To rally an online community, start with controversy

After serving as agricultural editor and columnist at the New Zealand Herald, Philippa Stevenson now leads the Rural Network, a six-month-old online community for the country’s georgic population. Her blog “Dig ‘n’ Stir” is more than a commentary on New Zealand’s primary industries, science and the environment; it elicits debate and connects farmers with scientists, journalists and each other in hopes of building a political voice for the far-flung rural community.

OJR spoke with Stevenson on the phone earlier this week, and an edited transcript follows.

OJR: For those of us who are not very familiar with New Zealand – could you describe the country’s media landscape?

Stevenson: There are two major newspaper companies: APN News & Media, which owns our biggest paper, the New Zealand Herald, as well as half of the provincial newspapers; and Fairfax Media, which owns most of the rest. There are two major online websites: the New Zealand Herald site and Recently, Fairfax Media made a major purchase: It paid 750 million NZD for our version of eBay called Trade Me, a move to try to get the advertising that had been lost to Trade Me. I think Trade Me is the biggest site in New Zealand, in terms of online forums and the volume of trades.

OJR: How popular are blogs in New Zealand?

Stevenson: They are popular. One of the earliest blogs is called Public Address. It was started by Russell Brown, a leading blogger, and he has been struggling to make it pay. The blog’s been going for 10 or more years and his advertising’s rising so he’s hopeful.

Runway Reporter, a fashion site by a fashion reporter, wasn’t profitable when it was bought by ACP Media. Another online magazine, nzgirl, has been looked at by Fairfax Media. Print publishers are looking for opportunities to use successful online sites to bring them into the fold.

When Rural Network was started, my idea was that we’d try to be the rural equivalent of Public Address. There are a lot of political blogs out there, but not another one like Rural Network.

OJR: How did Rural Network get its start?

Stevenson: It’s an interesting genesis – Rural Network started in the reverse way from normal publications. It was started by an advertiser, Dow Agrochemicals (though the site now also has other sponsors). It was their idea was to launch the online platform, and they approached me to contribute editorials. The original idea was agricultural news, but that’s a difficult and expensive commodity. I suggested the blog. I thought that the blog could attract interest and it’s proved to be the case.

Dow is looking at interactivity and what it could bring them. None of the rural papers here have gotten into interactivity. They just put print stories up online. They go as far as putting up polls, but they’re not managed as blogs. Dow thought they’d set up their own site and get the whole rural community around them.

OJR: Was the site meant for readers to discuss Dow’s products?

Stevenson: No, it’s not, although people can and do ask questions about persistent weeds and how to deal with them. It’s more like if Dow created the community online, then they’d be associated with us – just like any other publication with advertisements around editorials. They also wanted a range of other sponsors. I think over time the site will draw more people to it — it’s still in the early days of proving itself. Already two other companies have come on board. It also comes down to when companies spend their budgets. Sponsoring the site might come into discussion in their next budget round.

It’s openly disclosed on the site that Dow is a sponsor. If a blog is going to be successful for a long time, I think it has to have a financial underpinning. But with somebody putting in money, there are issues of editorial independence. The thing I did right from the beginning was to set up some very simple editorial guidelines. I gave them to the sponsor and said, these are the conditions under which I will work for you. They were open to it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to second guess them. I needed the freedom to do what I think would be successful.

OJR: How often do you blog?

Stevenson: Monday through Friday, at least once a day. Sometimes more. We don’t get a lot of weekend traffic but I do keep an eye on the comments over the weekend.

I spend about half my time now looking at the blog and doing things associated with it. The rest of the time I work as a freelance journalist or supporting other freelance journalists.

My freelance colleague Kim Griggs and I have a site called Freelance Market, and we organize an annual freelancer’s conference that’s New Zealand’s biggest gathering of journalists (around 200 people each year). We hate the idea of people working for nothing for publications. A lot of freelancers want to do that to get clips, but every time they work for nothing, they undercut someone else. We’d much rather they blog to build an online CV.

OJR: Has Rural Network caught on?

Stevenson: We’ve achieved in the first six months what we’d hoped to achieve in a year. People have to register on the site to take part, but many more people visit than are registered. A lot of rural people are on dial-up connections and we knew it’d be difficult for them. We’re trying to make sure that the site improves. We don’t think we have the ideal format yet.

