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Summary:

Amid all the flailing around that media companies are doing to try and solve their revenue problems, with paywalls and iPad apps, too few are looking at how connecting with their community (or communities) of readers can help increase engagement and lead to new revenue models.

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As media companies try desperately to solve their revenue problems by launching paywalls and subscription iPad apps, too few are looking at how connecting with their community (or communities) can help. That’s the view of Public Radio International’s vice-president of interactive, Michael Skoler, in a piece written for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. And I think he is right: engaging a community can be one of the most powerful tools that companies have in an era of real-time, distributed and hyper-social media.

As an example of what this kind of engagement can produce, Skoler describes the incredible response that PRI had when it took radio host Ira Glass on the road several years ago, with a live version of his popular show “This American Life.” But would anyone come to see what amounted to a radio show in person? Apparently yes — huge numbers of them.

They came in droves. More than 30,000 watched the first digital show at hundreds of theaters across the U.S. and Canada in the spring of 2008. The next year, 47,000 turned out. They came to be with other fans, experiencing something they all loved together. The success wasn’t so much the power of Ira, but the power of his community.

Skoler also offers several other non-media related examples of communities that have produced profitable businesses, including Angie’s List — which has grown from a site run by a single mom into a company with more than 1.5 million members in over 150 cities who pay annual fees that total about $50 million. Although Skoler doesn’t mention it, Craigslist is perhaps the most powerful example of this phenomenon: a site that started as Craig Newmark’s personal passion and is now one of the largest sites on the Internet, with revenues estimated in the $100-million-plus range.

Media and the “community newsroom”

Are there any media companies taking advantage of this kind of approach to community? Skoler offers a few examples, including the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper in Lawrence, Kansas — which has created a health-related community called WellCommons. There are some other great examples of community-level journalism as well, including MinnPost and the Texas Tribune (although they are non-profit entities). And there’s the Journal-Register Co., where CEO John Paton has embarked on a radical “digital first” and community-based strategy, including a “community newsroom” launched by one of its regional papers, the Register-Citizen in Connecticut.

In another report at the Nieman Foundation site, the managing editor of the Register-Citizen describes what the community newsroom is like — and how it can be somewhat surprising to have readers walk up to a reporter or editor’s desk and start talking. For media companies used to their privileged status as gatekeepers of information, this is undoubtedly a shock to the system. But it is arguably a welcome one.

In the past, our readers, like all readers, must have felt as if a wall existed between them and us. We’ve torn down the dividing wall and now we can listen closely to the voices once behind it. That’s what our changes are about.

Is the Register-Citizen generating any additional revenue from this venture? No, but it is certainly engaging with its readers more, and that is undeniably good. Will they be more likely to subscribe or shop through their local paper, or support it in other ways? I think it’s a pretty good bet that they will. But while building and focusing on community might make sense for a community newspaper like the Register-Citizen — which can open up its newsroom, offer free coffee and Wi-Fi and so on — how does a national or international entity like the New York Times take advantage of this kind of thing?

The easy answer is that the New York Times has a number of different communities. There are the local ones, the ones that the newspaper has tried (and is trying) to serve with community ventures such as The Local — which was started as a NYT venture and then was handed over to journalism students from two universities in New York City. Community-level ventures such as Baristanet and Sacramento Press have shown these can be a success if handled properly. Perhaps the NYT needs to try a little harder.

Engaging with “communities of interest”

And then there are the communities of interest: the readers who love the newspaper for its foreign reporting, or who are obsessed with media writer David Carr or correspondent Nick Kristof, or one of the paper’s other writers. These are the communities that can be appealed to in both in virtual terms and real-world terms.

For example, the NYT has been getting some buzz for the documentary Page One recently, which features Carr and media reporter Brian Stelter — people have been coming out to premieres and panel discussions about the movie, and so on. Those kinds of events may only be available to people in New York and other major cities, but they are ways of reaching out to a community as well, just as Stelter’s use of Tumblr in his reporting is, or Kristof’s use of Facebook.

Would people pay for a real-life session with Carr or Kristof or Stelter of some kind? Possibly. Would they be willing to pay extra for material from Kristof’s foreign reporting that wasn’t available anywhere else, or was available early? Perhaps. At least it might be worth experimenting with something of that nature, to see what happens.

The bottom line is that unless media companies find and engage with their communities of readers — in ways that involve more than just posting some comments at the end of a news story, with little or no interaction from the writer or editors involved — they will continue to decline in importance (and likely in revenue as well), despite all the paywalls and iPad apps. Slapping a turnstile on your website is a lot different than engaging with a community.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Libertinus Yomango and Stewart Chambers

  1. I actually done agree. The community business model is popular right now because of the tech and funding bubbles. They are all related.

