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Why Journalists Need Communities of Readers

Photo: Diego Figone

Journalist Jane Martinson opened the festival’s “Building Communities” panel discussion with a question: “What does community actually mean in practice?”

Emily Bell, director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Colombia Journalism School, believes that a healthy, interactive community of readers improves the journalistic work itself.

“A healthy community means having the help of active readers, to catch mistakes, contribute firsthand accounts and lead us to potential sources, to gain access to breaking news as it happens. There are things that your readers know which you don’t. Journalists don’t know everything,” said Bell.

She also added that indirect benefits include stronger bonds of trust and loyalty between journalists and their audiences. “If you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a business model of any kind,” she said.

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital Media First, recommends media organizations reach out to existing communities online, and think of ways to use the news to provide them with more meaningful ways to connect and explore the issues they care about.

There are a growing number of community-funded media organizations around the world, experimenting with new business models for journalism. But funding is not the primary reason newsrooms need to engage a community of readers.

“There isn’t a direct correlation between community and monetization,” said Anthony De Rosa, social media editor at Reuters. “But interacting with your community shows that you’re listening. That makes the journalism more valuable to the readers. The goal is to make the comments worthwhile reading.” Websites like Gawker are strategically making comments a part of the articles themselves.

For those that worry about the quality of readers’ comments, Bell has a little constructive advice: “The only thing that improves the quality of comments and conversation is if the author responds within the first five comments.”

The social media presence of individual journalists is increasingly crucial to any publication’s online community. Buttry stressed that journalists do not need to be active on every platform.

However, journalists do need to constantly experiment with new tools, and always ask themselves how these networks can by used for more effective journalism. “If you are covering breaking news and you’re not on Twitter, you are going to get our ass kicked,” Buttry chuckled. While it is not the only factor that makes a great, engaging reporter, social media presence is definitely a professional advantage.

According to Bell: “If you are interviewing for a journalism job, and you are up against someone with all the same qualifications, but you have an active social media following and the other doesn’t, I guarantee you you’ll get the job.”


By Leigh Cuen


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