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December 16 2010


Community editors should be an integral part of the newsroom, says Media Wales’ Ed Walker

Community editors must not be sidelined in the newsroom, Ed Walker, online communities editor at Media Wales, told news:rewired delegates today.

Responding to @datamineruk, who described how digital staff at her workplace are based in a different part of the newsroom to other journalists, Walker said he sits next to an experienced senior reporter and can tap into his knowledge.

Walker founded Blog Preston, where he found that tapping into readers’ local knowledge helped to generate traffic to the site because it produced content that people want to discuss. A regular topic was local character “Toxic Terry”, a man who drinks petrol on the high street in Preston. Rumours of his demise sparked a spike in traffic, which only ebbed when someone saw him alive on the high street.

Walker had a number of suggestions about what makes a successful online community. One is focusing on popular topics like local history and getting input from experts. He also suggested making journalism a two-way street using interactive features like pothole maps.

Neil Perkin, founder of Only Dead Fish, said he has learned more about communities from being a blogger for four or five years than anything else. He unveiled a list of things to avoid when building communities:

  • Not having a clear objective – if you have clarity on your purpose, the people in that community have a reason to be there.
  • Avoid fixation on numbers – social media a source of referrals but don’t chase numbers at the expense of saturation.
  • Don’t broadcast at your community – to quote Clay Shirky, it’s about creating an environment for supporting people.
  • Forget the idea that it’s all about the technology – it’s about the people. Understand who are the authoritative people in your market. People like something to do and respond to openness.
  • Avoid not being a part of it yourself.

Anthony Thornton, group digital editor at IPC Inspire Men and Music, started his presentation with the depressing figure that 99% of attempts to start a community end in failure. Anthony, who was instrumental in the launch of the online version of the NME, said that communities exist already, it’s just a matter of finding one.

He also discussed how building a community around a book that he was working on helped it to gain a place in the Sunday Times’ Top 10 Bestsellers list. The book, which focused on the indie band the Libertines, was embraced by fans after Anthony connected with them on Myspace ahead of publication. Sharing cover ideas and other content helped fans form a relationship with the book giving it an edge over a rival title, which was published at the same time.

September 27 2010


How Aftonbladet Varies Paid Content with Clubs, Micropayments

While newspapers in the U.S. are struggling to find ways to fund online content, Aftonbladet, the most read newspaper in Sweden has been successfully charging for online content for several years. Here's a look at how paid content is working in Sweden.

Aftonbladet: Early to the Web

Aftonbladet, founded in 1830, is one of the biggest daily newspapers in the Nordic countries. The paper's content is a mixture of news, entertainment, sports and lifestyle. As a typical Scandinavian evening paper, Aftonbladet isn't as sensational or punchy as one might expect in a British or American tabloid.

Aftonbladet has a daily circulation of roughly 360,000 and a readership of over 1 million in a country of 9.3 million people. The print paper is sold daily for the equivalent of $1.30, and the paper does not offer subscriptions or home delivery for the print edition.

Its print circulation has been on the decline, but Aftonbladet's growing online readership is now up to 5 million unique visitors a week. Aftonbladet was the first Swedish newspaper to go online in the mid-'90s, the first to charge for online content, and the first to find success with this strategy.

Schibsted, a Norwegian media conglomerate, owns 91 percent of Aftonbladet. Schibsted has been very successful at monetizing online businesses, with one example being a Craigslist-style online classifieds business.

Paid Content: Plus Service

Aftonbladet uses a freemimum model for its online content strategy. Most of its content is free, including news and commentary. But readers are charged for the "Plus" service content, and they can pay for it using micropayments or by purchasing a subscription. A subscription costs about $4 per month (or $43 per year). The service started seven years ago and currently has 115,000 subscribers.


The Plus service includes lifestyle material, such as over 200 different travel guides, health articles, and reviews of cars, gadgets and other products and services. There are also instructional guides for everything from buying an apartment to dieting or owning a pet. The paper also charges for select news stories, such as those that have to do with the Swedish Royal family.

The service's most popular content are the health articles, travel guides, the yearly lists regarding taxation in Sweden, and the reviews.

"One of the most read articles was about how to get a 'Fight Club' body, a very well trained body," said Elsa Falk, the product development manager at Aftonbladet. "When the article was published, we got many new subscribers."

