Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing

Nothing frustrates me more than watching journalists who’ve lost their newsroom jobs entering the blogosphere… with no clue as to what they should be doing online. Too few emerging online journalists understand that the function of news publishing has changed in the Internet era. Simply reporting the news, however you might define that, is no longer enough, not when you are publishing in such a competitive environment. The journalists who succeed online are the ones who understand that they are no longer simply reporters… they’ve become community organizers.

Before the holidays, I had lunch with a local journalist who is making the transition from a print staff job to online entrepreneur. He wanted to pick my brain for ideas on how to make the switch, and I was happy to talk. But whatever he asked, my answer kept resolving to the same point: you have to have a community that supports you, if you want to make a living online.

Despite what years of local monopoly may have taught many veteran journalists, readers don’t automatically show up for whatever you publish. I’ve seen too many journalists react in shock when they put up their first blog post, only to end up with fewer readers than they have clean socks in their dresser drawer.

“But thousands of people read me in the paper,” they stammer.

Well, the paper might have sold thousands of copies each day, but as any newspaper-dot-com staffers who’s looked at the traffic data can tell you, few subscribers actually read any given writer’s work. And those who did usually did so out of habit – they’d grown up reading the paper and fell into the custom of reading specific sections, pages or features.

That habit does not extend to reading those writers online, just to whoever happens to be in that slot in print. Perhaps a few might accept an invitation to connect with a familiar writer on the Web, but you have to extend that invitation before it can be accepted.

So, your past earns you nothing online. Whatever audience you will have there, you must build yourself.

Now you’re a community organizer.

You’ll need that community for more than an audience. You’ll need customers, too – the people who will write the checks that keep you working. You’ll have to organize that community as well.

In organizing your community, don’t fall into the trap that equates physical proximity with community. Just because people live near one another, that fact doesn’t bond those people into a community. Communities form around common needs and purposes, as will yours. So start by identifying what you can offer a community and which community might need what you can offer.

This might lead you away from covering a geographic area and toward covering some topical niche. So be it. Go where your knowledge, talent and passion directs you. Then starting thinking specifically about your audience community. I mean, name names. Who do you know that would want to read what you have to say? Recruit them. Don’t freak out over starting with only a handful of readers. That’s all you’re likely to reach initially anyway. You can’t count on anyone just “showing up.” Go ahead and extend explicit invitations. Better yet, invite these potential readers to write for your new publication.

The first step in community organizing is to listen. By inviting guests posters on to your site, you show that you are willing to not only listen to other voices in your online community, but to amplify them. That takes you into the second step in community organizing, building relationships.

I suggested that the journalist I spoke with start by participating in other, established online communities, such as Huffington Post. Get to know people there, listen, then find a voice within that community and start building relationships. That experience will help in organizing one’s own community, and might help recruit a few readers and participants to that new community, as well.

Ultimately, you’ll need to engage that community by leading it in a call to action. That’s the third step in community organizing, and the essential one.

When your reporting leads you to a solution to one of the community’s problems, you can’t allow journalistic fears about “objectivity” keep you from advocating it. Embrace the role of editorial page editor, along with that of reporter, in running your blog or website. But don’t simply do all the talking yourself. Engage the community by building upon the relationships you’ve built to enlist community members to do whatever their talents and skills best allow them to do in service to the community’s cause. Work the phone or the Skype connection. Talk with your community outside its “official” forums to encourage others to step up to leadership roles.

Because if you can’t show that you care enough about the community to defend it, and its interests, that community will never rally around you.

Smart newspaper publishers once knew this, back when most papers were owned by someone in the community and not by some far-flung chain. They supported community causes and made sure that the community knew about the paper’s support.

Many people who leave the paper for the blogosphere are running one-person shows. As such, they need to not forget about those other important roles within the newspaper business: editorial page advocacy, community leadership and, yes, ad sales. If you’re running a one-person shop, you can no more afford to abandon those roles as a newspaper could afford to dismiss everyone on its staff who fulfilled them.

