OJR 2006: Building and managing your community

If you blog it, will they come?

And if they come, will they stay, make nice with others and contribute to the conversation?

These were the essential questions asked in the “Building Your Community” session at Friday’s OJR 2006.

The answer is: yes. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably. The real answer is that there is not a concrete one — yet. But many of the participants, being experienced bloggers, media strategists and online news reporters, shared their timeworn tactics for involving readers in stimulating debate.

Settling in for the discussion, the 35-plus conferees agreed to disagree — civilly, like a successful online community any of them would want to join.

Moderator Lisa Stone, founder of BlogHer, asked the group about their own struggles with community building and the associated problems with maintaining and moderating an online family.

Herding those cats

Mack Reed, editor and publisher of LAVoice.org, suggested the best way to maintain successful debate within a peaceful community is a straightforward approach and trust in the readership.

“If you establish the rules ahead of time, the community will enforce them,” he said. “Have faith in people’s interest in communicating intelligently with each other.”

OJR editor Robert Niles compared moderating blog comments or discussion boards to basic journalism skills.

Just asking readers the general “What do you think?” question as a topic starter will get broad, unfocused answers, he said. As any good journalist would, it’s important to “maintain control of the interview.”

“If you ask a targeted, well-tailored question, you’re more likely to get a specific response,” he said.

But what do you do when all of your well-intentioned ground rules and pointed, focused threads continue to be hijacked by “trolls” or “flamers” seeking to dominate or disrupt the discussion community? When is it time to revoke a user’s posting privileges?

Usually when that person is dominating the site, harassing other users or showing disregard for the posted community rules, suggested Violinist.com‘s Laurie Niles.

The group agreed: Even the most obscure topic can and will generate strong emotion among users. But learning how to channel those passionate feelings into constructive conversation is a skill, one that many online users may not have acquired just yet, said Staci Kramer of PaidContent.org.

“We need to understand the difference between ‘trolls’ and people who don’t know they’re acting like one,” she said.

Sometimes, it seems, all that’s needed is a little message-board etiquette lesson.

Discussion moderator Stone said she is in favor of exacting less control over a community. Other attendees echoed that, with some suggesting “deputizing” select readers to aid in keeping the discourse clean and civil.

The group suggested some guidelines to keep in mind when trying to establish a successful community:

  • Establish rules of conduct right up front.
  • Be able to ignore some level of obnoxious behavior.
  • Try turning off some comments instead of scrapping the whole message board.
  • Try to engage your readers in decisions that affect the life of the community.

Helping your readers help you

Moving on from the perils of putting users in charge of content, the group began pondering the importance of engaging a smart, informed reader base in open-source journalism.

Most agreed that the value of reader feedback, even on already well-reported stories, is priceless. Often the community does the extra legwork, running down facts that the reporter/blogger could not.

As Stone put it, “If we’re going to use blogging technology, why not use it to do better reporting?”

You might get stronger journalism if — when the community disagrees with the reported story — you invite members to do the fact-checking themselves, Stone added.

Discussion soon turned toward blog evangelism. Female and multi-lingual bloggers are underrepresented in the blogosphere, one participant noted. What’s the best way to recruit non-traditional bloggers and discussion community members?

Rod Amis said personal initiative in supporting writers is very important as an editor and/or publisher. For his international news site, G21.net, Amis said he often recruits female writers through other women. While praising the importance of finding international voices, he also cautioned the group to be sensitive to the cultural standards of communities that are inexperienced with the concept of blogging.

Stone encouraged editors to reach out to bloggers by speaking their language: Blog about it! While conducting outreach for writers in offline publications is important as well, she urged those communities that are seeking new talent to put an ad where potential candidates are most likely to see it. Sometimes you can even find a blogger who’s already an active contributor within your community — you just need to ask.

Confrontating online publishing fears and focusing on the mission of using readers to build better editorial content were the hottest topics of the session. The answer in both cases was echoed throughout the morning: Keep faith in the reader.

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About Erica Ogg

Erica is a second-year Master's student in print journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.