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.

  • Who speaks for a website?

    Markos Moulitsas at DailyKos this week raised an important issue to which all journalists who cover the Web ought to show greater sensitivity.

    Moulitsas complained about a Wall Street Journal article which claimed that Moulitsas’ website held a position on campaign finance reform that is, in fact, the opposite of Moulitsas’ position.

    It’s not the first time something like this has happened. This summer, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly attacked DailyKos over selected comments and diaries that appeared on the site, claiming that the site supported those views, while never noting that those posts were from readers who have no financial or editorial relationship with the site.

    With thousands of readers posting diaries on the DailyKos website each week, it’s possible to attribute just about any political position to someone on the website. And there’s the key: the attribution ought to be given to the person on the website, and not to the website itself.

    The old newspaper/TV newsroom model no longer applies in Web communities such as DailyKos. If a report appears in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, a reporters at other papers can (and routinely do) attribute that report to “The Wall Street Journal” — no need to provide the byline of the reporter who wrote the piece. That reporter was assigned by the paper to do the piece, paid by the paper and his or her report edited by paper employees. Therefore, any reasonable person can attribute responsibility, indeed, authorship, of that piece to the paper.

    That’s not the way copy gets published on DailyKos, or thousands of other Web communities. On DailyKos, a reader signs up for an account and, after a one week wait, can start posting diaries (i.e., a personal blog) to the website. One of the site’s editors might then read it in consideration for linking to it from the site’s heavily-read front page, but there is no other staff editorial review of the diary. DailyKos doesn’t assign topics to readers and doesn’t pay anyone other than a handful of editors and fellows for diaries, according to the site’s FAQ. Unless a diary contains copyrighted material or otherwise violates the site’s rules for posting, it will remain on the site, even if it conflicts with the owner’s political beliefs.

    Attributing a report that appears on a site like DailyKos to the site itself is a bit like attributing a CNN report as “cable television reported today….” Online communities often operate as a news medium, rather than a traditionally staffed news publication. Other news reports about these sites, to be fully accurate, should reflect that fact by citing the individual author of information found on the site, rather than just the site itself.

    To be fair, I must disclose that this issue is personal to me, because my wife and I have seen this happen to our websites as well. Doing a Google search last week, I found a professional violinist who was promoting his concert tour with a pull quote from a review attributed to my wife’s violin website.

    Except that my neither my wife, nor one of the two other paid writers who work for her, wrote the review. It came from a blog that one registered user wrote on the site.

    The potential for abuse is, of course, huge. What’s keeping a violinist from posting a blog to the site, reviewing one’s own show, then promoting that show with a favorable review from the site? Or keeping a candidate from claiming an endorsement from DailyKos based on the diaries of campaign workers and other supporters?

    That’s why Moulitsas has declared “no one speaks for Daily Kos other than me. Period.”

    Journalists ought to respect that, and sharpen their procedures for attributing information from online communities that allow publication from readers, as well as paid staff. Readers have a right to know the source of the information in your story, which demands that you not overlook, or withhold, relevant context about the identity of that source.

    Here’s the checklist I propose:

    1) When you find information you wish to cite online, note both the author of the information as well as the website upon which it originally appeared.
    2) Make a good faith effort to determine the author’s relationship to the site. Read the author’s profile (often linked from the byline), or the “about us” or FAQ section of the site to see if the author of the information is the publisher, editor or other paid representative of the site.
    3) If the author is not, the citation of the author’s information should be to “[the author], writing on [the site].” If the author is a paid representative of the site, then the citation should note that relationship, i.e. to “[the author], [the relationship] of [the site].”

    Building an online army with DailyKos

    Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is the founder of DailyKos, rated by Technorati as the most-linked-to political blog on the Web. With founder Jerome Armstrong, he is the co-author of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics,” a sharp rebuke of politics-as-usual within the Democratic party. He spoke via phone with OJR about the book, his website and independent Web publishing. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

    OJR: What the fairest label you think ought to be applied to you?

    Kos: Wow. [Pause] I think, “partisan.”

    OJR: Not “journalist”?

    Kos: No, absolutely not.

    OJR: Why not?

    Kos: Sometimes I do talk to sources and sometimes I do do my own research. So in a lot of ways what I do does cross the line into journalism, but I think there is a conception of the word “journalist” that implies a certain degree of impartiality or nonpartisanship which I clearly do not adhere to. If the issue becomes am I “fair and balanced,” absolutely not. I consider myself to be accurate, because I am trying to wage a war of ideas here and to do so I have to be on solid ground, factually, otherwise I get discredited.

    But when it comes down to it I think what I am is a partisan. I am engaged in a war of ideas against a very determined and very powerful enemy and this is a tool that I wield, which is my blog and my work.

    OJR: When I read “Crashing the Gate,” on a conceptual level it is basically the story of individuals who are using the Internet to build a community to take on an established industry power. That sure sounds like the model for independent online journalism.

