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July 12 2011


Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

Back in February I blogged about the process of teaching journalism students to think about working with communities. The results have been positive: even where the strategy itself wasn’t successful, the individuals have learned from its execution, its research, or both. And so, for those who were part of this process – and anyone else who’s interested – I thought I would summarise 10 key themes that came through the resulting work.

1. A community strategy isn’t something you can execute effectively in one month

Perhaps the number one lesson that people drew from the experience was that they should have started early, and done little, often, rather than a lot all at once. There was a tendency to underestimate the needs of community management and a need for better time management.

Communities needed time to “grow organically”, wrote one; it wasn’t a top down approach. Members might also have felt they were being “manipulated” when weeks of inactivity were followed by a flood of posts, links and questions.

2. The importance of real world events

Many wrote of the strong effect that attending meetings, events, conferences – and even the simple knocking on doors – had. Get out there and shake hands.

3. Look at your analytics – and adapt

Some of the most useful pieces of learning came from close inspection of the metrics surrounding a website, Twitter account or Facebook page – whether during the project or after. One, for example, changed the content they were creating for a Facebook page when they noticed that the use of visuals was having “a significant impact” on the community’s life. They created a YouTube channel linked to the Facebook page to capitalise on that.

Another, who created a website for rating the performance of referees, noted how traffic was affected by a referee’s performance – giving them a useful insight into the types of subject matter that generated the most debate.

4. Content alone isn’t enough…

One student put this particularly well, admitting that he had misconceived his role and assumed that the content he was providing was good enough to draw a community “on its own merits”. Seeing the results of his peers, he realised the importance of “being active in the establishment and strengthening of a community”.

Others noted that “A community need not focus around a singular blog” and the best way of tapping into a community was “through relationships built with others” – reading others’ blogs, commenting and retweeting them, and asking for advice.

It seems like common sense that people are more likely to be interested in you if you are interested in them, but that’s something that needed to be discovered in a journalistic context.

Many had particularly well developed and impressive content strategies based on Richard Millington’s useful ‘How To Write A Practical Online Community Plan’ and other readings of the literature around community management. Those who didn’t frequently hit problems that might have been easily avoided.

5. …But engagement is hard without content

Some realised they had made the opposite mistake: focusing so much on building relationships that they missed the need for content. One noted the dangers of simply ‘collecting’ people. That was easy, they remarked. “It’s creating and keeping those valuable relationships that is the difficult part.”

A clear objective beyond simple membership helped with community-building, another pointed out, identifying fundraising as just one objective that could be adopted to help build connections.

Similarly, for a third student research by McMillan and Chavis came in useful: communities, they said, needed to create a sense of “integration and fulfillment of needs, [a] feeling of being supported by others”.

6. Think about sustainability

The timescale wasn’t long enough for this to become an issue, but it was worth considering. One strategy quoted the following “Online groups die without new members to replace those who leave”.

7. Find your role

It is sometimes better to fill a much-needed role in a community than to try to usurp someone else’s – especially when you don’t have the same access or knowledge (yet). When one person realised that they “couldn’t be one of the news breakers”, for example, they decided that their best bet was to become involved in the community and introduce talking points. They built social capital through helping out on Twitter, answering tweets or by asking questions. “By doing that I became known in the community.”

Likewise, another found that “offering to do a little bit of work went a very long way” and a third realised that they had been too focused on their own needs and should have been looking more closely at what the community needed. “I focused too much on herding a market as if they were sheep, and not enough on actually developing a community.”

8. Think about how people use the medium and whether that fits your objectives

A significant number of people seemed to feel that they had to choose between one medium and another, which led to the later realisation that one medium wasn’t enough, or wasn’t appropriate.

Tumblr, for example turned out (for one user) to be a medium where people did not engage on much more than a superficial level (they also realised that they needed a more specific goal beyond getting people to the site returning).

Many discovered the limitations of Twitter for continuing deeper discussion. And one noted the problems in Facebook’s connectedness where people “might not want to advertise their ambitions so openly to their friends.”

Identifying leaders in a community – and the platforms that they used – was a strategy adopted by a number of students, some of whom changed their initial choice of technology as a result of research.

And looking beyond generic blogs, Twitter and Facebook proved an intelligent move for one person, who found Yelp a good place to attempt crowdsourcing.

9. Think about what contributes to a person’s standing in a community

Different communities have different ways of behaving, and having an understanding of this can make a big difference as you try to build relationships. This was quite an eye-opener, as we can often assume that what contributes to someone’s standing in the tech blogging community, for example, can be applied to others.