Falk said the paper works to get the most out of its popular content by changing the angle and pictures on articles in order to keep them fresh, which enables them to reuse content.

Most of the content offered in the Plus service is produced by Aftonbladet's staff writers. The paper has created a special editorial group with four editors and one managing editor for its paid service. They select the material that ends up going behind the pay wall.

Experiments with Micropayments

Aftonbladet introduced the micropayment option for the Plus service earlier this year. With this in place, readers can pick any paid article they want and pay a one time fee for that piece of content.

"The total number of purchases increased since we launched micropayments, but sales of subscriptions decreased drastically," Falk said.

That's a notable loss for the paper because there is a lack of information of average revenue per user (ARPU) when it comes to micropayment users. That makes it hard to analyze the business. On the other hand, with the micropayment model, the paper gets to see what kind of stories people are willing to pay for individually.

As a result, Aftonbladet shifted the way it's using micropayments. One big change is that not every Plus service article is available for single purchase.

"We deliberate now carefully about which articles will be available only for Plus subscribers, and which ones are also available for micropayments," Falk said. "We also raised the price of content available for micropayments."

Clubs and Movies


While the Plus service is a big part of the paper's paid content strategy, it's by no means the only offering.

Aftonbladet also operates different membership clubs. Currently, its site has a weight loss club and an insomnia club. The weight loss club costs $70 per year or can be joined for about $10 to $15 a month.

The weight loss membership provides a program for dieting, and the insomnia club is, of course, aimed at helping people sleep better. Each club is run by experts in the respective field. The weight loss club has had brought in 380,000 subscribers since its launch in 2003. The Insomnia club just launched, so Falk said it's too early to share figures or declare it a success.

Aftonbladet also sells documentaries on a pay-per-view basis, and delivers this content in collaboration with producers such as National Geographic and BBC.

"You don't get rich on showing one documentary, but it is the long tail that matters here more," Falk said.

The paper has also made it a priority to release iPhone apps, and will be launching an iPad app as soon as the device arrives in Sweden.

"It is necessary to be present in all the platforms, and it is important not to be there only for free of charge," Falk said.

The Future: More Experimentation

Aftonbladet's online revenue is growing, and it currently accounts for between 10 and 12 percent of total revenue. One fifth of Aftonbladet's online revenue comes from paid content. And of all revenue generated by paid content, the journalistic content (such as articles, reviews and guides) accounts for 55 percent. Membership clubs bring in a bit more than one third of total paid content revenue, and the rest comes from selling books and products such as yoga mats and even vuvuzelas.

There are many factors that have contributed to the paper's online success. For example, Aftonbladet was smart enough to be an early mover on the web in Sweden, and that has resulted in it gaining a large, loyal audience. Aftonbladet has also done a good job creating a sense of uniqueness around its Plus service, and in offering a wide range of content. There is something for a sports fan or celebrity junkie, as well as useful content for anyone buying an apartment, trying to lose weight, or planning a trip.

Falk said the paper continues to experiment with its paid content offerings.

"There are interesting possibilities with 'Long Tail' e-commerce, for example," Falk said.

She said Aftonbladet hasn't really operated with a holistic strategy for paid content, but that the paper is now developing one.

"We are very much entrepreneurs here at Aftonbladet, and it has been good enough so far," Falk said. "Now we want to apply more strategic thinking in our plans."

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about the changes in the field of communication. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Tanja splits her time between San Francisco and Finland, her home country.

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August 23 2010


The Legal Ramifications of Running an Online Community

Casual Blogger Hit with Lawsuit -Just a few days after I started working on the website for a new non-profit my friend is trying to get off the ground this article appears in our local paper.

Part of the purpose of this site (www.nhadsp.org) is to connect it's members to one another through a community section where users could create profiles, have their own blogs, and advertise their availability as DSP's.

read more

August 18 2010


August 02 2010


The changing face of the news editor in the world of social media

The freedom attributed to the world of online journalism supports the notion that the internet fosters equality. When it comes to news, we can be our own gatekeepers and use social media to carve out our own news agenda.

The issue is at the heart of a post on Nieman Journalism Lab by Ken Doctor, looking at the evolving image of the news editor within social media, from the experienced newsdesk figure to our community of online friends.

