Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing

by Robert Niles, Online Journalism Review

Nothing frustrates me more than watching journalists who've lost their newsroom jobs entering the blogosphere... with no clue as to what they should be doing online. Too few emerging online journalists understand that the function of news publishing has changed in the Internet era. Simply reporting the news, however you might define that, is no longer enough, not when you are publishing in such a competitive environment. The journalists who succeed online are the ones who understand that they are no longer simply reporters... they've become community organizers.

Before the holidays, I had lunch with a local journalist who is making the transition from a print staff job to online entrepreneur. He wanted to pick my brain for ideas on how to make the switch, and I was happy to talk. But whatever he asked, my answer kept resolving to the same point: you have to have a community that supports you, if you want to make a living online.

Despite what years of local monopoly may have taught many veteran journalists, readers don't automatically show up for whatever you publish. I've seen too many journalists react in shock when they put up their first blog post, only to end up with fewer readers than they have clean socks in their dresser drawer.

"But thousands of people read me in the paper," they stammer.

Well, the paper might have sold thousands of copies each day, but as any newspaper-dot-com staffers who's looked at the traffic data can tell you, few subscribers actually read any given writer's work. And those who did usually did so out of habit - they'd grown up reading the paper and fell into the custom of reading specific sections, pages or features.

That habit does not extend to reading those writers online, just to whoever happens to be in that slot in print. Perhaps a few might accept an invitation to connect with a familiar writer on the Web, but you have to extend that invitation before it can be accepted.

So, your past earns you nothing online. Whatever audience you will have there, you must build yourself.

Now you're a community organizer.

You'll need that community for more than an audience. You'll need customers, too - the people who will write the checks that keep you working. You'll have to organize that community as well.

In organizing your community, don't fall into the trap that equates physical proximity with community. Just because people live near one another, that fact doesn't bond those people into a community. Communities form around common needs and purposes, as will yours. So start by identifying what you can offer a community and which community might need what you can offer.

This might lead you away from covering a geographic area and toward covering some topical niche. So be it. Go where your knowledge, talent and passion directs you. Then starting thinking specifically about your audience community. I mean, name names. Who do you know that would want to read what you have to say? Recruit them. Don't freak out over starting with only a handful of readers. That's all you're likely to reach initially anyway. You can't count on anyone just "showing up." Go ahead and extend explicit invitations. Better yet, invite these potential readers to write for your new publication.

The first step in community organizing is to listen. By inviting guests posters on to your site, you show that you are willing to not only listen to other voices in your online community, but to amplify them. That takes you into the second step in community organizing, building relationships.

I suggested that the journalist I spoke with start by participating in other, established online communities, such as Huffington Post. Get to know people there, listen, then find a voice within that community and start building relationships. That experience will help in organizing one's own community, and might help recruit a few readers and participants to that new community, as well.

Ultimately, you'll need to engage that community by leading it in a call to action. That's the third step in community organizing, and the essential one.

When your reporting leads you to a solution to one of the community's problems, you can't allow journalistic fears about "objectivity" keep you from advocating it. Embrace the role of editorial page editor, along with that of reporter, in running your blog or website. But don't simply do all the talking yourself. Engage the community by building upon the relationships you've built to enlist community members to do whatever their talents and skills best allow them to do in service to the community's cause. Work the phone or the Skype connection. Talk with your community outside its "official" forums to encourage others to step up to leadership roles.

Because if you can't show that you care enough about the community to defend it, and its interests, that community will never rally around you.

Smart newspaper publishers once knew this, back when most papers were owned by someone in the community and not by some far-flung chain. They supported community causes and made sure that the community knew about the paper's support.

Many people who leave the paper for the blogosphere are running one-person shows. As such, they need to not forget about those other important roles within the newspaper business: editorial page advocacy, community leadership and, yes, ad sales. If you're running a one-person shop, you can no more afford to abandon those roles as a newspaper could afford to dismiss everyone on its staff who fulfilled them.

Embrace advocacy, but let it guided by smart reporting and thoughtful community engagement. That will be what distinguishes your site, and your community, from the many competing blogs and websites run by people who aren't as capable as reporters, or as effective in community organizing.

Don't be the journalist who laments needing six months to make $100 on AdSense ads. If that's all you can make online, that not the fault of the Internet, or the economy. That's on you.

Know what you're doing online. Embrace community organizing; create value for a community... and only you will find a community that will value you.

article originally published at Online Journalism Review.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey