Paul Bradshaw on investing time and effort to attract "the right kind" of contributors to a news site

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 29 March 2011

It is a couple of weeks ago now that I attended Paul Bradshaw’s inaugural lecture at City University, entitled “Is ice cream strawberry?”. Paul has made a multi-part essay version of the talk available on his blog, and you can view the slides on SlideShare. Over the next few days on currybetdotnet there are a couple of points he made that I’d like to dwell on, and the first is about users and community.

News sites have, most people would argue, found it very difficult to engage with the large mass audience that they attract. As my colleague Meg Pickard has often observed, communities online form around niches. A general interest in news is not a niche. On guardian.co.uk for example, we have very strong community areas around something like the Reader’s Recommend series, but they have a topic given to them and a united interest in being knowledgable about music. That isn’t the same as investing 30 seconds of your life commenting “I’ve never heard of this band, why is this news?”.

In his talk, Paul Bradshaw said that the news industry needed to have a very different relationship with the audience. Harking back to the early days of the twentieth century, he suggested that companies used to see the workforce as a necessary burden, an unreliable drain on company resources. This has changed, so that the majority of companies now see their staff as an asset to be trained and invested in. He thought we needed to make the same shift with our users - instead of seeing having to engage with them digitally as a time-consuming and resource eating problem, we should be seeing our audience as an asset to the brand. Any online organisation that doesn't include readers in the production chain is inherently inefficient.

For those suggesting that news sites attract a lot of detractors in their comments, he had this counterpoint. He asked how much work is being put into attracting the right kind of contributor to news sites, and how much time is invested in nurturing them by the business?

I was reminded of Joanna Geary’s keynote talk at news:rewired before Christmas. She is in the unique position of being an online community expert working behind the only universal pay wall in the UK national press. In her talk, she discussed the quality of contributor being more valuable than the quantity. The race to chase ever more eyeballs and grow ever more unique users meant that you were in a constant battle to optimise your site to attract new users, at the expense of building a relationship with your core loyal audience. Joanna argues that the people who comment on The Times site now have a much closer relationship with the journalists than they ever had when the paper was free for everybody on the web.

It was also worth noting that around the time of Paul’s lecture, ESPN made an announcement that indicated a change of tack for their online community activities. Bill Simmon’s new blog is going to have membership restricted to around 300 commenters. It will be interesting to see how the selection process works, and whether having a limited set of contributors will increase the quality of conversation whilst maintaining the volume of conversation.

Next...

Tomorrow, I’ll be reflecting on the challenge that Paul laid down in his lecture to the egotism of journalism as a profession.

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