By paulgillin | July 11, 2008 - 7:16 am - Posted in Fake News, Solutions

I was a guest on a webcast about social software yesterday (you can watch it here; it’s free)  and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader this morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Publishers trying to escape their sinking  businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but that’s not a good prospect for most newspapers.

Newspapers have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically  a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Readers of a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

Newspapers, however, don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. But USA Today isn’t trying to become a community. Its management knows better than that.


  • Jeff Jarvis suggests that it’s crazy for newspapers to operate their own websites and they should just hand over the back-end work to Google.  Newspapers should focus on what they do best: journalism and local ad sales. All the staff time and money spent building technology infrastructures is basically reinventing the wheel. He’s got a point.
  • The Daily Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin will cut back from six to two print issues a week beginning this fall. The 6,000-circulation afternoon daily has been publishing for 118 years. A BusinessWeek account notes that theDaily Telegram competes vigorously with the Duluth News Tribune, which is only about five miles away and which is owned by the same publisher. We’re wondering if combining, rather than competing, might be a more practical approach.
  • Washington State’s The Columbian laid off 20 people – eight of them in the editorial group – in the second round of cutbacks this year. The paper cut 30 positions back in February. Editor Lou Brancaccio told the Portland Business Journal that early retirements could trim the current staff of 306 even further.
  • The delightfully vicious Tell Zell site gives Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell a performance review using the company’s own performance management form.  The world is a better place because of anonymous blogs.
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson’s stated desire to remove Barack Obama’s testicles apparently caused a minor uproar on copy desks around the country. In a bold bid to produce the most trivial news story of the week, the Columbia Journalism Review sends in a reporter to analyze how major titles dealt with the “nuts” crisis. Could anyone be less interested?



This entry was posted on Friday, July 11th, 2008 at 7:16 am and is filed under Fake News, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. July 11, 2008 @ 10:13 am

    USA Today deliberately went out of its way to create a “community” you say is impossible to create, using cloying “we” in stories, referring to Americans. It was a deliberate effort to create a community of Americans, and it worked as USA Today has the largest circulation in the U.S. You also seem to neglect the editorial page of most newspapers, where editorials are written to create a community and a personality.

    Posted by ed
  2. July 11, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

    As someone involved in publishing weekly community newspapers, I find the discussion of “community” interesting. While I agree that a geographic community typically won’t be as passionate as a special-interest community, at least long-term, I continue to wonder if there is some formula that would help stimulate people’s identification with their geographic community. After all, it’s human nature to be curious about one’s surroundings: What’s that new building going up downtown? When are they going to fix the potholes in my neighborhood? Why can’t the city do something about that abandoned house across the street? Yeah, these issues come and go, but there are always new ones popping up.

    Posted by Mark Weber
  3. July 12, 2008 @ 7:08 am

    I don’t see how USA Today readers can be considered a community. The paper does a great job of giving readers the means to respond to stories within the limited confines of non-threaded discussion, but the readers themselves have no means to create groups, initiate their own discussions or contact each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s the direction most newspapers should go. The paper’s rather annoying stylistic quirks have little to do with it, I believe.

    Editorial sections are community only to the degree that a few letters get published there. How many op-eds actually come from residents of the community? In most papers, op-eds are mainly syndicated columnists. Unisgned editorials are a relic. Anonymity is about as anit-community as you can get.

    Mark, as I noted above, I believe communities can develop around issues and the local paper should be very involved in that process. But issues come and go, so it’s hard to sustain the kind of community that forms around, say, local sports teams. There are people who are passionate about the place they live and that enthusiasm can be channeled through a local paper’s online presence. In my own hometown, there’s a listserv that buzzes with chatter from people who love the place they live. Unfortunately, the local paper has done nothing to get involved with this conversation. It’s a perfect opportunity to create community and they just ignore it.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
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