With my experience, I can sometimes tell what works and what doesn’t. But there’s really no secret to getting traffic. It’s controversy. Blogging is the same as journalism: Get a good story, reveal it to people, and you’ll attract interest. Just in the last two weeks, we’ve had two angles on the topic of fertilizer companies. It’s a very hot topic. A company selling snake oil as fertilizer was sued under the Fair Trading Act and found guilty for misrepresenting their product. But there are people who believe fervently in this product. They had a lot to say in the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I blogged about the program and condemned it. The expert witness on the case is a soil scientist who also blogs on the site, so he was already attracting attention. He has very strong opinions. One particular week during this debate was the best week for us.

OJR: Do you interact with the readers?

Stevenson: I do interact on the comments. If I feel that responses are needed, then I go in and comment. First, I do it because it’s nice that people who comment aren’t ignored. If something’s erroneous to me then I also feel duty bound to add the proper side or my side. Also if I see a comment that’s been made about somebody, then I will make sure that he’s aware of it so he can comment as well. I find that one of the ways to get things known is not to expect people to find the blog all the time but to email them and alert them if a comment has been made that’s related to them.

I think about who would be interested, who might comment, and I send them a couple lines to the blog. I agree with Glen Justice, one of the people who commented on OJR [“Why journalists make ideal online community leaders“] that it is almost a matter of appealing to people one by one.

OJR: Which issues get the most reactions?

Stevenson: There’s a very strong agricultural science body in New Zealand, and we’ve had a lot of scientists debating things, especially as related to fertilizers. There’s quite a bit of debate on climate change between some of the local scientists on the IPCC. When I get comments, they’re usually very lengthy. Sometimes I say to the writers: Don’t just comment, send me a blog. There’s a good response to that as well.

OJR: What hasn’t worked on the site?

Stevenson: I’ve tried a lot of things to see what would catch people – things ranging from getting kids to blog to sports. I’ve asked people to give their feedback on crime or family issues. The softer things don’t seem to have worked. They might work over the long term when there are more people on board.

We don’t have a general news feed on the site – just the latest rural and agricultural stories. I don’t even feel that we have to tackle all the rural news issues. It’s enough to tackle a few of them. I am a journo-blogger, not just a blogger, so I look for my own stories to do, too. I look to mainstream media for stories to comment on, but I also look for my own stories and invite guest bloggers to come up. The blog’s targeted to the rural reader, but it’s not technical. I don’t want to narrow it down. I’m trying to have a broad appeal.

OJR: What is your vision for Rural Network?

Stevenson: I’d like to see a large discussion going. What I’ve always said to the readership is that this is a 24/7 forum. You don’t have to wait until you go to town or to a once-a-year conference. People on farms by definition are isolated. They don’t get to town all the time. Rural Network is an ideal forum for them – a chance to express themselves and have a conversation any time they want. It’s a real breakthrough for rural people.

I’ve been an agricultural journalist now for 30 years. I’m well aware that there isn’t enough discussion on the important issues. The discussions that take place are hijacked by the most powerful or the most verbal or the ones with money. I watched people going to conferences boiling over with frustration because they haven’t been able express their views. There are huge pressures on farmers. This site is a safety valve. We can discuss important issues and not be dominated by the most powerful.

We had a lively debate about methane, New Zealand’s biggest contribution to greenhouse gases. Farmers have to trade carbon emissions because of the methane coming out of their cows and sheep, but we say that our farming is cleaner and greener. About 80% of our farm production is exported. Because animals are kept outside all year, we don’t have industrialized farms. There’s huge amounts of interest in climate change. People are debating: Is it happening? What’s the effect on agriculture? Will the north of New Zealand go from subtropical to tropical?

Dairy is New Zealand’s biggest industry, accounting for 20% of our export earnings. Most of the production comes from one company. Every year they have one annual meeting. So you only have one opportunity a year to stand up and express all the issues you may be concerned about. You’ve got to worry not just about your livelihood but the livelihood of the industry. Wool is another major industry, but as an economic unit, it’s on its last legs. There are huge issues there that people need to debate.

Because I’ve been around long enough, I know so many people. Hopefully I can get to the person right at the top and say, you need to respond to this. This is an important issue. I think given enough time, this is what the goal of the blog would be. I guess I have big ambitions for it.