In this hybrid era of straddling print and digital publishing, the role of the gatekeeper has markedly morphed. It’s shifted from “us” to “them”, but “them” includes a lowercase version of “us”, too. Gatekeeping is now a collective pursuit; we’ve become our own and each other’s editors.

With social media, the serendipity that came with turning pages and suddenly discovering a gem of a story that an editor put there happens in new ways. We’re re-creating such moments ourselves, each of us―individually and collectively―as we tout stories and posts to each other. A friend e-mails us a story; we might read it, time permitting. We get the same story from three people, and chances are good that we’ll carve out time to take a look.

Doctor says that in the future news organisations will need to “harness this power” by combining a professional and traditional news judgement with the value and reach of social media networks. Additionally – never underestimate the importance of aggregation in appealing to social media audiences.

Go ahead and call it gatekeeping, but think of it with a different slant when it comes to flexing those well-honed news judgment muscles. These days editors have a much bigger bank of news and features on which to draw. It’s not just what staff reporters and wire copy offers; it’s the entire web of content.

See his full post here…Similar Posts:

July 29 2010


7 Ways to Use Facebook to Merge News with the Social Web

Although many news organizations know they should incorporate Facebook into their social media strategies, so far they’ve had to rely on independent consultants to tell them what works. This week, however, Facebook outlined best practices on how news organizations can connect with the site’s enormous and highly engaged user base.

The findings are the result of a several-month long study by an internal team that examined Facebook usage at major news organizations such as CNN, The New York Times, and Univision.

Because Facebook boasts 500 million active monthly users and an average monthly time-on-site of around seven hours, integrating Facebook into your site could translate into substantial additional traffic. Tools such as Like buttons, Activity Streams and LiveStream can keep users clicking through stories on a site. And the Insights analytics tool provides valuable demographic information.

After implementing various combinations of Facebook tools on their sites, ABC News saw a 190 percent increase in referral traffic, Life magazine’s referrals increased by 130 percent, Scribd’s user registrations went up by 50 percent, and Dailymotion saw as many as 250,000 users engaged with a single video.

Facebook Developer Network engineers Justin Osofsky and Matt Kelly provided an in-depth look at their findings at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this week. Journalists can learn more about the techniques and discuss how to improve upon them at facebook.com/media.

Optimize the Like button

There’s a lot of power in those little Like buttons, both on the Facebook site and off. When a user clicks Like, that gesture is broadcast to all of his friends — on average, 130 people. Depending on how a site implements the button, clicking the like button may add a link to the user’s profile page and make the liked page discoverable in Facebook’s search system.

Anything on the Web is potentially Likable: a news story, an organization, or even a reporter, Osofsky explained.

Crucially, once a user Likes a Facebook Page, the administrator of that Page gains the ability to push new content to that user’s Activity Stream. In essence, that single click is all that’s needed for users to opt-in to future messages — and if they don’t like your content, to opt back out.

Like buttons are easy to make and come in a variety of features and sizes, from tiny rectangles to full-featured iframes that include profile pictures and comment boxes. Facebook has found that “Like” buttons do best when they’re close to content that is both visually engaging and emotionally resonant, such as video.

In addition, full-featured Like buttons tend to do better than smaller ones. Adding faces of other Likers to the button and including Facebook comments increased the clickthrough rate from as low as zero up to 0.2 percent — comparable to the click-through rate of a banner ad.

Because Facebook delivers this content to publishers’ sites through an iframe, only a small amount of code is necessary to implement the “deluxe model” Like buttons.

Tailor content specifically for Facebook users

Content matters on Facebook. Touching, emotional stories earned 2 to 3 times as many Likes as other stories, as did provocative debates. Sports stories tend to perform particularly well, with 1.5 to 2 times more engagement than the average.

With that knowledge, news organizations can identify stories likely to perform well on Facebook and push those stories through social channels such as Facebook Pages and Twitter.

Publishers can even strategize around when they push this content. There’s a spike in Likes at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., so having fresh content at those times is crucial.

Deploy activity plugins on every page

Increasingly, news site home pages will be customized to users’ tastes and networks. On CNN’s home page, for example, an Activity Feed plugin shows users what their friends have Liked on the site.

