is so pervasive on news sites that The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR have raised the white flag and outsource comment moderation.

“There is the tension in social media between controlling the message and not controlling the message that’s happening underneath your brand,” Panepento said. “I think if you’re very open and upfront about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re consistent about it, I think people really respect that. I would never try to say that people aren’t entitled to an opinion or something that’s controversial or off-base, but we really just want to make sure the focus of the conversation is around what people in the nonprofit world would care about.”

Photo by JeffMaysh used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 6, 2011, 1 p.m.
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