Future of media: Community is your new business model

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