Osofsky recommends that publishers set aside real estate on every page on their site for the Activity Feed and Recommendations plugins, which suggest relevant content to users. “Sites that placed the Activity Feed on both the front and content pages received 2-10x more clicks per user than sites with the plugins on the front page alone,” he wrote on the Facebook Developer Blog.

He also advises that sites use Facebook’s LiveStream plugin, a real-time chat box that gathers users in a conversation about live, breaking news. The plugin could be seen as a competitor to live-tweeting and live-blogging tools like CoverItLive.

Create separate pages for major events

For major stories that break over several days, some organizations increased engagement by creating a dedicated Facebook Page for that event. “Stories published from a World Cup-focused Page of one major media company had 5x the engagement rate per user than stories from the company’s main Page,” Osofsky wrote.

Of course, that technique isn’t without some degree of risk. Publishers might worry about fragmenting their audience and losing viewers when an event is over.

For example, after a flurry of wall posts, ESPN’s World Cup Page abruptly stopped posting on July 15. The 636,000 or so fans have continued to post to the wall, but with no response from ESPN, they are likely to lose interest.

Manage your many pages

Depending on the type of item that a user Likes (a person, a show, an article, and so forth), almost every Like button generates a new Page on Facebook. As more people click “Like,” publishers will need to organize and manage an ever-growing volume of Pages — some of which aren’t even visible to most users.

Facebook Engineer Matt Kelly described how Facebook uses what he informally called “Dark Pages” to connect publishers to users. Invisible to everyone but administrators, Dark Pages represent pages on the Web that have been Liked but do not have a publicly visible Page on Facebook — for example, a single news article.

Publishers must place the Open Graph and Facebook tags such as <og:type> and <fb:admins> on each page of their site to identify the content. Then, once a publisher has claimed its page (dark or otherwise), it can publish new content to the Activity Streams of their Likers and examine Insights to learn more about their users’ demographics.

Publishers could wind up with thousands of Pages to monitor. There’s not a perfect method to manage that onslaught of Likable content, Kelly said, but he expected that solutions would emerge from Facebook’s outreach to publishers.

Attendees at the Hacks/Hackers event expressed some dissatisfaction with Facebook’s Insights tool. Although visually similar to real-time traffic reporting tools like Google Analytics, Facebook’s Insights can lag up to four days behind. That may change in the future; Osofsky said the goal is for Insights to lag no more than a day behind.

Turn status updates into infographics with the streamlined API

Just as newspapers invested in printing presses, online news divisions must now invest in software development. Facebook recognized that developing social tools can be confusing and resource-intensive, so the company recently streamlined its API.

“It’s simple and modern,” Kelly said, demonstrating the clean, comprehensible data that developers can access from simple URLs such as http://graph.facebook.com/markzuckerberg.

Facebook’s new API is structured around objects and connections, just like the user experience on the site itself. It can be used to generate innovative visualizations like the New York Times’ visualization of soccer players’ popularity.

In addition, Facebook has developed a more robust search tool, which can be used to find content from public status updates, not just people. Journalists could use the tool to gauge community interest in a story or to find new sources.

Facebook has also streamlined its authorization process, implementing OAUTH 2.0, which offers improved scalability and ease-of-use. For users, authorizing applications is now a single-click process, rather than having to click through one dialogue after another. For publishers, that translates into smoother engagement with users.

Participate in development of Facebook products

Social networks — particularly Facebook — are quickly becoming a key way to learn about breaking news, a phenomenon that Facebook is only too happy to embrace. The recently released research is just a foundation for what Osofsky hopes will be a long-term collaboration with media partners.

He encouraged anyone involved with news — journalists, editors, software developers — to visit facebook.com/media to learn about Facebook’s engagement with the news industry, to share ideas, and to contribute to the emerging practice of integrating social tools with journalism.

“We have plenty of work to do,” Osofsky said. “And the dialogue is very important.”

June 17 2010


#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – don’t forget the forums

Don't forget the message boards, says Social Media Today. Its post examining this "overlooked piece of social media real estate" is a reminder to journalists of forums' fertile ground for tips and story ideas. Tipster: Judith Townend. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

June 09 2010


Pondering Online Communities and Fluid Social Groups

A friend once told me that if I were a superhero I would be called "The Includer." She was right, I'm usually the one trying to get more people involved in whatever is about to happen. Superhero or not, my crowd-mongering has taught me one thing: Groups are complicated.

