Does the idea of fostering online communities at news Web sites still make sense? A decade after author Howard Rheingold popularized the notion in his influential national bestseller "The Virtual Community," news executives still support the idea, but they're struggling to make the concept work.
"I think everyone's looking at how to organize this better, without destroying yourself with extra management and moderating work," says Hyde Post, editorial director of The Atlanta Journal Constitution's site, AJC.com.
"If done correctly, (online community building) would fit very nicely with our mission," agrees Gerry Barker, general manager for Belo Corp.'s Dallas Web sites, which include DallasNews.com, WFAA.com, and GuideLive.com. "I think it's probably an oversight to throw out the idea of community because it doesn?t make money."
Online news executives acknowledge that forum participants represent a relatively small segment of their overall readership. But these users may be some of the news sites' most valuable, according to a joint study of 40,000 consumers conducted between 2000 and 2001 by McKinsey & Co. and Jupiter Media Metrix.
The McKinsey study showed that frequent contributors to bulletin boards, online chats and product reviews at CNN.com, Cnet.com and Weather.com visited almost five times as often as those who did not use these interactive features, they looked at four times as many pages each session, and were twice as likely to return the following quarter.
"Some of our message board users are rabid users -- they've posted thousands of messages on our boards. They love it, and some of them have formed a club and go out for drinks. It's become part of what they do every day and that's a pretty powerful thing," says Chris Muldrow, editor of Fredericksburg.com, the online presence of The Free Lance-Star, a 50,000-circulation newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va.
"Online is owned by the audience," says Jeff Jarvis, president and creative director of Advance.net, the online division of Advance Publications, which owns Cond? Nast Publications, Parade Publications, Fairchild Publications, American City Business Journals and newspapers in more than 20 American cities, along with cable and Web properties. Jarvis has spearheaded Advance.net's many investments in software targeted at building online communities through Weblogs and forums.
"Community makes up at least a third of our traffic," he says. "It is hugely popular."
Even on the national level, discussion boards and other forms of community are an important part of online news sites because they build traffic, give readers an ability to react to the news and provide people who share common interests a virtual space in which to gather, says New York Times Digital CEO Martin A. Nisenholtz.
"I think some of our most loyal users are users of our forums ... They generate a lot of page views outside of the forums, which is very important for our business model," he added.
During March, April and May this year, traffic at The New York Times forums averaged 4.9 million page views and 388,000 unique visitors a month, according to research provided by New York Times Digital. Those who use the forums also spend a lot of time on the rest of The New York Times site, Nisenholtz says.
Like other online news executives interviewed for this article, Nisenholtz says he doesn't see online community building as a moneymaker: The goal is to keep the readership hanging around by adding useful applications to the site -- with minimal resources.
Making discussion work
When newspapers first started going online, they sensed that engaged readers would be more loyal, so they created discussion boards. Often, these either languished unnoticed -- turning into embarrassing dead zones that many papers eventually shut down -- or they turned into unfocused free-for-alls that many agree just didn't work.
"What most news sites do and tend to call community is actually the worst thing that a news organization can do, because it's kind of like sticking a microphone on a street corner outside their office where people can talk about anything, which is not the purpose of a news organization," said Derek M. Powazek, director for Alternet.org and author of "Design for Community," a book about building virtual communities.
So how can news Web sites make group input and community conversations useful and valuable?
For one thing, says Powazek, online discussions should be directly tied to a news site's content "to allow people who have an opinion about that content, and who have an emotional reaction to that content, to use their voice in a practical way and engage in a conversation about that content."
At WashingtonPost.com, online producers keep the discussions focused on news stories that appear in the paper and Live Online chats, which are picked by the producers on the likelihood that they'll stimulate discussion.
"By and large, we want our message boards to be a reflection of Washingtonpost.com content, so we try to build most of our message boards surrounding something that can be keyed off of in the newspaper," says Liz Kelly, Washingtonpost.com's Live Online executive producer.
Discussions that center around reader's passions -- like local high school sports -- are also incredibly successful for many local newspapers. "We have three or four high school wrestling forums alone in New Jersey, and in the middle of high school wrestling season, those forums can easily get 250,000 page views and thousands of contributions from the audience in one day," says Advance.net's Jarvis.
Online news organizations have also found ways to filter reader feedback and use that to help readers share their experiences and opinions on special projects, such as investigative stories, and during times of crisis.
"What we prefer to do is to take selective topics and have people talk about them -- we think it adds to people's understanding of events to have a variety of opinions," says Mike Silver, vice president of strategy and development at Tribune Interactive, which oversees Latimes.com, Chicagotribune.com, NYNewsday.com, Sunspot.net (The Baltimore Sun) and others. NYNewsday.com, for example, incorporated reader comments and feedback in its "Death of the Road" series.
Likewise, New York Times Digital's Boston.com encourages readers to comment on the ongoing news developments regarding abuse in the Catholic Church and then showcases the comments. In June, readers at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's site filled 456 Web pages with comments, memories and expressions of appreciation after Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, died. Embedded in every story related to the former mayor?s death is a link to a virtual guest book, where readers can pay tribute with a comment. Site producers review the comments before posting them.