In one particular online financial community, for example, one student noted that new users have to build up a track record of either neutral contributions or correct predictions in order to be accepted. They also outlined specialised language used to describe online manipulators.

Another noted of a different community that to gain genuine membership of one community they needed to be posting “entertaining reviews, regularly”. A fellow user helped her understand “that you could not be stand-offish in this community” – she threw herself in.

And a particularly good piece of research into photo sharing groups noted their “unwritten codes of conduct”, including an emphasis on extremely high standards before acceptance into the group photo pool; not complaining too much when photos aren’t accepted; and the importance of contributing by joining discussions, adding useful links and understanding emerging trends.

10. Community management experience is useful

Finally, it was particularly heartening to read, over and over again, of the success stories that came out of people’s experiences – especially as the assignment had been greeted with such scepticism by some, and active antipathy by others. At least 2 students obtained jobs at major broadsheet newspapers as a result of their community experience, and a third at a major magazine publisher. A fourth sold her blog to a publisher as it had already become their biggest rival.

Many wrote about how they had changed their impression of community management through the process of executing the strategy. In particular the strategy had benefits in terms of building contacts and relationships, meeting and interviewing people for their project and building networks of contacts – not just in the UK but internationally.

A couple identified both strengths and weaknesses in this approach, which are not new to journalism. For one, relationships of trust meant that they received stories and releases before anyone else. But the same relationships meant that “there were times when I couldn’t use the information I did get.” Another noted how relationships could “take away your objectivity – or be broken if what you publish is not to the liking of the community”.

Others spoke of how involvement in a community broadened their scope, introducing them to new perspectives on their field.

It also helped drive traffic – many noticed a very strong impact on analytics, with traffic doubling and even tripling in some cases. One, who was writing for another site, found out that they had the most-visited story on it.

And there was an impact on engagement, with newcomers “turned into regulars” when they were asked to contribute.

Finally, and particularly importantly for aspiring journalists, engaging in a visible way helped raise students’ profiles and lead to work opportunities and conversation points. One made radio and TV appearances as a result of their involvement; they were approached to write articles for industry magazines, and are in discussions with a major publisher about content exchange. Another found their blog listed as a magazine’s blog of the month.

Many found that the reputation built in a particular community opened doors in terms of gaining access to interview subjects, events, and publishers.

And of course the project provided a useful talking point at interviews, with one interviewee at a mid-market newspaper specifically asking “what it had taught me about writing for a specialist subject and locating communities of interest online.”

I hope the above 10 points help provide a useful basis for further exploration. For my own part, I’ll be building on this with next year’s class – for which I already have some ideas…

Meanwhile, many thanks to all the students at City University who persevered with this assignment and who taught me so much in the process.

If you can add any other experiences or areas you think have been missed, let me know.


May 27 2011


LIVE: Session 2A – Developing the data story

We have Matt Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 2A ‘Developing the data story’, below.

Session 2A features: Professor Paul Bradshaw, visiting professor, City University and founder, helpmeinvestigate.com; Alastair Dant, lead interactive technologist, the Guardian; Federica Cocco, editor, OWNI.eu; Conrad Quilty-Harper, data reporter, the Telegraph. Moderated by  Simon Rogers; editor, Guardian datablog and datastore.

Click on the link below to access the liveblog:

Sponsored post

March 05 2011


5 predictions for journalism in 25 years

The following is cross-posted from XCity Magazine, the student magazine for City University, where I teach online journalism. They asked me to look ahead 25 years. I barely think you can look five years ahead at the moment, but I agreed anyway. This is, of course, not meant to be taken seriously…

If you’d asked someone in 1986 to predict what journalism would be like now, you would have ended up with Michael J Fox playing a techno-draped future hack. In a flying car. And lots of fluorescent pink.

We have a tendency to cast the future as an exaggerated present. We give too much power to technology, and not enough to people. Any prediction I can come up with for 25 years’ time will, of course, say more about 2011 than 2036.

But there’s nothing like a challenge…

Prediction 1: People will still be predicting the death of newspapers

People have predicted the death of newspapers for as long as newspapers have faced competition from other media. But newspapers survive – not because they are a profitable business (although many have enjoyed enormous margins in the past), but because they offer benefits beyond the revenue from advertising and cover price.

Influence and status are hard to buy. As long as newspapers offer either, there will be proprietors willing to make a loss on the balance sheet, for benefits elsewhere.