I'm sure you know what I mean. Sometimes people only feel like hanging out with the "core." Or maybe someone has decided that they like the group, but can't stand a few of its members which causes a rift. The dynamics of even a small group can drastically shift with a single addition or removal. More often than not, butting out and letting things unfold on their own is the only safe bet.

In my experience, there is no such thing as a "one size fits all" group, even among friends. The ideal shape and nature of a group changes depending on the context and whose perspective you are considering. If we want social media to evolve into a more meaningful form of dynamic group interaction, fluidly defined communities need be seriously thought through.

Let the Pondering Begin

A community doesn't have to be social to have personalized borders -- physical communities and informational communities have their own unique flavors of fluidity. The more we can understand and reflect individual views of the interactions we host, the more relevant and engaging our systems will be.

  • Location-Based Communities

    Geopolitical regions are nice, but not all locative information fits this kind of organizational model. Unless we're talking about government or a large-scale event, I'm far more likely to care about the happenings, thoughts, and commentary of my block and immediate neighborhood than the collective buzz of my entire city.

    I'm guessing the same could be said for my neighbor, and my neighbor's neighbor, and so on -- at some point that path ends up outside of my "care zone." Each person along the way has a slightly different circle of interest. A lot of those circles overlap with mine, and that overlap defines a fluid physical community -- my neighborhood.

  • Knowledge-Based Communities

    As a programmer, there is no question that I learn from my peers. I grow by discovering the knowledge that PHP developers, SQL gurus, and other specialized members of the traditional "developer community" have to share. At the same time, however, I benefit hugely from interactions with journalists, designers, managers, entrepreneurs, and academics. Together, these people define a personal knowledge community just for me.

    Knowledge-based communities often surround a common interest, but they go a lot deeper than that. A person's ideal information pool needs to hone in on their specific interests, but should also incorporate the more elusive "second degree" interests (e.g. technology and entrepreneurship; snowboarding and meteorology) in the name of breadth.

  • Network-Based Communities

    There is a field of Mathematics called graph theory. Despite the name, graph theory has nothing to do with the charts you learned in high school. In this case, graphs are "mathematical objects" which, believe it or not, are pretty simple (think connect the dots from back in kindergarten). They are used to represent relationships between objects through "edges" (lines) and "vertices" (dots). Graphs are a great way to represent groups: the group members are vertices and the relationships between those members are edges.

    Below is an example of a small graph which represents one person's group-based community (Person A). Maybe it depicts person A's best buds, where the edges represent strong friendships, or maybe it's a map of his workplace where the edges represent people who often talk to one another.


    Although everybody involved shares a common group identity, the graph tells a completely different story depending on whose eyes you look through. For instance, person C tends to hang out with A and B. Meanwhile A, D, E, and F form a tight knit group, but A and F also share a close mutual friend.

    In the real world, these graphs would be far larger, far more complex, and would vary far more from person to person. Suddenly Facebook and Twitter's tendency to bypass community and stick to networks makes a lot more sense.

The Tale of Clipt

Last year my friend Erek Alper and I submitted an application to the Knight News Challenge for a project called Clipt. The idea was a "digital conversation platform that hosts discussions grounded in bite-sized 'clips' of audio, video, image, and text that have been captured online."


Clips and posts would be submitted by users, tagged to locations and topics, and linked to each other. This content would then be displayed as interlinked bubbles in scalable, fluid interfaces called "clipboards" (see below for one of our early mockups to get a basic visual). These user-defined views of the system's global content base were created in terms of:

  • Location: Adding a location to a clipboard was simply a matter of placing a pin in a map. The clipboard then contained content associated with an area around the pin, and more proximal content (thoughts and clips created by locals or tagged to a location) would get more exposure.

  • Topic: Setting topics to a clipboard would narrow down what content was displayed. As the user added topics, the clipboard would become more and more relevant to a specific set of interests.

  • Group: Users would be able to define a clipboard so that it would only show conversations involving specific people. Conversations involving more than one of those people would be more likely to appear on the board.

A piece of content that met all of the clipboard's conditions wouldn't necessarily be displayed if there were way too many matches. Instead, the interface allowed users to move along the "relevance gradient" -- zooming in to increase the focus (which would do things like "increase the required number of conversing users," or "decrease the physical radius of interest"), and zooming out to get see more general content.

