As revenues decline or stall, off-line and on-air, news organisations are desperately trying to grow their online businesses. They look to the explosive growth of MySpace, Bebo, Wikipedia and YouTube and see an opportunity in community sites and social networking. After years of resistance, newspapers are opening up to what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the "people formerly known as the audience".
But too often, they focus on the technology and fail both in terms of content and culture, dooming their community efforts from the start.
My colleagues at The Guardian say I caused a bit of a stir last week at the Changing Media Conference when I said: "Don't confuse audience with community." That's not my line, but something our newly-appointed head of communities Meg Pickard told us at The Guardian last December. Just having something in common doesn't make people a community — even if that commonality is that they read your newspaper or watch your television channel, she said.
It's one of the reasons that media companies focus too much on the tools and technology. They believe that all they have to do is make blogs and social networking tools available to their audience and an online community will form on its own.
After mistaking this for a technical challenge rather than an editorial project, news organisations usually compound the mistake by launching news-focused community projects.
Journalists form the majority of the minority of people whose community focus is news, current affairs and politics.
Certainly news projects are important, but what about sport? What about food? DIY? What about geographical communities?
Jennifer Carroll, vice president of new media for Gannett Newspapers in the US, told me recently that one of the reasons Gannett announced a fundamental strategic shift to focus on community was that they realised that they had "ceded their role in the community dialogue". Running through any sensible community strategy is the realisation that many news organisations need to re-engage with their readers and viewers to reinvigorate a faltering relationship.
Newspapers and their readers need couples' counselling.
Ask yourself: What ties your community together? If you don't know, that's your first problem. Get out from behind the desk. Talk to people about what they are talking about.
Go there with your community strategy first. This isn't going for the lowest common denominator in news — it's about an ongoing reality check to retain relevance.
The Centre for Citizen Media recently profiled the forums on the Fort Myers News-Press website. Unlike many sites whose forums have faltered, the Florida paper's forums thrive because their editors and reporters actually use them to share information and respond to readers' questions.
In May 2006, reporters and readers began a collaboration in the forums which led to a story breaking about mismanagement and possible fraud at a local water utility, and triggered a US Department of Justice investigation. The experience was a major inspiration for Gannett's "crowdsourcing" strategy.
I know that journalists — especially those already juggling many jobs at small newspapers — will ask: "When do I find the time?" That's the biggest mistake news organisations make when it comes to community. They believe that this is a zero-investment, build-it-and-theywill- come solution. They falsely believe all they have to do is to buy some software, get the designers to make it look like your site and have a launch party.
But it's not that simple. Even the investment in a few community managers can help a newspaper care for their communities and alert reporters to information they need to respond to or act on.
A small investment can reap huge results, especially with a bit of lateral thinking. Sites such as BlufftonToday in the US are actually based on a novel, and successful, web-toprint concept where the website hosts not only blogs but many other forms of community participation, which are then printed weekly in a mix of staff and community-created content. The site was built first. The free weekly paper came later. They hired two staffers to grow the community first and help it reach a critical, self-sustaining point.
To quote Steve Yelvington, one of the best and brightest minds in news today, BlufftonToday "flipped the newspaper site model upside down". This is from his blog: • Everyone gets a blog. Not just staffers, but everyone in the community. Le Monde (France) and the Mail and Guardian (South Africa) are doing this, too. I don't know of others but would appreciate pointers.
• Everyone gets a photo gallery.
• Everyone can contribute events to a shared public community calendar.
• Everyone can contribute recipes to a community cookbook.
Web 2.0 is a much-used term, but I like how Tim O'Reilly defined it in a talk at the BBC a few years ago. It is the idea that the sites that succeed are the ones where the value to the users increases as the level of participation grows. Take that simple idea and run with it. How does your website become and remain invaluable as your users add more to it and get more from it?
Kevin Anderson is blogs editor for Guardian Unlimited