Prediction 2: Prices will head in opposite directions

The launch of ShortList in 2007 will increasingly be seen as a turning point in the publishing industry. The magazine and its sister titles – along with the rise of free content online – have helped pioneer a change in the attitudes of advertisers to free titles. The Evening Standard has helped cement that. Free no longer means poor quality, or low engagement.

But there will be no such thing as a free lunch: ‘free’ content will actually be paid for with the customer’s information – the swipe of a loyalty card (or your mere presence) will confirm that. There will be a major role for an organisation like Amazon, Facebook or Tesco in these transactions – or equally likely, a new entrant. It could also involve Apple – but only after Steve Jobs leaves. Some of these companies may even buy publishers as a way to get more customer data.

Meanwhile, publishers will continue to push prices in the other direction – converting the newspaper from tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping to a luxury product, where you are buying access to an exclusive club as much as the content itself.

Prediction 3: Journalism will be more like a musician’s career than a job-for-life

The casualisation of employment generally is a trend that pre-dates the internet, and there’s nothing to suggest that will not continue – especially as it can be facilitated by internet technologies.

The idea that once upon a time people did not publish any journalism until they were hired by a news organisation will seem incredible by 2036. By then, the industry may well resemble the music industry of a decade ago, where you were expected to build a fan-base through regular gigging.

So here’s a fantastical picture of a newspaper’s recruitment team in 25 years’ time: a veritable A&R department, scouring social media to see if they can pluck the next rising star before their competitors do.

But that won’t be the end of the story: as news becomes increasingly tied to the reputations and networks of those who produce it, an increasing number of journalists will use the move to a major publisher as a stepping stone to their own independent niche news operations.

Prediction 4: There will be no single media industry

Talk about journalism in 2011 suffers from a tendency to classify the profession too narrowly. While traditional publishers scale back operations, new startups are hiring. In magazines we’ve seen incredible growth in customer magazines and in-house publishing, and in broadcast there has been an explosion of channels serving a similar need.

By 2036 all of those operations will have matured considerably – and expanded. The transport industry will employ more journalists – directly or indirectly – than The Liverpool Echo. Possibly.

Either way, many organisations and industries will have long ago moved beyond communicating directly with customers, and have begun using content as a way to attract them in the first place. That is, after all, how some newspapers evolved. We can only hope that the next generation of media offers a place for independent journalism, with competition driving quality up.

Prediction 5: Online journalism will become more specialised – and more predictable

The commercial drive in media in 2011 is towards more and more specialist niches (or bigger and bigger networks of those niches). In addition, the skills required to deal with information are becoming more and more varied. From a time when you either typed articles, recorded audio or edited video we are entering a period where you need to be able to do all three and dozens of other things besides.

This is difficult for journalists because the rules of production are not well established, and media literacy is equally immature. But in 25 years, institutions will have explored many different ways of organising their newsrooms and the journalists within them – and settled on better ways of working. This may involve junior reporters who will be expected to work across multiple platforms – but there will also be more senior journalists who are experts in video, data, or the communities they serve.

At the same time, the tools of production will have become much simpler – and the genre more established. It is only in the second decade of online journalism that we are seeing forms native to the medium: audio slideshows, maps, clickable interactives, databases. Those forms will mature and conventions will develop which by 2036 will seem normal – even formulaic.

Set a reminder for 25/02/36

So as I jump in my hover-car to fly off to my next big story (wearing fluorescent pink, of course), I leave my crystal ball behind. Call me back in 25 years when I look forward to laughing my socks off at just how hilariously wrong I’m going to be.

February 18 2011


Is social capital dehumanising? (comment call)

Following on from my post about teaching community-based journalism, I had an interesting correspondence with one student who found terms like “social capital” dehumanising, refused to join Facebook and many other web platforms on ethical grounds (that they conflate the professional and private), and took issue with the idea that my assignment suggested that he “should become an active member” of certain “communities”.

I wanted to explore this further, because I think this is a complex area that deserves fleshing out. So, is social capital dehumanising? Should journalists refuse to join social networks on ethical grounds? And does a journalist have to engage with communities to do their job?

PS: He is happy for me to blog about it.

February 16 2011


Assessing community

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.

I’ve recently been asking students – at both City University London and Birmingham City University – to complete assignments that ask them to do just that.

The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)

The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.

Here’s what I’m learning so far.

I have to explain why community matters

The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.

We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest’; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.

Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.

I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.

Common misunderstandings about community

At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.

One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.

The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.

