Why journalists don't make ideal online community leaders

Writing for OJR.com, Robert Niles argues: “There's no need for professional reporters to fear user-generated content. Someone needs to lead the Web's content communities, and journalists make the ideal candidates.”

While I agree wholeheartedly that newspaper journalists should engage as leaders in the community conversation, I think it would be a mistake to overlook the shortcomings and handicaps we inherit from our past.

So here’s a counterpoint to Niles’ essay.

It doesn’t start with your source list

One of the reasons newspaper readership has been declining for decades is that the news values and news definitions of print journalism are out of sync with society.

It’s hard to see this from the inside, but the beat structures, source lists and organizational priorities of the average daily newspaper reflect a mid-20th-century worldview. Sources, journalists and audience are neatly organized and carefully segregated. Institutions and processes are the stars. Just look at political coverage: organizational strategy and horse-race poll reportage eclipses any discussion of issues that people care about.

A healthy Web community leverages the passions of individuals and activists and chaotic self-organizers, and that’s a completely different world than you’re going to find reflected in your source list.

You can go through institutions (clubs and organizations, for example) to find your “seed corn” community leaders, but they're often not the people running those organizations. You’re going to have to get out of the office and in front of a lot of people, explaining your goals and your mission, and asking for their help. Prepare to be surprised by the ones who step up.

Journalists don’t know how to ask questions

It seems counterintuitive to say that a reporter isn’t good at asking questions, but you have to consider the context.

Print reporters ask questions all the time: quietly, one-to-one, in the corner, but rarely in the spotlight. Sometimes you have to ask dumb questions to get smart answers.

When it comes to writing, the reporter shifts gears. The goal becomes : Tell the right story. Most newspaper writing has an authoritative voice, and to many people it seems authoritarian. This is a great irritation to many people in print and can be a genuine offense online.

There’s a real cultural chasm here that you shouldn’t underestimate. Some reporters will take to the online conversation like ducks to water, and some will need a lot of coaching. From the editor? The most painful transitions can be those of an editor, whose entire DNA is focused on avoidance of error, a distrust of sources, and in many cases a “command and control” approach to the workplace.

Journalists don’t know how to promote

TV is shameless about promotion (to the degree that it takes up 20 percent of some newscasts) but print journalists suck at promotion. The kind of promotion a participative website needs is promotion that sells, not promotion that merely tells. In a business where “pandering” and “sensationalism” are high insults, promotion just doesn’t come naturally.

This is a place where some coaching from the marketing department can help ... if you have a marketing department. Most newspapers do not have a marketing department, and most reporters don’t know the difference between a marketing department and ad sales.

Be afraid, but do it anyway

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to struggle. People will post items that are wrong, mean-spirited or intentionally misleading. Politicians will astroturf and spammers will make your life hell. You’re going to have a day when you wonder whether any of it is worth the effort.

But if you persist, if you humble yourself and stay focused on building, leadership and (most importantly) learning from the community, you have an opportunity to reconnect with real people’s lives. You’ll discover issues that have become lost and you’ll begin the long, slow process of rebuilding the machinery of your reporting. You may even have an epiphany and declare that everything you’ve been doing for a decade has been all wrong. It won’t be painless. It will be worth it.

Jump in.


You've just swiped my column for next week, which was going to be along the lines of.... "Yes, journalists are the ideal *candidates* to do this, but here's how many journalists screw it up anyway."

So, I'll have to come us with something else to fill that space after just linking to your piece. :-)

... but it's not like newspapers are going to hire a new cadre of conversationalists any time soon. Newsies get the job by default. And, as irritating and futile as dealing with certain people is, the humbling experience of it has got to be good for us. Plus, there's a lot of really cool people out there just off the City Hall beat.

It is, as we say ... a growth opportunity!

I see the shift to online journalism as a good thing. The basic idea stays the same, so what if the means of transmitting information is different? I think the Internet is a very positive thing and journalism will transform itself in a good way in the sense that it will not be so easy to control by specific political interests. - Sonya from online degree -