Community News Sites and Community Engagement

Oct 182010

MalaysiaKini is currently working on a community news site, KomunitiKini, to provide news and information on communities across Malaysia. The local news situation in Malaysia is a microcosm of the national news situation, but only with fewer dedicated traditional news outlets. All of the local mainstream media is associated with a constituent party of the ruling coalition. Local or regional newspapers are relatively limited and coverage tends to focus on crime with limited reporting on community issues. Independent voices or community activism is restricted to online. As part of this work, I have spent time researching and talking to people who are deeply involved with community news websites. So, this has surfaced a couple of interesting findings that apply to programs in Asia.  One of the best summaries on what appears to be working at community new websites is New Voices: What Works from Jan Schaffer, Executive Director of J-Lab at American University’s Institute for Interactive Journalism.  Over the last 5 years, J-Lab through a grant from the Knight Foundation has funded and guided almost 50 US community news start-ups.   The "New Voices" report summarizes findings from their experience.  

To a large extent, the art of developing a community news site takes on the passion of community activism and techniques of what some might call marketing.  Community activism defines the realm of interests that can be identified and will mobilize the community.  The J-Lab report doesn’t call this out in detail.  But when you look at the reasons that J-Lab community websites were launched they often come back to a set of specific focal point issues – an entrenched local political elite and a pending election, the pressing environmental issues, like the Asian Carp crisis in the Great Lakes.  These are not broad issues like taxes or school boards, they are specific issues that people are talking about now.  Building the coverage for a site around issues like these ensures both a market and a desire to engage.

Community activism has been a successful catalyst for two of East Asia’s more successful community websites – INMedia HK in Hong Kong and Coolloud in Taiwan.   During the recent Asia China New Media Conference [See my last post], two of the principals of these sites spoke about how from their viewpoint, developing a community news website and developing a social movement were essentially the same.  The tagline for Coolloud’s website is “The Movement’s Media and Media as a Movement”. 

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Their challenge to paraphrase Lam Oi-Wan 林藹雲, one of the editors at InMediaHK, is how to turn an audience of passive consumers into one of active participants – both participants in the movement and in the media.   So, identifying local community movement(s) that will catalyze your audience lays the groundwork for the “marketing” to come.

The other interesting finding from J-Lab report that is consistent with my experience with social and community sites in the States is editors/content directors have to increasingly incorporate elements of “marketing” in their roles to encourage and maintain the audience’s engagement.  One of the ways to think about this marketing is leading the passive audience down a series of steps to increasingly greater levels of engagement and activism.

First, in order to engage your audience you have to know who they are.  You have to get them to cross over and contact you.  This involves coming up with low-cost, simple ways to get the passive audience to engage.  They are generally something as simple as rating a story (one star or 4 stars?), submitting a photo, or taking a poll.  You have gotten the audience to crossover.  They have started them down the engagement road.  The next step is to get them to increase their level of engagement, greater frequency, higher value to the community, etc.  Recognition and rewards are very useful tools for this.  Anyone who has ever used Foursquare or Yelp, both types of community engagement websites, will also recognize the role that recognition or rewards plays.  Be honest, are you secretly the mayor of someplace you don’t want to be ousted from? Winning badges, rewards, being named a mayor or “cub reporter” all encourage engagement and participation. 

Another technique that I hadn’t realized its impact until just recently is the role of humor and “style” in engaging the audience.  Foursquare uses elements of online games, one of the J-Lab projects Great Lakes Echo created a contest to use images of the Asian Carp to create funny photos for the site.  It also creates a real role for promotional items with style and humor as rewards for participation.  Finally, the marketing goal is to build an engaged audience that will actually perform on an assignment. 

You have mentored them, you have engaged them on more and more projects. Now you are ready to step up and ask your audience to help you document stories – photos of open manhole covers for a story on community hazards or lax public works departments, ask for help with story ideas, leads and references, access to potential interview subjects.  Finally graduate the enthusiast to full fledged citizen journalist with assigned stories and provide the training and mentoring you think they need to develop these stories.

Underlying this passive to active transformation there is a lesson.  Community news websites are more that just a technology platform.  The technology may enable the audience and the engagement that defines the media movement.  But the technology by itself will not create a website.  There needs to be an editor, a chief who is managing, marketing, training and mentoring.  They may be paid like the local community editors that AOL’s Patch.com is hiring or they may be completely volunteer.   But the assignment, engagement has to come from someone.

The J-Lab report references a related point.   Start-up community news sites should not place too much of the content burden on citizen journalists that are trained before the site is launched or before they have interacted with the site in any regular fashion.  Schaffer mentions that from their experience that only about 10% of CJ’s that go through training will contribute in a regular fashion to the site.  The MalaysiaKini experience with CJ’s is somewhat better, but still directionally the same.  But that one in ten or one in eight who stick with the site offers a unique opportunity.  They become your first wave into the community, they are your enthusiasts, your community catalysts, your leaders. KomunitiKini will launch 30 community sites in the next year.  Having a trained, enthusiastic regiment of CJ’s that can help identify movements and issues, single out potential supporting organizations, dream up interesting ways to engage the audience and add a regular post to the mix will be invaluable to the quick deployment of multiple local sites in the next year. 

All of this audience management makes me curious to understand what tools and techniques small community news sites use to manage the audience through all of these stages.  Are any community news websites using some kind of customer relationship management (CRM) software or simpler a process for management?  Do they run discussion boards or internal wiki’s or social networks?  And what privacy issues are people encountering?  Let me know in the comments.