Dear Newspapers: Time To Focus On Enabling The Community; Not Limiting It

from the try-this-again dept

As we keep hearing from newspaper execs (and sometimes, reporters) insisting that paywalls or micropayments are the solution to what ails the industry, we keep asking why people will pay. The whole reason why newspapers used to work as a business model was that they collected a community around news. But, these days, there are much better communities out there. The newspapers haven't kept up. And, when it comes to news, people want to participate. They're not passive. That might mean contributing to the news or commenting on the news, but just as likely it means sharing and spreading the news, as well. But nearly every proposal from newspapers looks to limit that ability, which only makes it less valuable to the very community the newspapers need, driving them elsewhere. We've been saying for years that newspapers need to focus on enabling communities, but that still seems to be the last thing on most of their minds.

For example, this rather depressing discussion of research presented at the Future of Journalism conference concerning participatory media suggests that many in the newspaper business view the whole "participation" thing as a pain to be dealt with. Very few look for ways to better enable the community -- most seem focused on how to prevent the community from doing something bad, or looking for other ways to somehow limit the community.

And then you have situations like this:
Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.

From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.
They're viewing the entire thing backwards. First, they're complaining that there's "little news contained in comments." But who said there was supposed to be? It's the basic difference between reporting and a discussion. But the newspaper folks are so focused on having to be "reporters" that they're missing the fact their community wants to have a discussion around the news. Instead, it's seen as a bad thing that it's "not news." Furthermore, rather than being seen as a way to enable the community, comments are reduced to a way to attract more visitors. If you're just looking to attract more visitors, there are all sorts of things you can do. If you want to enable the community, it takes a different mindset.

Of course, not every newspaper person thinks that way. Techdirt reader Shane Richmond, who is the head of technology for the Telegraph, has written up a report for the Nieman Foundation, discussing the various ways that paper is looking to enable the community. As you read through it, it's not about page views or having the community submit stuff for journalists to do the real work on, it's actually all about enabling the community: enabling them to have a voice, enabling them to connect with one another and even enabling them to have an audience. As Richmond notes, there's still a lot more to do, but it looks like the Telegraph is approaching this with the right mindset. It would be great to see more newspapers follow the same path.

Filed Under: community, journalism, newspapers, participatory journalism

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  1. identicon
    PhillipBaker, 17 Sep 2009 @ 5:10am

    Free networks vs. free stuff

    Brad Burnham of USV wrote a great post recently. His point was that free Web services that create networks represent a fundamentally different exchange compared to our traditional marketplace of buyers and sellers:

    "Both sides of the debate about Free do not seem to acknowledge how fundamentally different the relationship between suppliers and consumers is on the web. Services are not offered for free at all. There is an exchange of value between users, the creators of the raw material - data, content, and meta-data, and the network where that data is converted into insight."


    The problem isn’t that news organizations gave content away for free, it’s that having done so, they never set out to capture the other side of the exchange that users seem only too happy to provide in return – sharing, voting, recommending, commenting, discussing etc – by building the network. This was (and still is) because news organizations do not see the shift to or the benefits of a free network: they only see the free stuff they are giving away.

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