Clipboard wireframe.png

Clipboards and their ability to capture relevance were our answer to the "fluid group" problem. The hope was that by defining filters for clips and thoughts in terms of location, topic, and group, our users would be able to follow and create tapestries of community conversation without resorting to rigid categorizations and boundaries.

Despite Knight's rejection, I still think the idea has great potential. That being said, I realize there are plenty of other ways to achieve personalized community. If you have any bright ideas of your own, please share a musing below!

April 16 2010


Cloud on Economist.com aggregates reader comments

Not sure how long this has been a feature on the Economist’s website, but aggregating readers’ comments around different topic areas is an interesting way in to a story.

The cloud of terms show the most popular topics from across the site and can be viewed for one-week, two-week or a 30-day period:

Clicking on a term displays all reader comments from across the website relating to that subject, with a link to what article they were left on.

Similar Posts:

April 15 2010


Designing a True Community Tool for the Online World

Last December I wrote about digital community and social media tools in a post titled, In Search of a Community That Takes 'Me' Out of Social Media. My ultimate argument was that although community tools exist, they are underpowered and unpopular compared to modern networking systems like Facebook and Twitter.

That post sparked a lot of interesting comments, and it's clear that online community is something people care about. Within the comments I noticed two distinct camps: People who found the article through Facebook, and people who found the article through Twitter. Let's just say that I was surprised to learn that folks on Facebook are very defensive. (Twitter users at least thought the ideas were interesting, even if they didn't agree!).

Since I still feel that the current state of social media has barely scratched the surface of community-driven conversation and information sharing, I want to continue the conversation. This time, though, I want to begin the process of designing a community system that can satisfy my thirst for group conversation!

The Paradox of Digital Community

Community is all about shared experience and common identity, but the participatory web is all about personalization.

Why? One reason is because people won't participate if they don't feel connected to the content or conversation. Another is that without personalization, information overload kicks in and the experience becomes unmanageable and overwhelming.

It is no surprise that the most engaging and useful social systems try very hard to present individually-targeted content, resulting in unique experiences for each user. Unfortunately, however, this is exactly why it is difficult to find true community on these systems. In other words, lack of community isn't a fault of sites like Facebook and Twitter; it is just a result of the paradox.

Designing for Participation

I can think of three broad tactics used by participatory systems to try and manage the balance between noise reduction and social interaction:

  1. Focus on content: Conversation is organized around specific pieces of information, such as news articles, blog posts, and other media. This solves the noise problem because personalization can happen at the content level, while the interactions within each piece of content can be universal.
  2. Focus on niche: The system is set up around a specific organization, place, or topic. The experience is largely the same for all of the users, but the scope is narrow enough that only those personally interested will choose to participate.
  3. Focus on users: Users define their experience on the site by making it about themselves, their networks, and their friends. This results in personalization with some inherently shared content. There are usually a few additional mechanisms that support a broader shared experience (e.g. retweets or public walls).

Each of these methods can lead to engaging social systems that host meaningful content, but they all have major problems that limit their community potential.

A content focus restricts group interaction to commentary and debate surrounding the content. Niche sites exist in relative isolation, meaning the participants and conversations generally come from within the niche and lack global perspective. Individual-centric systems create experiences that are as diverse as the individuals themselves (e.g. no two experiences are alike); and although some content is shared, it is often done so indirectly or among loosely connected, ad-hoc groups.

Community meets Personalized Mass Media

I said that I wanted to start designing something with this post. In particular, I'm looking for a way to do for community what social networks have done for the individual. As I just noted, however, it isn't enough to just host a niche. This system needs to be able to support networks of interconnected communities. This might sound like a social network, but it isn't -- social networks are made of interconnected individuals.

Below are a few ideas that I'm going to explore in future posts. The hope is that, once fully thought through, these will provide a starting point for the system I want to create:

  • Fluid communities: Real communities rarely have rigid boundaries and static definition. Groups of people develop through complex relationships, and often have fuzzy borders.
  • User profiles that are defined by participation: In real communities people aren't defined by profiles -- they're defined by actions. Online identities shouldn't just reflect a person's activity in the system; they should defined by that activity.
  • Shared content: Information in this system has to be able to exist in multiple contexts at once. This will allow independent communities to exist independently without forcing them to exist in isolation.
  • Individual influence: Whether it's users controlling their individual experiences or local communities making collective decisions about their groups' content, people need to be able to shape the information around them.

