Online communities need leadership: Will journalists provide it, or will someone else?

Building a helpful online community requires much more than enabling a comment system for articles or throwing open a discussion board. We teach newswriting and editing in journalism schools, but today’s interactive news publisher also needs to know how to elicit thoughtful, informative and instructive reports from readers who’ve never stepped foot in a j-school.

Not to get all “After-School Special” on you, but if you don’t talk to your readers about what to write on your website, someone else will. (Cue scary music.) Do you really want some troll showing your readers how to respond to blog posts on your site? (Cue scarier music.)

Kidding aside, writing in any interactive environment is an act of leadership. Your words, your tone and your style not only inform your audience, they provide a model – an example – for those in the community who will write for that community, as well. And your silence creates a vacuum of leadership that others may fill.

I’ve written before about the ladder of engagement that you should set up for readers on your website. But words of encouragement from you can help persuade your readers to take those steps. You want writing to become a rewarding experience, not just for your readers but for the others who will read them, too. When readers see the value that they’re creating for other readers, that will encourage them to keep writing.

After all, wasn’t the desire to help others through our writing the big reason most of us got into journalism, in the first place?

Here’s some basic advice that you can copy and paste (and modify as you need) to encourage insightful, engaging and rewarding writing from readers of your site:

* * *

Write what you know

The best posts come from people writing about a personal experience. Tell us about an activity you’re deeply involved with, a subject you’ve studied in-depth or an experience you’ve had. Maybe it’s just a review of a new restaurant you’ve visited, or a place you visited on vacation. Whatever you write about, forget for a moment about what others might say – or have said – about something and just tell us your story.

Don’t tell us if something’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Whenever a writer declares something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the piece becomes about the writer, and not the thing the writer is writing about. Whenever you read a review like that from someone you don’t know, don’t you start thinking about whether you can trust this reviewer or not? So leave those types of words out of your writing.

Describe, in detail

Instead, describe your experience, using as many clear details as you can. Put us in the situation with you, and describe as you would to a friend who wasn’t there. Take us through the experience, step by step. Consider the fives senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – and describe each, as appropriate to whatever you’re writing about. Consider these statements:

“The hamburger was terrible.”

“The hamburger looked and tasted like a McDonald’s heat-lamp refugee, thin and wilted, but it cost $12 instead.”

I’d much rather read the second post – it keeps the focus on the burger itself, rather than the writer’s reaction to it. I’ll certainly remember the second statement more than I would the first, too. And I’d be far more likely to forward it to my friends. Keep that in mind when you’re writing. Detailed descriptions really help other readers feel like they are there with you, sharing this experience.

Link, don’t copy

If you find something else online you want to share with other readers, don’t just copy and paste it to the site. Link to it instead. That way, other readers can see the original source for themselves.

Explain why you link

Whenever you link to something, though, explain why you’re linking to it. What’s it about? Why is it important to you? Why do you think it would be important to the rest of us? You explanation helps start a conversation about the link.

Respect, and respond

When other readers share their experiences on the site, respect them. If you don’t feel that their experience reflects your experience with the same event/subject/place, then respond by sharing your experience with it.

Again, leave out those judgmental words (especially the negative ones: ‘terrible,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘awful,’ etc.), and write instead about your experience. That helps keeps everyone’s focus on the subject under discussion, and not on a emerging flame war between readers.

* * *

Advice such as this can help direct readers toward more informative posting. And by doing that, you’re also encouraging more civility on your website.

Expecting readers to know how to react in an a new online forum is like expecting students to pass a final exam on the first day of classes, or a group of new hires to run a factory after clocking in on their first shift. And readers know that. Most of them, in my experience, look for some clues from the people already active in a community before jumping into their conversation.

You can leave that leadership position to whatever loudmouth chooses to claim it, or you can claim that leadership for yourself. It’s your choice. Comment sections don’t have to be vile, troll-ruled wastelands. As journalists have learned over generations how to guide sources through an interview, to elicit the most useful information possible, news publishers also can learn how to guide their readers through online conversations.

Eventually, the community even can develop to the point where the best of our contributing readers become responsible leaders themselves, promoting good journalism by training subsequent generations of readers how best to contribute to the site. But someone’s got to get this started.

And that skill is as important within journalism in the 21st century as reporting, writing and editing have been in the past.

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. Love this! Thanks for sharing.