    Kos: Absolutely. The books is primarily about politics, but really the lessons there can be very apolitical. For example, I run a network of sports blogs. What we’re finding is that people really are taking to these sites because they allow the fans a voice. Sports is a media world where the people who have voices are coaches and players and sports journalists. Unless you’re on sports talk radio, really the fan doesn’t have a voice. So you’re seeing suddenly the rise of this citizen media where everybody has a voice, there are no gatekeepers to keep these people out — and people are really excited and really taken with that. I am very much a proponent and a big fan of this notion of citizen media and this idea that we are no longer going to decide who has and who hasn’t a voice. Everybody’s going to get a fair shake and, sure, some people are going to have a bigger voice than others. But unlike other media, this is going to be a medium where merit has a lot more to say about that than who you know and how much money you have.

    OJR: How many people read DailyKos on an average day?

    Kos: God, I hate that question, because really there’s no way to tell. I have a public site meter, anybody can see, so I’m not hiding anything, and my public site meter says 500,000 and 800,000 visits a day. During election time, obviously, that really spikes.

    OJR: How many of those people post diaries or comments to the site?

    Kos: We’re at several thousand. There are close to 90,000 registered users and I think about 20,000-30,000 people comment on a typically month. There’s about 500 – 600 diaries day right now.

    Most people don’t participate. The vast majority of people are there to read. It’s a amazing how many events I go to where people say, “I don’t post, but, oh, I love to read.”

    OJR: How does someone build an online community of that size?

    Kos: Well, it’s tough. It was tough where I did it and it would be tough now. But I had certain advantages. I came from Silicon Valley, I worked in technology, so I had a very good sense of community and how to mold the technology to accommodate the community as it grows. And I actually invest the vast majority of my revenues into the site. Sometimes I wish I could be like a typical blogger and just do a little profit-taking and live the high life, but I believe very strongly that to continue growing you have to spend the money and invest the money — and that’s been a big help. But at the end of the day, what needs to happen is that very successful communities are communities that are built around niches that nobody else is talking about.

    Being able to provide content that nobody else has is one of the biggest things you can do to drive audience to begin with. And as your audience grows, if you can continue providing good content and maybe a little more varied content, then they will stick around. And as they stick around then your next challenge is how do you manage that community, how do you manage that growth?

    OJR: OK, so how do you manage that growth?

    Kos: For me, it was software. From the beginning, I’ve never been independently wealthy, and still am not. But I think there’s a sensibility that came from working in Silicon Valley and working in the tech world, in working in business … realizing that to grow you’re going to have to spend some money and you’re going to have to invest in other people to help you out.

    This notion that you can grow this really large communities based on the fact that you have a content area that no one else is tracking, so you’ve got the niche, and great writing will do it for you — it’s not going to do it for you. And off-the-shelf software will only take you so far. You can see it actually, as other sites grow, that they reach a ceiling and I think its a technological ceiling. I don’t think it has anything to do with the writer can’t grow past, say, 150,000 visits a day. The technology has a carrying capacity, and unless you invest in the technology and create the tools that allow the community to grow and to flourish, I think you’re going to be stuck.

    I have a full-time programmer and I’ve had him for about two years now. And at any one time I have one or two contractors working on the site.

    I’ve never done the actual hands-on programming work. I’ll do some of the HTML stuff, but I’ve hired designers to work on the site. I’ve learned you have to invest money to make a site look professional. I’ve always made sure that DailyKos stands out from the crowd.

    OJR: What sources of information do you think are going to have the most influence on the electorate in the 2006 election? In 2008?

    Kos: If you’re talking about activists, the blogs are going to be the primary source. Blogs and activist organizations like MoveOn.

    Now, we’re not reaching voters. We’re not going to convince people that they need to vote for who our favorite candidates are. There just aren’t enough people interested in politics to come to blogs to read up about their local races. What we can do is generate some money, we can generate volunteers, some excitement and buzz that, hopefully, campaigns can then take advantage of and use more traditional sources of media for voter outreach and to convince people to vote for their campaigns.

    OJR: What do you think that new or aspiring journalists ought to be doing to gain the size audience that you’ve attracted?

    Kos: If you’re aspiring to get hundreds of thousands of people to visit you, I think most people are going to be disappointed.

    One of the things I’m not happy with about DailyKos is that it has completely skewed expectations of what is considered successful. To me, anybody who reaches any audience is effective.

    What’s more important in a lot of ways is to reach the people you are trying to reach. [Take] the South Dakota Senate race in 2004: Republicans ousted Tom Daschle, who was the Senate minority leader, a Democrat, and it was in large part due to a blog that was read by about 20 people. But two of the people who were reading it, one was the publisher of the [Sioux Falls] Argus [Leader] and the second one was the managing editor of the Argus. And so they were able to influence local coverage of the race by constantly beating up on the press. It’s funny, I warned the Daschle campaign about that blog and they looked at it and said, “Nobody reads that, so who cares?” But it wasn’t that thousands of people were reading it, it was that the right people were reading it.

    So that, at the end of the day, is the key — not to focus so much on the raw numbers, but to focus on what you are trying to accomplish and how do you reach those people you are trying to reach.