Embrace advocacy, but let it guided by smart reporting and thoughtful community engagement. That will be what distinguishes your site, and your community, from the many competing blogs and websites run by people who aren’t as capable as reporters, or as effective in community organizing.

Don’t be the journalist who laments needing six months to make $100 on AdSense ads. If that’s all you can make online, that not the fault of the Internet, or the economy. That’s on you.

Know what you’re doing online. Embrace community organizing; create value for a community… and only you will find a community that will value you.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Allow me to illustrate my point with a personal example:

    When I created the Accident Watch feature on my theme park website in 2001, I wanted to provide my readers with the context of rides’ safety records, along with their fellow readers’ ratings and reviews of those rides.

    Not having a government database of injury accidents (the way states keep track of injury auto accidents, for example), I asked the community to help report them. But I didn’t stop there. I took the next step, into advocacy.

    I interviewed elected officials who were trying to enact reporting requirements, as well as other community organizers pushing for the same cause. We told readers what they could do to help, and went on TV and radio shows to help spread the word to other audiences (and to help build ours). In addition, since so many theme park injuries are due to visitors’ inattention or misbehavior, we created a page with safety advice and linked it from every ride listing on the site.

    Now, more than eight years later, most states with theme parks have reporting laws or regulations on the books. And, anecdotally at least (since we don’t have historical data), people in parks have told me that they see greater visitor attention to safety.

    Ultimately, though, the benefit to my site was to show readers and potential readers that we were on the side of the consumer, willing to fight and to advocate on their behalf. We weren’t a shill for the parks, nor were we all talk and no action. That helped instill a great deal of loyalty among readers, turning them into advocates for the community itself.

    That’s how you build an audience online. And that’s how you help ensure that your reporting has an impact on the community at large.

  2. Ken Sands says:

    Excellent job. The community organizer must provide something unique and beneficial, too. For example, aggregation in addition to original reporting and conversation convening can help save people time. I tell prospective bloggers that no one wants or needs another information source *unless* that source saves them time or money or dramatically enhances their online experience. Simply reporting the news on a beat, as you suggest, adds another unwanted voice to the cacophany.

  3. You are so right-on with this column, I’m almost sorry because I’m nursing those concepts as wannabe proprietary. I’ve been able to put together everything for my site in good order and it is looking good.

    My approach for including community voices has been to find and include blogs by local people. I’ve also started going to people and trying to sell ads, passing out cards and talking up our coverage.

    The content is quirky, but intended to look at a broad community of interest beginning with an upscale geographic community and working in concentric circles outward to what we believe is of interest to that type of audience regardless of location, although the closer to home the better.

    My weakness right now comes from the fact I’m a journalist, not a community organizer. If I were a good community organizer, all these many years I’d have been a publisher, salesperson or some job where these social skills are useful. But I’ve been a pure writer, videomaker, journalist, and frankly, I’m not all that into interacting with most people.

    So, that’s what’s missing for me right now. Sure, I’m good at online social networking and such, but the boots on the ground — or virtual world — community building is the core building block for new-era journalism success. I kind of feel like Bert Blyleven and the MLB Hall of Fame today. I’m THAT close. I have been reaching out personally lately and maybe my best bet is convincing one or two social butterflies to go around and present a face for the site, and coordinate community projects.


  4. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. A tremendous article, especially the first graph.

    As someone who wants to start their own operation in the next 2 years I feel the need to track down your previous work and do some research.

    Thanks again!

  5. says:

    There’s a lot here even for corporate newspapers to use in their newsgathering efforts

  6. says:

    This is all fine. But the missing component is while embracing be a community organizer, where is the income to keep the light on and food in the belly?

  7. says:

    Easy for you to say writing from the comfort of an established communications school supported by grants. How many bloggers do you actually know — and are you among them — who can support themselves from blogs alone. Can you support any of this statistically?