A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.

Likewise, tools needed to be chosen based on where the community is, and what the tools did. There’s no point starting a blog if all of your chosen community are using Facebook. And there’s no point choosing Facebook if you want the information to be available to search engines.

Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.

How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?

Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.

Communities of practice

The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.

There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.

One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).

Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.

January 20 2011


A university without walls

This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.

In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.

In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.

You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.

Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.

Teaching community-driven journalism

My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.

To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.

And students are sent out to explore the community as part of learning about blogging, or encouraged to base themselves physically in the communities they serve. Andy Brightwell and Jon Hickman’s hyperlocal Grounds blog is a good example, run out of another city centre coffee shop in their patch.

In my online journalism classes at City University in London, meanwhile (which are sadly too big to fit in a coffee shop) I am currently asking students to put together a community strategy as one of their two assignments. The idea is to get them to think about how they can produce better journalism – that is also more widely read – by thinking explicitly about how to involve a community in its production.

Community isn’t a postcode

But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.

One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).

As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?

There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.

PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:

Slides can be found below:

July 08 2010


Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to speak in London tomorrow

This will no doubt going to be a popular event – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will be speaking at City University London tomorrow as part of the Centre of Investigative Journalism summer school.

Assange will share his story of setting up the secure publishing platform four years ago, which publishes leaked, sensitive documents.

Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released a video of a Baghdad air-strike, showing gun-camera footage of the killing of two Reuters correspondents and ten others by the US Air Force.

Just yesterday, Reuters reported that the US military intelligence officer arrested last month in connection with the leak had been charged under two criminal counts, including allegations of disclosing classified national defence information.

Tickets to the talk cost £5 each and are still available to buy online.

Read more here…Similar Posts:

February 24 2010


Gavin MacFadyen: ‘maniacs’ make good investigative reporters

Leeds Trinity University College Journalism Week is running from Monday 22 until Friday 26 February. Speakers from across the industry will be at Leeds Trinity to talk about the latest trends in the news media, including Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger; BBC news director Helen Boaden, Sky News reporter Mike McCarthy and ITN political correspondent Chris Ship.

Addressing journalism students from Leeds Trinity University College as part of its annual Journalism Week, veteran investigative journalist Gavin MacFadyen said he is optimistic about the future of the specialist field, despite the “bad environment” that surrounds the industry in the UK.

The American, who is the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and a Visiting Professor at City University London, told students about his experiences as an investigative reporter and shared anecdotes about some of the world’s most famous exposés.

MacFadyen outlined the bleak conditions that reporters face when attempting projects that are time intensive and require sufficient financial backing, and criticised the “risk averse” culture of media organisations in the UK, who refuse to fund lengthy inquiries that are costly and could end up in court.

“This kind of journalism is very rarely practised in Britain,” he said. “The media don’t want to spend the money – they don’t want to pay for it. It’s time-intensive but there’s no way around that.”

But despite the issues, he said good examples of investigative journalism remained, highlighting the MPs’ expenses scandal and exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme as good examples.

The former war correspondent – who has worked on flagship programmes such as Panorama, World in Action and Dispatches – refuted concerns investigative journalism couldn’t be profitable, citing the example of French magazine Le Canard Enchaine

He described it as the French equivalent of Private Eye and explained it was “profitable because the information is critical to your life.”

And he advised students to get involved in investigative reporting, encouraging them to look for opportunities overseas where such journalism receives better funding and resources.

MacFadyen added that there was a “salvation” in the form of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation that he helped set up.

When asked what skills and qualities were needed in aspiring reporters, he said: “It’s not so much [about] skills, its mania. If you’re a maniac and really suspicious and compulsive – you’re going to do well, you’ll get the skills.

“You have to know your way around public sources. You’re prepared to work extraordinary hours and put up with the endless reading of the most boring documents you have ever seen.

“But then there’s the ‘eureka’ moment and suddenly you see something on the page that’s going to nail some very bad people and it’s all worthwhile.”

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January 12 2010


Is ‘news’ over?

City University London’s head of journalism, Professor George Brock, is to ask whether ‘news’ is over, in a lecture on March 17:

We think we know what the word means, but news is changing before our eyes. With a quarter of the planet’s population connected to the broadband internet and three quarters with a mobile phone, the media, journalism and ‘news’ are being turned upside down. What comes next and what happens to journalism?

Brock is a former international editor of the Times and former president of the World Editors’ Forum. He is also due to give the introductory speech at Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired event on Thursday 14 January 2010.

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