Should newspapers build community?

  • Opinion
  • Thursday, 31 Jul 2008

NEXT to Web 2.0, probably the next most commonly tossed-about buzzword among New Media types is “online community”.

Like Web 2.0, online community is a poorly understood phrase. Ask three people what it means and you’re likely to get three different answers. Ask five and you’ll get five.

To me, an online community is an online gathering of likeminded folks chatting about a common topic and often working together towards a common objective.

The reason so many New Media players are keen on building online communities is that they are niche markets that are ideal for advertisers to target.

And with advertising increasingly looking like the revenue model of choice for online ventures, whatever appeals to advertisers is going to get a lot of attention.

That being the case, should newspaper sites try to build community around their content?

Blogger Steve Yelvinton thinks so, and says that failure to build community is one of the many reasons so many newspapers are in so much trouble right now.

“Far too many newspapers have either intentionally abandoned or simply lost interest and wandered away from the mission,” he says. “Publishers and editors should be community leaders, not just ad salesmen and journalists. And historically they were, because they came from the community.”

Blogger Paul Gillin disagrees with the idea that general news sites should try to build up communities. His reasoning is that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even bother trying because it’s hard to build a community around content. With very few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Is that really true though? It depends on whether you are talking about general news sites or niche news sites.

Let’s look at the former, general news sites. We don’t have city or state-based newspapers like in the US. But let’s say we do. What kind of community will they have? People in Selangor? People in Ampang, or Petaling Jaya?

Yes, those are communities from a purely geographical sense of the word, but as Gillin points out, geographical-based communities are the least cohesive kinds.

“Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common,” he says.

“They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.”

Niche news sites, in contrast, have a much better chance of building up online communities because their readers have a common interest, regardless of whether they live in the same geographical area or not.

One could easily imagine a legal news site, or a Mac lovers’ news site, or a football news site as having very strong, tightly-knit communities.

A news site like Malaysiakini, which focuses on political news, caters to a specific type of group. Let’s call them the civil society types, for want of a better phrase.

Its members may come from all over the country and from all walks of life but they have some things in common. They are likely to be concerned about civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech and so on.

Because of that, they are a community. Its readers are more likely to participate in online discussions that cater to their concerns and, they are likely to do so continuously. Unlike geographical communities, the discussion is not ad hoc and it doesn’t end once specific local issues are resolved.

“This is not to say that people don’t drop in and out, but there is a core membership that interacts together over a long period of time,” says blogger Rachel Happe.

“Communities focus on a common objective not around a collection of content. Content can be useful for fostering a community but it is not the impetus for it.”

Of course general news sites can get readers to comment on stories and even submit stories to be published. But that’s not community building. It’s fostering user-generated content, which is not quite the same thing.

So, what should general news sites do? Abandon the notion of building communities? That might not be a bad idea. Instead, they can focus on what they can be very good at, which is building social media – otherwise known as Web 2.0, which involves getting the audience to be involved in the content creation process.

In the past, I’ve written about the notion of Web 3.0 referring to user-generated content wrapped around professionally-produced content. That is the precisely the kind of thing that general news sites can do and do very well because of the resources and broad reach that they have.

Oon Yeoh is still uncertain whether social media or online community is the better business model. His website is not an example of either one.

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