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Future of media: Community is your new business model

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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 (s nyt) 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

29 Responses to “Future of media: Community is your new business model”

  1. Building communities is a way to create an interest graph around a media companies content. Clearly companies like Twitter that enable interest graphs are valued highly. Media companies need to figure out how to capture some of this value for themselves. We’re working on trying to do this with a few media companies – lots to experiment with, lots to learn from. A key point is that revenue generation via community needs to be a specific objective – not just a nice-to-have outcome.

  2. Bruce Cuthbert

    I am interested in new ways to link together our neighborhoods. Many of the tools that are evolving for conferences and meetings can also be used to engage our neighborhoods to help build community awareness. If 20-200 million residents spend a $.99 for apps, there is a business model. Virtual meetings for residents associations, block watch, chamber of commerce, board meetings, golf tournaments and (proximity video feeds to see over the crowds!), events, conferences is a BIG opportunity. Even the free apps can win with this audience through adverts, etc. Big, big audience. I just looked at collabracam and oovoo. Great potential. What are your favorites?

  3. I think there are many aspects to this ranging from commenting on news articles to visting TV show/network companion websites to engage with other viewers and members. On a personal note as a foodie, I find myslef intrigued by either a recipe or location on a food travel show and often will visit the companion site to find out more, or discuss with others. On a cooking competition show I will often either want to praise a contestant, or more likely express my shock at their demeanor. In all cases I’m now engaging in a forum, if not sponsored by, at least sanctioned by the media outlet itself. They are an active participant in the discussions and can both gain valuable insights as well as protect their brand should things go off book. I’ve often told clients that if you aren’t providing a forum for your readers/fans/cusotmers to engage, don’t fool yourself that they are not talking. Harness that power for continued success.

  4. I feel the need to weigh in because I’m not sure some of the people commenting here, based on what’s been said, have much experience in selling advertising to local car dealers, real estate agents and furniture stores. Borrell Associates estimates that the “local” online advertising spend alone for 2011 will be more than $16 billion, up from $13.7 billion in 2010.
    At The Register Citizen in Connecticut, while it’s still early, we ARE finding that the community engagement efforts of the open newsroom lead to more revenue.
    For example, a local performance center visited our office this winter, saw residents sitting in our cafe with their laptops, reading a story on RegisterCitizen.Com, then walking literally 15 feet toward a reporter’s desk and having a conversation about it. (Which one that reader over as a loyal customer for life, no doubt, and also happened to advance the story based on the reader’s knowledge and ideas about it.)
    The managers of the performing arts center then sat down in our conference room and signed on to triple their ad spending with us, the entire increase going to digital advertising, where they’d previously spent $0 with us.
    The owners of another local business visited The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe to take a free class we were offering on introduction to marketing your business with Twitter and Facebook. They’ve since created one of the most engaged local business social media presences I’ve seen in our market. And they’ve become an online advertiser with us for the first time. They are grateful that we helped them, and they see us as a trusted adviser in the digital space.
    Furthermore, remember that our product is local journalism. Community engagement efforts are helping us improve that product every day. That’s not just more eyeballs – a good SEO strategy could and more stories about Justin Beiber could get us that – it’s readers who are engaged with the process of shaping the content that we publish. That increases click-through rates and improves results for advertisers.

  5. Matthew, very good assessment and I am on your side. When media become completely democratized and people get savvier with the tools, traditional media have to compete for attention. Traditional media pros have to start thinking about their audience as a community and develop long-term relationships that will be important for the viability of their businesses.

  6. I’m a bit disappointed at the writer’s understanding of engagement – taking your show on the road is certainly a powerful form of outreach, deepening connections with audiences who previously had experienced a disembodied version of the content.

    There are much better examples of how newsrooms are engaging communities of interest than the one’s you have cited: WBEZ’s “Dear Chicago” series leading up to the historic mayoral election; Detroit’s WDET, a public radio station, aggregating hundreds of community interviews to create “The Detroit Agenda” – and putting it in front of the eyes of elected officials who would pay attention to a public radio news outlet.

    My final comment is about MinnPost: I don’t get it. Perhaps the business model is innovative – but how they do journalism isn’t. As many of us who know the Minnesota media landscape said after it launched, “Men”-post is the Star Tribune-lite. I don’t see a lot of innovation in a place that went back and scooped up a handful of former Stribbers who were laid off or took a buy out to work for their former boss (MinnPost founder was the architect of the deal that sold the Strib from the Cowles family to McClatchy in 1998.) Plenty of young, diverse – and I might add creative – reporters in Minnesota that MinnPost could learn a lot from.

  7. Stephen

    I think that many many local newspapers do a great job of reaching out to their communities. Look at many of the papers of lee enterprises. Each paper has several community blogs and sections devoted to neighborhoods. Im always amazed how few comments these sections get. But still their readership is amongst the 40 and over crowd. Right now, many young people just don’t inhabit the space between the parochialism of Facebook and the conceit of thinking they are part of national news a la the new York times and BBC. That space between is called community… It’s owning up to who you are and where you’re from. It’s admitting to yourself that you’re not going to be Henry kissenger or Paul Farmer. It’s being with the people you’re with. They’ll get there.

  8. 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.

  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.

  10. Brooke Kroeger

    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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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. :)


  13. 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.

  14. Excellent forward thinking model! It is the community-building mentality that is propelling us to success at, 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.

  15. 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…

  16. 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.

    • 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.

    • Dave Reynolds

      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.

  17. 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.