Online publishers need new heroes in the battle for community relevance

Picking up from my piece on Wednesday….

The Obama campaign did not build its social network in isolation. In many communities, it built upon an existing “netroots” of progressives that had developed over the past several years. That network, in turn, developed in frustration with both the Bush administration, as well as the new media coverage (or lack thereof) of that administration and its Congressional allies.

Markos Moulitsas, a j-school graduate with a law degree and an Army stint behind him, bootstrapped what might be the most influential of all progressive netroots websites, DailyKos. His new book, “Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era” offers a blueprint for political activists, one that well complements the Obama strategies I wrote about on Wednesday.

But Moulitsas’ book teaches important lessons to would-be journalist entrepreneurs as well. Remember, Kos (hey, calling him by his last name just seems weird. Everyone else online calls him “Kos,” so I’ll do the same) got his start in journalism school, at Northern Illinois University, and he’s worked in the newspaper field. At its heart, DailyKos is a publishing enterprise, a 21st century version of the old-fasioned partisan press. And Kos has enjoyed phenomenal financial success with it.

A “seven-figure operation,” as Kos described it, DailyKos is just one site in a wide-ranging publishing network that the Berkeley, California resident founded. Within the past month, another Kos property, SportsBlog Nation, announced a multi-million dollar round of venture capital funding.

The guy knows how to attract eyeballs, exert influence and make money online. I e-mailed Kos and asked him what he thought “Taking on the System” could teach journalists.

“I think the key lesson in Taking on the System to media entrepreneurs is that they no longer are beholden to the old journalistic establishment. They don’t have to get anyone’s permission to start up a new journalistic venture — no editors, no publishers, no producers, no anyone else.

“Of course, without the old media machines to back them up and fund them, it’s a difficult world. But for anyone who believes that people aren’t being properly served by the old media institutions, this is their chance to deliver what people want. Daily Kos is an example of that. And while these entrepreneurs are less financially secure, they can also use technology to accomplish far more at very little cost. I started Daily Kos — now a seven-figure operation — with a free blog account and an $8.95 domain. Sure, it also sucked up a great deal of my time, but it’s amazing how much technology allows you to accomplish so much for so little.

“Finally, it’s critical that these entrepreneurs have a well-defined niche. It helps if it’s an underserved niche, which is what motivated me to start my SportsBlogs Nation network of team-specific blogs (now up to 160 sites). Once you have a niche, it’s almost impossible to not tell a story. But the more compelling it is, the more drama you provide, the more exciting the payoff, the more people will arrive and stick around day after day.”

Two chapters from the book stood out to me for lessons that would apply to news start-ups. In chapter 3, “Set the Narrative,” Kos laid out the importance of story-telling in animating a cause.

“The most arresting narratives revolve around a well-defined hero and villain fighting it out over something uniquely important to the time and place,” he wrote in the book. “When it comes to activism, this usually means that core respected values need to be at stake in order to grab attention and spur action.”

Not just for activism, but for journalism, too. Among the damage that a misapplied desire for “objectivity” has done to journalism is too strain all the emotion from too many news stories. Stuff that reads like a lab report doesn’t excite anyone.

Kos’ six steps toward better narrative?

  • Target your villain
  • Craft your hero
  • Exploit the [villains’] weaknesses
  • Reinforce the narrative
  • Aim for the gut, not for the brain
  • Own the story

    “There’s a big difference between traditional stories and the stories we craft,” he wrote. “Our stories have yet to end. And so as we engage the audience, we give them a chance to help write that happy ending. It’s an empowering effect, giving the audience the emotional investment in the story, and then offering them an active and engaged role in shaping its conclusion.”

    I hadn’t read anyone else make that point before, but I believe it to be the most powerful argument in favor of news organizations embracing interactivity. Yes, our stories, inherently, frustrate the reader with their open-ended nature. But interactivity allows us to overcome that emotional weakness in journalism, and, in doing so, connect our audience to our narratives for the stories in their communities.

    In chapter 6, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Kos warned of the challenges and mistakes that derail so many activists, as well as journalists.

    His advice?

  • Work your niche (“When you live in a media-saturated world,” he wrote, “it takes clarity of message and specialization to cut through the clutter. If you find a niche that resonates with a wider audience, a niche where you find yourself being effective, exploit that niche.”)
  • Guard your credibility
  • Factor reality into your plans

    “One of the things that I’ve always loved about blogging and the netroots culture is that there’s virtually no danger of living in a bubble surrounded by sycophants,” Kos wrote. “Every time I write anything on my own site, I have dozens of people telling me what an idiot I am. And that’s a wonderful thing. Even if I disagree with them, I’m forced to face the fact on an hourly basis that there are people who vigorously disagree with me and don’t think I’m beyond reproach.”

    Journalists fail themselves, and their audiences, when they retreat into a sealed, insiders-only world of self-analysis. Many of us are well aware of getting outside that bubble, and engaging with people outside of the worlds of journalism and “professional” news sources to get feedback on our work. But many of us also forget the importance of looking outside journalism for guidance on the practice of our craft. Especially at a time when journalism offers so few working models for online publishing success.

    Please do not mistake my enthusiasm for Kos’ advice as an endorsement for making all press partisan. One need not apply the entire blueprint to learn some valuable techniques from Kos’ approach. His advice on emotional storytelling, audience engagement and strictness in record-keeping and documentation will serve well any news website.

    Kos also offered another warning to start-up publishers in his e-mails to me:

    “The biggest mistakes web publishers make is to seek a hit from a bigger blog or site, but that does little to build long-term audiences. You can’t hook people on a story with a one-day spike in traffic. You need to build it organically, over time, by crafting those villains and heroes, and getting people invested not just in the storyline, but in the outcome.”

    We’re not going to learn to become leaders online by repeating the same techniques and listening to the same leaders who created the media landscape that so many of our readers now have fled. We need new heroes to fight the battle of getting people engaged in their communities.

  • 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. Thanks for those tips from Kos. Well done!

    2. Yes, thank you very much

    3. Thanks for the post.

      I agree that publishers need someone who we can look up to. The industry is just not what it use to be anymore and it’s getting more and more difficult for publishers…especially young ones to break in and become successful.

      I hate to say it’s over saturated, but I just have a feeling that the future will be filled with more worries. I wrote an online article for a customer I have on Skin Lightening and it doesn’t even get noticed. Probably hidden in ten’s of thousands of other articles.