Please let me know if you have any other ideas that you feel would be important in a community network, either via a comment below, or via Twitter (@slifty).

January 20 2010


How to Use Meta-Stories to Engage the Newsroom, Community

How do we create a community? This question is frequently asked by editors as well as by marketing managers and other business people. More and more, I don't think you can create communities.

Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.

In December, I attended the LeWeb conference in Paris. I was impressed by Chris Pirillo, who told us that people who view communities as "tools" are tools themselves. Control is an illusion. (In fact, during his passionate presentation, Pirillo said "control is bullshit.")

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a simple way to make your newsroom or website do a better job of connecting with the community you serve: writing meta-stories.

Meta-stories are stories about what's happening on your website, and about what happens in the newsroom. They're a great way to engage the community.

Tell a Story From Forums, Comments

We allow people to post comments directly to our newspaper's website, but we intervene and moderate whenever the debate gets personal or off-topic. This is a story in itself. I have started writing a daily story about the comments on our site and in our discussion forums. I've been amazed by the hidden gems of insight I've found. It really is a story in itself to examine how people react when a story breaks, and how the discussion evolves.

It's also important to have a forum where people can come together and interact. This is a way for them to help tell a meta-story. Using CoveritLive, I hold chat sessions each weekday (for between 30 and 60 minutes) with or without a special guest. (We're a financial newspaper, so mostly we chat about what happened with the markets.) This synchronous contact with our community builds trust. Beyond that, often people make very useful suggestions, like "why don't you publish that investment guide each quarter instead of only once a year, we really like and need it." Or they suggest interesting new angles for news stories.

Allow the Community to Listen In

My next way to create a meta-story is very simple: I talk to my colleagues. I ask them what they're up to, and what their thoughts are about ongoing stories. I just jot down a list of topics and ideas and post them on our financial blog. This becomes a story about what's going on inside the newsroom as we prepare our reporting.

Go Where Your Community Is

Once I've written my meta-stories, I share them on Facebook and Twitter in order to try and reach an even broader group of interested people. But even though I use Facebook and Twitter, I suggest focusing on the places where the community tends to focus its presence and attention.

For our paper, we generate the most debate and comments on our website, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Our audience is interested in finance and economics, which means they have an interest in innovation and technology. But they're not geeks and aren't necessarily tech savvy, meaning that only a minority of them actively use Twitter.

Even though I'm personally inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, I force myself to hang out more on our site. Maybe it's not the latest in social media technology, but it's where our community hangs out.

They Actually Like It

At first I was afraid that community members would complain about my comment meta-stories: 'Why did you mention his comment and not mine?' It didn't happen. People actually told me they appreciated the effort, even if they weren't the one being featured. I also get the impression some of them have started writing carefully worded comments in order to be included in the comments story.

As for my colleagues, my fear was they would object to being quoted when they are in the early stages of their reporting. It seems, however, they have no objections at all. They actually seem to appreciate the fact that their work is being noted and updated, and all they have to do is to speak to me or to jot down what they're up to -- much like status updates, in fact. It gives the editorial work a stream-like, real-time web urgency.

Keep Things Simple

So forget about complicated community-building strategies. Meet the existing community you want to serve, talk to them, talk to your colleagues, write down the whole process, and put it out there for everyone to read. (This approach works equally well for those who work with sound or video.)

Then combine that with a synchronous session (such as chat) and have real-time interactions. You'll be surprised how much your community will teach you -- not only about the news, but about what you do.


I'd love to hear about your suggestions and thoughts about using meta-stories! Please share then in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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January 15 2010


#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – take time over social media

Don't give up if your blog or Twitter account don't provide you with immediate reward: it takes time, nurture and perseverance to build an online community and social media presence. Tipster: Judith Townend. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

November 05 2009


FT's Long Room Uses Velvet Rope Approach to Online Community

What determines a successful community? The number of unique visitors or page views? The number of comments?

Those metrics can be important, but there are also qualitative aspects to consider. Are the discussions on your site respectful and insightful? Are members deriving value from the community? Or are you hosting flame wars that lack intelligence and decorum?

