Five Stages Of Grief: A Cautionary But Hopeful Tale For Online Communities

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The emerging local news ecosystem looks as chaotic as ever. But a few patterns are emerging in the way online community news startups develop or stall out. Here’s my latest attempt to make some sense of what I am seeing.

In these Five Stages, I attempt to cover both the grief that pioneer publishers experience and the opportunities for growth that successful news pioneers are capitalizing on.

1. Newspaper replacement syndrome.

This is the early place where the journalist sees her newsroom diminishing. Maybe she just lost her job. Online community news – How hard can it be, right? The trap here is that many journalists tend to visualize themselves creating a newspaper on the web, ignoring the fact that this is a failed model. Instead, publishers who make it to the next stage focus early on about how to create community – and value – around the content.

2. Engagement stress disorder.
Engagement is critical. We get that. But how? And when? The little voice in the journalist’s head plays something like this: “Whaaa? You’re saying I have to report, write, shoot photos and video AND post to Twitter and Facebook? Next you’ll be telling me I’ve got to respond to the comments!”

Getting past this reaction and embracing engagement – both online and in person – is key to sustainability. Time-strapped publishers also need to figure out their priorities – test engagement practices, see what takes, fail quickly and move on. Joy Mayer has put together a great discussion guide on engagement and figuring out where to start. Skip this step, and the site has little to sell. Which brings us to …

3. Sales-phobia
In this stage, we see some denial. The little tape playing in the journalist’s head says: “Journalism is important. Someone should give me a grant.” Those who snap out of it (and survive) find they have got to learn to sell – whether to advertisers, sponsors, donors or users – and selling comes hard to many journalists. But as we have seen, a growing number of journalists turned news entrepreneurs are learning to sell and their sites are generating revenue.

4. Capacity conundrum
For most small sites, those with one to three people on board, push comes to shove early and often. These folks may spend too much time on content and too much time on content and not enough time building their reach and revenue. Today, even publishers who are doing a good job with revenue are finding it difficult to find capacity to expand, even as they identify good growth opportunities – like offering new services or launching sites in neighboring communities.

5. Growth
The sweet spot. Enough cash coming through the door to put some aside to devote to expansion and experimentation. Bigger sites such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego are getting there. Smaller sites can make it too. Onward.

(I wrote this post to work through a presentation at Block by Block: Community News Summit 2011 (#bxb11) on Sept. 29. I’ll post my slides asap.) UPDATE: Slides (pdf)

Michele McLellan is a consultant who helps news organizations, online news startups, and news entrepreneurs adapt to a dynamic emerging local media environment. She is lead programming consultant with Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg and KDMC News Leadership 3.0 blogger. You can follow her on Twitter, @michelemclellan.

This article originally appeared in News Leadership 3.0.

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