Why journalists make ideal online community leaders

Journalists need not fear the emergence of “user generated content” online as a threat to their jobs. Yes, millions of readers now are finding information online from publications that did not exist a decade ago. But none of that content emerged from empty air. Every original article, blog post, comment and wiki entry online originated from some Internet user, somewhere.

Just think of those users as sources. Who is the ideal person to harness all their information and fashion into organized, relevant information for readers?

You, the experienced journalist — the person who can take 14 pages of notes and sort through them to find the golden nugget that makes a story. Here are some reasons why journalists ought to be the ideal leaders to guide online content communities.

Journalists know how to engage sources

What if you built an online community, and no one joined? It is the fear of every online publisher. To succeed online, you can’t leave the success of your interactive publication to chance. You need to identify and recruit a first generation of participants who will get the conversation started with their comments and insight.

Reporters know how to find these people. In fact, they’ve been finding them for years. Any journalist who’s built a list of reliable sources for his or her offline beat can recruit a slate of initial members for an online community. Whom do you know who has something to say about your topic? A friendly e-mail, phone call or coffeehouse conversation ought be enough to get many of them to at least stop by your website and post a hello. That gets the essential word-of-mouth spreading about your site, too.

Then, once the lurkers who find your site through search engines, social networks and e-mailed links see others posting, they can feel more secure in joining the conversation themselves. But it all starts with your source list.

Journalists know how to ask relevant questions

So you’ve got people on your website: Now what are they going to do? They will need some interesting questions to talk about, to debate. And anyone who passed Reporting 101 ought to know how to ask questions that elicit informative and engaging responses.

That’s all you need to do to start. Ask the questions that require readers to reveal their expertise. What have they done? What do they know? What have they heard? Running an online discussion is much like hosting a radio call-in show: You ask questions, find opportunities for follow-up and attempt to engage as many people in the audience in the discussion as possible.

Ask, listen, respond. Then repeat. The formula’s actually quite simple, and journalists have been following it, for years, to create conversations in print and on air.

Journalists anticipate the effect of their words

Words can inform, but they also can harm. Nothing kills a community more quickly than a flame war that pushes readers into attacking one another.

Experienced reporters ought to have spent time with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and communities. They have learned something about differing social conventions and attitudes. More important, they have learned what provokes people from various communities and developed the respect to avoid “pushing those buttons,” choosing instead to ask questions about relevant issues in a more sensitive manner.

That experience is invaluable in managing an online community that could be drawing members from all over the world. Phrases well accepted in one community can enflame another. Your online community will allow people to cross the geographic, economic and cultural barriers that have separated them in the offline world. They will need a sensitive, thoughtful and articulate leader to set a tone for their conversation that will help them avoid unnecessary conflict.

Sure, an occasional flame war can help enliven a site. Readers should feel comfortable enough to bust each others’ chops now and then. But you can’t let readers personally attack or intimidate others.

Framing conversation is key. Someone who has spent some time in his or her life thinking about how their words will affect the thousands of people who soon will read them is better prepared for that tough job than someone’s who’s never before spoken to a crowd larger than their high school classroom.

Journalists know how to find the lead

Smart online publishers know that their real audience is not the people posting in an online discussion, but the far larger audience of lurkers who read without jumping in themselves. After all, good journalists don’t write for their sources; they write for their readers. As an online community leader, a journalist can identify the posts and threads that are of greatest potential interest to the largest possible audience and take steps to ensure that lurkers and infrequent visitors easily can find them.

You might start a fresh thread passed on an especially valuable response to an earlier discussion. Or give a valuable post or thread extra attention on the site’s front page or e-mail newsletter.

Online conversations can drift in an indefinite number of directions. But readers will gravitate toward sites where they can easily find useful information, instead of getting lost in someone else’s chit-chat and inside jokes. Journalists are well prepared to shape their communities to deliver for those readers.

Journalists know how to promote

Chances are, someone else already has an online community devoted to your topic. How will you attract readers to yours? Yes, your strengths, listed above, will help. But so will getting the word out.

There’s a good reason why the PR industry looks to journalism schools and news reporters for new hires. Journalists have learned what information other journalists need to write a good story. Running on online community provides you the opportunity to do PR on your own behalf. If your readers are breaking a story or just talking about something that’s off interest to outside readers, send out a press release about it. Organize some offline events for the community, or a charitable effort, that can elicit some coverage. E-mail other Web publishers on your beat when you’ve got fresh information on your site that they do not have, asking for a link. (A friendly, “thought I’d let you know” tone works far better than “ha ha, we scooped you” rudeness, of course.)

Heck, just tell us at OJR about your site. We’re always looking for entrepreneurial journalists and innovative newspaper dot-commers to profile.

Don’t be afraid

There’s no reason to fear, resent or resist user-generated content. If you’ve worried that making the transition from staff publishing to community publishing will require learning a whole new set of professional skills, don’t. The core skills one needs to build an active, informative and respectful online content community are precisely the same skills reporters and editors have employed for generations to become good journalists.

Jump in.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. I agree with the premise here. But I will say this: leading an online community is not simple, whether you are a journalist or not. In practice, you run into all kinds of roadblocks that journalism did not prepare you for.

    I left the New York Times to start MadMariner.com, an online boating magazine. To date, the site overall is doing pretty well. We publish a story a day and our stuff is getting read. But “community” is another matter.

    I had 70K unique visitors in August, but most bypassed the forums altogether, thanks to the chicken-and-egg equation we all know so well: you need people to participate in order to get people to participate.

    “Seeding” forums with active posters from other sites is a good idea, but it is also no small task. Most communities won’t tolerate being poached, and rightly so. So the appeal must be made individually, one-on-one. That takes time. Just getting good contact information can be a real effort. I find myself running people down the way I used to chase sources on a story involving DeLay or Abramoff – a lot of work for one would-be convert.

    There’s also a fair amount of promotion that goes into this line of work – more than one would be comfortable with in a traditional newsroom. We all know those reporters who are good at touting their stuff. But promoting a site requires a far more brazen approach, both online and offline. Many of my reporter colleagues would not be comfortable doing this.

    There is also a lot of competition in the arena of user-generated content, mostly from early adaptors who have been building forum traffic – and little else – for years. From a journalistic standpoint, there are not a ton of sites doing what MadMariner does. But there are a handful of GREAT forum sites. How to compete?

    Of course, we have only been actively publishing for a few months, and the truth is that I have yet to turn my full attention to forums. When I do, I expect they will improve. But anybody considering a publishing venture or a community site should not underestimate this kind of work. It is a lot of fun and (at least for a print guy) it stretches new muscles, but it is a challenge.