In order to create a community of quality, perhaps it makes sense to cut down on quantity, and create an exclusive members-only structure. Few media companies have done a better job of building this kind of exclusive community than the Financial Times. Its Long Room was created as part of the paper's FT Alphaville blog. The Long Room is an "exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others."

In order to learn more about how the Long Room has created an exclusive community of value, I spoke with New York-based Alphaville editor Paul Murphy.

Some Background and Context

It's important to first understand that Alphaville and the Financial Times are unique properties. The newspaper's website, FT.com, has a frequency-based pay wall. This means you can read a set number of articles for free, but have to subscribe if you exceed that number.

However, Alphaville is a free daily news and commentary service. Its mission is to give "financial market professionals the information they need, when they need it." On a typical day, the blog gets between 40,000 and 50,000 unique visitors. It generates roughly 500,000 uniques per month.

paul murphy.gif

Alphaville was launched roughly three years ago. Murphy said the goal is to serve a community of "deep specialists in their respective areas. They know more than we journalists know."

In addition to the blog, Alphaville offers email newsletters, news alerts, and Markets Live, a kind of chat session where two journalists instant message each other about the financial markets. (The community can also add comments in real time.) Alphaville also regularly links to news and reporting generated by other media outlets.

"We are a blog and we acknowledge that people are promiscuous," Murphy said. "So we tell them what to read elsewhere if they have half an hour of spare time, and we tell them what they should read in the FT. Being financial professionals, it's a navigational service. We allow them to sample."

The Long Room

The Long Room exists as an extension of Alphaville. It is "an exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others." It is free to join, if you can get through the vetting process to be accepted.

The Long Room was inspired by a famous restaurant in the City of London that was a favorite haunt of financial pundits and market movers during the 1980s. The online version of the Long Room aims to be as exclusive as the real-world place. The site says it clearly: "The Long Room is reserved for financial professionals and for people with a clear understanding of how financial markets and products work. Our members-only policy and application vetting process allow us to ensure that these criteria are met."

Indeed, when a colleague of mine applied for membership, he received a call from London informing him that he had been accepted. But they also told him that he could not report the discussions taking place in the Long Room. "What happens in the Long Room stays in the Long Room," he was told.

Murphy confirms the application process is taken seriously. In fact, he handles many applications personally. He said the Long Room's exclusivity and careful vetting process have helped it reach the target group of financial experts and decision-makers: "I'm really impressed by the seniority of the people applying for the Long Room," he said.

Listening to the Community

The Long Room is an example of how intimate knowledge of a community can lead to a compelling service. The Alphaville team discovered that there was a willingness among financial specialists to share ideas and research, and so they created a safe place that encouraged them to do so.

"We simulated the way groups of financial professionals operate in the real world: in small email communities of 20 to 30 people," Murphy said. "They are trading research and commentary, and we wanted this functionality [as part of the Long Room]."

Murphy said the sharing of research and insight had to be done "in a walled garden in order to give them a certain comfort level."

The discussions inside the Long Room are organized using topic-specific "tables," such as those dedicated to market strategy or finance 2.0. Members can apply to host a table. So far, Murphy said, everyone is getting along well. (He mentioned one case when a person was kicked out because they engaged in constant self-promotion.)

Why it Works

Alphaville has been profitable since its earliest days. "It's a very light structure, especially compared to a newspaper, which typically requires a massive industrial process," Murphy said. The Long Room also enables the Financial Times to gather important insight about its readers. This information helps the paper sell itself -- and its special community -- to advertisers.

Alphaville also helps the Financial Times enhance its position as a hub for the financial community in London and beyond. This unique focus is a big factor in the structure and success of the Long Room. Financial professionals need timely and correct information, and so they can't ignore the Financial Times (or the Wall Street Journal).

But the question remains whether or not this kind of exclusive community could work at other newspapers and news organizations.

For his part, Murphy has no doubt.

"The model is applicable elsewhere, whether we talk about cycling or tennis communities," he said.


What's your take on this "exclusive" strategy? Do you think it's elitist, or that it introduces an element of civility in online interactions? Could this strategy be used by other media organizations? Finally, a last question for the MediaShift community: could this approach help media to survive financially?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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