    Because having/ driving a community contributes to product adoption and usage – companies spend much of their effort on this. It proves to investers that consumers “like” your product and hence will use it. But that doesnt mean they will “pay” for it. I think Coommunity building is simply a tactic, that will work for some businesses … but it isnt a business model by any means.

    Just my 2 cents.

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    1. Frack. Tons of typos… apologies. Apparently there is no way to edit your comment once it is posted. Probably for the best.

      Hope everyone understood that i ‘dont’ agree not ‘done’ agree. Heh.

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      1. Thanks, Amrita — obviously, I disagree :-) I think that as media becomes more social, engagement with a community or communities is crucial to any media business. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. But for the prospect of revenue, the idea of community doesn’t even exist. It only serves commercialism to manipulate people out of their money. It’s a fallacy. And we’re all being sucked into it.

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    1. Disagree, Jim — community is a real thing, and it can be very powerful. Not just as a way of monetizing media, but as a tool for strengthening all kinds of relationships between readers/viewers and those who produce the content.

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      1. Dave Reynolds Thursday, June 16, 2011

        Bingo. I am witness to that right now. No, I mean really in the middle of this. Very astute MI.

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    2. Dave Reynolds Thursday, June 16, 2011

      Jim, Please tell the 234 families that we feed every week at the Campbell River Food Bank that he food they are eating is a fallacy. We have raised over 250k
      in the last 12 months through my radio station’s “community” work with no thought of revenue. In fact this type of work MUST remain pure for the magic to happen. The community work we have been doing is not only working here, I have been able to gain interest from and leverage support for our local food bank from National sources. Wow Jim, pretty cynical and in error.

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  3. I’m not sure I buy community as a business model, but I definitely feel it’s a huge advantage that can help a business thrive where others are struggling.

    The problem with many businesses (and likely media companies) is the lack of passionate leaders and advocates within the company. These are the people who understand WHY community is important and the concept almost comes inherently. Can we teach this to others? Honestly, I’m not sure…

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  4. Excellent forward thinking model! It is the community-building mentality that is propelling us to success at TownSquareBuzz.com, where about 75 percent of our content is either posted or submitted by readers. What happens is our citizens love seeing themselves “published” on an influential site and so they tell their friends and we get new readers. It’s a ripple effect that’s exciting to watch.

    It helps that we are engaging with the community offline too – sharing the possibilities at local charity events and with schools, government, businesses, etc. – whoever will listen.

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  5. Interesting analysis, Mathew.

    My take: Smart news organizations should use community engagement to discover local needs to create new revenue-generating business opportunities. There’s absolutely no reason Craigslist, GroupOn, Fandango or Angie’s List weren’t founded by news media companies.

    The first order of business is to *meaningfully* connect with the public to recalibrate the editorial content as trustworthy and relevant. Win back your local audiences. Then, empathize with their daily needs, find a pain point and iterate a solution that provides new, more diversified revenue streams.

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    1. Totally agree, Wendy — well said. And thanks for the comment.

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  6. Great article Matthew. I think the POWER of community is still being discovered by organizations, especially in publishing. When done right, communities can transform the editorial process, change that ‘traditional’ mindset that readers constantly accuse journalists of having, and even create brand evangelists for life!

    Communities can also transform the CRM process – providing publishing companies the ability to cater content and experiences to users based on interest (as you’ve rightly highlighted).

    Unfortunately, I think communities are yet to be properly mined for the amount of insight (audience) they hold and provide. The simple act of participating in and observing conversations within a community can be transformational to an organization’s marketing process.

    I work at Sequentia and we’ve had the pleasure of working with The Globe for the past year on a great community initiative (which I think you’ve heard of). Semi-selfishly, I wanted to add The Globe to your list of organizations who’ve done a fantastic job of innovating with community. :)

    Cheers!

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  7. I hate to sound old school, but go ask Mozilla how community engagement helped bring new and previously unforeseen revenue models to bear, like the monetization of search(browser). All SpreadFirefox was/is, is a community of people reading content who decided to take action with a group or source they trusted.

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    1. Great point, Colin — thanks for the comment.

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  8. Brooke Kroeger Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Hi,
    Interesting post for which just this slight correction: The Local East Village was initiated at NYU Journalism. We sought the collaboration with the Times because we wanted a major media partner. But correct that CUNY assumed The Local in Brooklyn from a project the Times started a year earlier.

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  9. Agreed. Online communities are what was “formerly known as the audience”- taking from your own words.
    The media model is no longer uni-directional, i.e. I write, You read. Whoever wants to survive has to master social media and online engagements; that’s what will nurture their new audience.

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  10. Oh please. By community you obviously mean the “right” people with an above average political influence. Thanks for pointing out the difference between media and journalism.

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