This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
No portion may be reused without the author's permission.
Steve Outing, "Make This Your Mantra:'Repeat Visitors'" Editor & Publisher Interactive, 17 June 1998
Jakob Nielsen, "Community is Dead; Long Live Mega-Collaboration," 15 August 1997
"Inventing an Online Newspaper" by Mindy McAdams
"Lesson 1: Make Sure Your Electronic Newspaper Is Plugged In" by Mindy McAdams
Jon Katz, "Mixed Media," Netizen
"Alternate Universe" by Pam Weintraub
"What is Salon?" (mission statement)
Jon Katz, "Web Warmth," Netizen
Heath Row, "Social Studies" (community), WebMaster, February 1997
Steve Outing, "'The Most Interactive Site on the Web," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 21 March 1997
Michelle V. Rafter, "Can We Talk?" The Industry Standard, 15 February 1999
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Creating CommunityWhen coffee bars started springing up around the country a few years ago, they quickly became the cool place to hang out. Friends would meet in them and chat for hours on end while nursing their expensive little cups of caffeine.
Now some coffee bars are attracting customers not only with their drinks, but also with computers that let them surf the Internet. Cuppa Joe in hand, customers now can take their conversations into a virtual world.
Creating communities that Web surfers of all types even decaffeinated want to visit should be one of the key goals of Web producers. A good Web site is not as much of a thing or a publication as it is a place. In her account of starting the online version of the Washington Post, Mindy McAdams notes that journalists without much experience online tend "to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read." But those with more online experience think more about other aspects, especially connections and communication among people.
That's a profound change, and one that many Web producers who worked for old media are finding hard to adapt to. But if there is one key to keeping visitors stopping by a site, this is it. And keeping visitors stopping by is vital to the health of any online publication. Unlike the old media (newspapers, television, radio), the Web does not deliver its content to the audience; the audience must come looking for content. And bringing a steady audience back to a site is the one sure way to build advertising revenue needed to make the site viable.
Creating community isn't a simple matter of adding a chat feature to a Web site. Community flourishes only on sites that understand what the word means: A place for likeminded people to meet and talk. Making community work requires that a publisher understand his or her audience a criterion for a good editor in any medium.
It's much easier to find failed attempts at building community than successful ones, but some sites do have the recipe for success:
Some publishers are trying to create community by creating alliances with other media and businesses in their geographical areas. The Boston Globe's Boston.com has pioneered in this area, and many other publications have followed suit, creating "one-stop shopping" areas also known as "portals" for community members.
Other Web publishers carry the idea of community in a different direction. For instance, some online newspapers offer "brag pages," where parents can write about their children's latest accomplishments. In addition, discussion areas can be set up for various school sports and associations. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle went that idea one better when it gave digital cameras and Web creation software to three local high schools and let students at the schools create their own sites about their championship basketball teams.
Even when publishers master those aspects of creating community, they sometimes fail in another: Making their staff part of the community. That means giving readers the email addresses of writers and editors, and having staffers available to read and respond to the incoming email. Several Washington Post writers go a step beyond, holding live online discussions each week. J.D. Lasica sees such opportunity for communication as vital to the news media: "To my mind, this is the single most important step newspapers can take to regain the trust of their readers," he wrote in American Journalism Review.
Other Web sites offer public discussion forums for readers to say what's on their minds and see what other readers are thinking, too. One of my favorite uses of a forum is run by Motorcycle Online, which lets readers add their two cents to reviews. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune went a step beyond that in a special package on unequal sentencing for women and men convicted of drug crimes. While the three-part special ran, readers were invited to join an online discussion. Later, the Star-Tribune reprinted the series as a special section, including a complete, verbatim transcript of the discussion 56 messages in all.
Any attempt at interactivity spells more work for editors and writers. As McAdams notes in a column for the online American Journalism Review, good two-way communication requires allowing staff members time to do the job. "Don't assume that a busy staff will be able to squeeze in a few minutes for email," she writes. "You [the management] need to emphasize its importance and promote its use." It's time well spent: email and discussion forums provide an important chance to get to know your audience and their wishes and expectations. Online surveys can help, too: Even the high-and-mighty New York Times asked the readers of its online publication to answer a few questions "to help us build a news and information resource that best meets your needs." (Note: If you have never registered at the Times, you will need to do so it's free then reload this link.)
You might not always like what you read in your email and forums, but that's the price of being connected. As HotWired columnist Jon Katz writes:
Response to columns is diverse, fast and furious. The line between friend and foe is fuzzy, with critics becoming close friends and admirers turning ugly at the drop of a column. Still, we are a community of sorts, bound by the experience of communicating with one another in this way.