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Hypergene MediaBlog » Are you a gardener or architect?
All about Participatory Journalism - how audiences are changing the future of news and information.
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Are you a gardener or architect?

News organizations salivate when you talk about “online community.” They all want it, but they seem terribly inept at fostering it.

The problem, according this Clay Shirky piece, is that communities are fundamentally different from audiences. Communities are highly focused, small and homogeneous in their interests. But they are also continual works-in-progress. What they produce is incomplete. They are happy to refine later. News institutions, on the other hand, are geared to capture large audiences. They value accuracy, timeliness and consistency on a daily basis. In an email to us, Shirky added:

"It is that discipline, however, that makes broadcast institutions weak supporters of community, because community is sloppy, inconsistent, and only produces rough drafts. Community conversation fails almost every criterion for quality a broadcast institution is set up to support."

But that has not stopped media organizations from thinking they can build community. Ambitious, expensive partnerships with companies such as the Koz Community Publishing System failed, straining budgets and patience while the ad dollars simply never showed. As a result, many news sites have limited their communal effort to the only quick and build-able thing they know: the forum. Sadly, only a few news media sites do forums well, and even then, they sit secluded from their news content. (Update 10.11.02: According to Derek Powazek, CNN shut down their community/discussion section in early 2002.)

If these institutions are so bent on building community and willing to devote significant resources to build them, what’s gone wrong? The problem, Shirky says, is that online communities must be grown - not built. The difference is not one of semantics. Members of audience are simply added, whereas members of community must integrated in an environment conducive to community formation.

If media organizations are serious about growing community, then they need to have thinking that’s fundamentally different from the way they approach audience. In other words, Shirky says, they need to act more like a gardener and less like an architect.

To start, Shirky provides five things big media should think about if they want to grow a community:

Shirky provides some sound advice. But it remains to be seen if the diametrically opposed approaches of community and news are too great an obstacle to overcome. Regardless, media organizations could do a better job of feeding online communities and fostering conversation around their stories on the net:

What more do you think can be done by media organizations to feed online communities and the social network of the web? Do you think it’s possible for organizations steeped in traditions of audience and the role as gatekeepers of information to become proponents of a two-way, bottom-up environment?

Posted on Oct 10, 2002 | 3:40 pm EST


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i think cross promotion between print and online is important.

case in point: at our newspaper, we have a local number people can call to leave their comments about whatever. we type some of these up and display them in the print ed/op section several times a week.

the amount of people we get thru the phone is a lot more than the people that use our forums. now, that may be because more people have access to a telephone, but i think printing their comments in the paper gives them a ‘kick’ enough to pick up the phone and call.

we don’t hype our online forums as much, though. although, to our editor’s credit, he is starting to swing the other way in these matters.

i’m currently working on a 6 month plan for online content and i think ‘community’ - i.e. interaction - will be a big part of it. i want ‘hot topics’ on our homepage instead of making people drill down a couple clicks to get to the forums.

back to the original point, though, which was cross promotion. i’m also considering the idea of running a ‘poll’ on our homepage with the results in the print newspaper. i also want to perhaps pick some good posts throughout the week (like we do with the phone lines) and print those to get discussions going.

i totally agree that those papers only slapping their print copy online everynight aren’t going to make it in this next round.

i’m trying to find someone in the newsroom now that’s savvy enough to not be afraid to daily go into the forums, post with their own name, and pull interesting tidbits out for the print product.

Posted by: kpaul on Oct 10, 02 | 6:50 pm EST

Having worked in mainstream media for some 25+ years, and having followed/participated in online communities since pre-Web days, I’d say that mainstream media organizations are terrified of allowing readers to post at will. In my experience, that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to building a successful environment for online communities within mainstream media. Among other things, they are afraid of being sued for something someone they have no control over may post on their site - a legitimate concern. And, of course, there is that thing of not having complete control. That’s pretty scary to traditional media outlets. Scary enough to keep them shackled to the past in ways that will cripple their very future. Go figure.

Posted by: gsetser on Oct 11, 02 | 1:39 pm EST

not only afraid to be sued, but afraid of posters giving the ‘inside scoop’ or ‘real deal’ on local businesses - businesses who are advertisers and don’t want to see negative comments about themselves while they’re paying money for ads...

i think the community is more important, but will news orgs think the same thing if they risk losing their revenue?

Posted by: kpaul on Oct 11, 02 | 2:02 pm EST

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