Newspapers need to learn that great online communities should not be dictatorships

I had a conversation yesterday with a former colleague, who, like many online journalists, is trying to steer his newspaper toward a more Web-savvy future. As we were wrapping up, he mentioned that he had to go to a meeting of his paper’s “standards and practices” committee.

The what? I asked.

“Yeah, we have a standards and practices committee,” he said. “We’re supposed to figure out policies about managing user-generated content, hyperlinking and stuff like that.”

Why don’t you just crowdsource that? I asked.

He rolled his eyes, said “I know,” then proceeded to detail some of the reasons why the paper’s old guard had shot down his proposal to do just that. The reasons boiled down to two: 1) We don’t trust outsiders to know what we ought to be doing, so 2) we’re not comfortable letting “outsiders” influence decisions about internal operations.

What a wasted opportunity. What better way to help readers feel part of a community with the paper than to ask those readers to help craft the community’s rules?

And how arrogant, at the same time. While newspaper journalists and managers might not yet understand them, the online community into which newsrooms are entering does have established conventions for linking and conversing. Good ones, too.

I know that many news reporters have struggled with writing hypertext. At most papers, reporters have just given up and leave the hyperlinking to automated tools on the paper’s website. (Which can leads to hysterical results, such as a New York Times feature on Pasadena, Calif. that initially linked references to the city’s Colorado Boulevard to… a Times archive of stories about the state of Colorado.)

But the Web offers newsrooms thousands of readers, and could-be readers, who’ve been writing hyperlinks into stories for years. Many more have been reading linked text, and understand the conventions of the form. Why not ask them for advice?

You can’t hyperlink every noun with a website — writers must preserve the usability of their work. Experienced bloggers can share their advice on when to link, as print vets can raise some of the questions that they need to consider. Fairness, for example. What happens when you want to link to an elected official’s website? Do you link to her office’s page, or her campaign website? It could depend upon the context of the story.

In the give and take, print veterans making the transition to online can do so with experienced guidance, while readers can learn more about the decisions reporters make when deciding what to include, or exclude, from a news story.

Same with handling user-generated content. If I’ve learned anything from running reader-driven discussion sites over the past decade, it is that the readers are themselves the most fierce defenders of good discussion communities. They’ve seen too many communities wrecked by poor oversight, inconsistent moderation and ill-conceived software. Let them tell you what they want from a discussion community, and what should happen to folks who don’t comply.

Trust me, the even the most Web-savvy newspaper newsrooms can’t offer a fraction of experience with and passion for online publishing that a reader community can. Publishers need readers, but readers online have so many choices that they don’t need to go where they are not wanted, or even where they are not courted.

So why not court them?

Let me anticipate another objection to crowdsourcing your practices: the spam, outrage and babbling that infects so many comment sections and message boards. Open up and ask for advice, and you’re giving your readers the chance to upload with every petty grievance and conspiracy theory they have.

Let ’em. Let ’em get it all out; suffer the indignity of it all, but don’t shut down the board and quit. Show your readers that you have no fear of their voice, and that you will work with them to take out the garbage and build a better community that works for everyone, newsroom and readers alike.

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. FYI, I wanted to let OJR readers know that we’ve started a full-text RSS feed for OJR: The original feed is still around, for folks who are happy with just the heds and summaries, but if you prefer to read full articles in your RSS reader, we’ve got you covered with that option now.

  2. For better or worse, journalists see themselves as knowing more than the public and providing guidance. But readers are no longer just readers, and the concept of the audience has been fundamentally altered. You might call it a crisis of identity as well as function.

    The general objection to crowdsourcing stems from this identity crisis as well as other fears that are increasingly irrational. I’ll give an example. A good friend of mine manages the website at a small but well-respected magazine. He has pushed for more interactive elements, such as comments and discussion boards, but to no avail. There’s a real fear in publishing, which is best summed up by an editor’s response to his suggestion to add comments: “But… what if they say something stupid?

    Journalism can’t really move forward if writers and editors are still swayed by these fears. I wish I could say that this shift in philosophy could be easily achieved, but I think quite the opposite is true. The central message to these holdouts might be that journalists aren’t giving up the nobility of their profession when they provide faster and more responsive ways for reader-participants to interact with content online. As Assistant Director of a Master’s program focusing on teaching students how to create and manage online communities, I feel that there should be an increased professional focus on how social media are integrated online, not just an afterthought.

  3. Getting readers involved is a big part of why traditional newspapers are failing. Just like you said in your piece here, they don’t want to allow “outsiders” to report news. The only news that is legit to them is from their sources alone. Blocking out the opinions of your readers is not a good way to keep them coming back. Great piece.

  4. This is extremely disheartening. If there was one thing that drove me crazy when I worked at a newspaper was the whole idea of doing everything by committee and the lack of interest in innovation displayed by those at the top. I am an avid critic of these types of decisions because I saw them daily, and it made my role as a multimedia editor quite difficult.
    As a community manager who is charged with creating policies for UGC, I know first-hand that it can be a moving target. It has to be. You may not even know what you need until you need it. Should you have guidelines? Absolutely, but if your community is fostered well, the members will care enough to help you maintain them. It’s about building a community with a vested interest in your product, and you can’t dictate that. Geez. When will it end?