    Harrison Fuller

  8. That would be me, Harrison. I am not a USC employee. (I write for OJR as a freelancer.) My primary source of income comes from the websites that my wife and I own and publish.

  9. I agree entirely with RN

  10. Excellent advise in this column. I too am a professional newspaper reporter, photographer and editor with no background in ad sales, marketing, community advocacy, etc.
    I have found a community on the small island of Molokai and created since the newspaper which I edited, The Molokai Times, went out of business. I am beginning to gain a following by updating the news 5 days a week but clearly that is not enough. If I expect to ever really monetize my blog I must rally the community by advocating for an issue. It goes against every objective bone in my journalistic body but it must be done. This community, like all others, is starving for intelligent and well researched opinion that advocates for its interests. The time has come to become more than a reporter. I must be a columnist, ad salesman, promoter, accountant and all the other things I never learned sfter 20 years living in a newsroom.

  11. I just wanted to note Ellen’s comment and respond that my wife’s experience in running an online community for violinists over the past decade has shaped greatly my views toward community organizing and journalism online. As I said in the piece, it’s not always true that community = geographic area.

  12. Robert, the focus on specific community is highly rational, since such work embodies the essential quality inherent in this medium: connecting people around their common interests. Easily stated. Less easily executed with the traditional paradigm of “The News” uppermost in everyone’s experience, to say nothing of one’s sense of his or her own value.

    As sensible and rationale as your recommendations are, even as they redefine a great portion of future news in terms of its advocacy value, I am troubled by the the continued cleavage between the geographic community and the thematic community.

    Local has proven problematic in the extreme thus far. My question is how the tenets you describe so well can play out in local settings. How have your sites accommodated participants in geographic communities? How do envision your model succeeding?

  13. Great post, Robert. It’s probably unnecessary to say, but it’s important that what you do is an example of what you preach. I am always impressed by the coherence of the community that gathers around your posts.

    One of the most interesting grafs in your post, I thought, was this: “Smart newspaper publishers once knew this, back when most papers were owned by someone in the community and not by some far-flung chain. They supported community causes and made sure that the community knew about the paper’s support.”

    I talked recently to Penny Abernathy, a journalism and new media expert at UNC Chapel Hill, and her sometime writing partner Dick Foster from the Yale Management School because they strongly make the point in a new paper that as newspapers move online they must cultivate and support online communities if they wish to survive.

    So I think the points you make are right on and they apply to everyone wanting to do journalism today, whether an individual or a global media corporation.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote about the Abernathy/Foster paper on HuffPost recently at

  14. says:

    great column and sound advice. although i’m still have a job, i’m working on establishing a brand and a community for two reasons: 1) to help protect me in case i ever lose my job and 2) because it’s fun. i consider blogging my hobby and get great enjoyment out of being able to write whatever i want without any filters — except for my wife’s sound advice. thanks.

  15. sound advice for any journalist. i love to blog and consider it my hobby (luckily i’m still employed by the mainstream media). it’s great fun and maybe someday it will enable me to make a few bucks but, even if it doesn’t, i would still do it.

  16. says:

    I think this is great advice for future journalists. Journalism has changed so much with the advancements of the Internet and journalists need to be more proactive in today’s media world.

  17. says:

    I found some aspects of this article helpful, but the tone of the article irritated me. It is great to give people advice, but it doesn’t have to be done from such a high horse. If you are making money off blogging that is great, but it doesn’t give you the right to look down your nose at every journalist who is not.

    I think bloggers being community organizers is an interesting way to look at blogs, and it made me think of them in a different light. However, I do not agree that is the only way to run a successful blog.

    When Parez Hilton or whatever his name is one of the top bloggers by puking out pop culture garbage and filming his dog you know it isn’t all serious business.

  18. Chris Deppa says:

    I like the idea of a blogger being a community organizer. It got me thinking about how effective a blog could be for organizing events in a town with a relatively small population. Sort of the online version of the grange hall, where people could communicate and plan community events.