Kate Aurthur, New York Times Digital's senior community producer, says she sees her job as a virtual shepherd of reader commentary.
"There are a lot of stereotypes out there about the kinds of people that participate in online discussions. I've found them to be wholly inaccurate. These aren't homebound kooks. They're largely very smart, very well researched hobbyists who happen to be obsessed either professionally or as a side interest about subjects like the Supreme Court, or wine," she says. "One of the ways I see my job is finding ways of funneling (the content they generate) back into the general site."
She does this in part by culling the stories and anecdotes that readers contribute to the forums and compiling the most interesting and revealing into a weekly column called "Debates." Each of these columns in turn invites readers back into the forum from which the comments came with a link. Last year, as part of The New York Times' commemorative package, Aurthur spent a week compiling reader comments that poured in following the terrorist attacks. Aurthur is the New York Times Digital's only full-time community producer. The eight others are freelancers who moderate The Times' 150 other discussions.
The latest software, says Nisenholtz, helps give better structure to mass audience input, making it more useful and coherent. Nisenholtz points to Amazon.com's pioneering software designs as a prime example of the successful automation of large-scale audience feedback.
Following Amazon.com's lead, New York Times Digital revamped its Movies section, enabling readers to see what their peers thought of films through an online five-star poll featured at the bottom of Times critics' reviews. Readers can write their own reviews and click on a link next to the headline of the critic's review to read and to vote on the usefulness of each other's reviews. Readers can also sort through each other's reviews using one of three filters: newest, most helpful or those with the highest rating. Movie Showtimes leads logged-in users to cinemas nearest their ZIP code and to Movietickets.com's site where they can buy their tickets online. New York Times Digital developed the rate-and-review functionality in-house.
Conversations at bars vs. town halls
No matter what news sites do to focus their discussions, as communities grow larger, the conversation can become incoherent, and can erupt into an emotion-fueled brawl.
A small non-profit called Web Lab has developed a system to overcome these problems by breaking discussions into small groups of people who are encouraged to get to know each other by posting their biographies online before they're allowed to post their thoughts on an issue.
People are less likely to flame each other once they get to know each other and are more accountable, says documentary filmmaker Marc N. Weiss, Web Lab's founder.
The small groups don't limit the number of people who can participate -- people who register for discussions are assigned to one of a number of smaller groups to make the discussions more manageable. Web Lab's software uses the demographic information entered by the participants to create groups that contain people from different backgrounds. A conversation involving residents of a particular city, for example, would make sure that the participants of a group would come from different neighborhoods of that city.
Web Lab's past clients have included MSNBC and PBS. "Listening to the City," a project sponsored last year by a number of organizations that involved getting thousands of people together in a town hall meeting to decide how Lower Manhattan should be redeveloped in the wake of 9/11, also used Web Lab's software to facilitate productive online conversations.
Using Weblogs to build traffic and community
In the past year, online news organizations have begun to explore a new way of engaging readers and building community: with Weblogs.
Jarvis expects Weblogs at Advance.net's regional sites will attract readers in part by linking to other sites around the Web. The authors of those far-flung sites will see that Advance.net's regional blogger has linked to them, and will respond and engage in a cross-site conversation, he says.
"(Our Weblogs) will discover all those other local Webloggers, and that's how the dialogue will start. People will see that we share this interest," says Jarvis.
Blogs also give readers a place where they can go to read and respond to a reporter blogging on a favorite topic -- such as politics, technology or science. Some -- like Dan Gillmor's e-Journal at the San Jose Mercury news -- let readers respond to posts.
Gillmor is writing a book called "Making the News" about what happens to journalists and people in the communities they cover when both groups have access to low-cost tools that allow them to publish information on the Internet in an instant. He thinks reporter Weblogs make for better interaction between reporters and members of the community.
"I'd like to see media organizations run all kinds of staff-written Weblogs, e-mail lists, SMS messaging and other interactive kinds of reporting," he wrote in the outline to his book. "Certainly it's easier for a columnist, who's paid to have opinions, to do this sort of thing. But beat reporters could also do Weblogs, much the way we run digests today in the paper."
The Washington Post and New York Times Digital are capitalizing on the traffic-generating power of blogs by creating news feeds that make integrating their headlines into Weblogs easier, creating a word-of-mouth marketing tool for their content. New York Times Digital struck a deal with Userland Software in June that preserved Radio Userland bloggers' ability to link to archived New York Times stories for free.
The New York Times' Nisenholtz says he can foresee providing a service that would in turn link to some of the more interesting Weblogs in the blogosphere.
"I don?t see any reason, for example, why we can't play the role of finding some of the better Weblogs in some of the more interesting topic areas to us and pointing people in the direction of those Weblogs, or excerpting them when they?re important," he says.
Though no one has found a way to make money off of creating community -- aside from online dating communities and some niche sporting communities -- most agree it's still something news sites should do.
"Like Jeff Goldblum said in 'Jurassic Park,' 'Nature will find a way,' " says Dick van Halsema, general manager of Knight Ridder Digital?s Charlotte.com.
Community groups "will basically look at the tools and say: 'We'll find a way to interact.' I think the more we put out the welcome mat for this, the better."