“Community management in the newsroom” - The Guardian’s Laura Oliver at Hack/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 2 August 2011

I’ve said on many occasions that I am genuinely baffled how so many news organisations seem to think that they can grow an active community on their website, without investing in any community management. At the Guardian we have several people in a role called “community co-ordinator” who fulfill this remit. One of them, Laura Oliver, spoke at the last London Hacks/Hackers meet-up. She talked about some of the lessons she and her colleagues on the news desk, James Walsh and Hannah Waldram, have learnt from doing community management around the Arab Spring, a topic on which the paper has been relentlessly live blogging.

Laura described their role as a mix of “representing the reader in our editorial decisions about news on the web” and “looking at social media until my eyes go square”. For me, it is one of the most necessary roles in the digital newsroom - and one that is so often sadly under-valued by the news industry in general.

Here are my notes on four of the key points that Laura made in her talk.

Expect the unexpected

Laura explained that your users will not use the website in the way that you do. You spend months working on your website, understanding how it all fits together. This means nothing to your users, and it is terribly easy to build things because “it suits you” and “looks nice”, without considering how it could be used. You had to get the user experience right, she said.

She cited the example of the Guardian setting up an Audioboo channel for users to contribute audio. The idea looked great on paper, but the barrier to entry was too high. Instead, giving out a phone number that people could call, and simply hooking up an answerphone proved an incredibly popular and easy way of submitting content to us.

Reward your loyal audience

Laura rightly said that “building good news communities is not about collecting people”. It is easy to generate 1,000 comments, she said, but you want to find the really engaged people amongst them.

“If you treat those people well and reward them properly”, she said, “they become part of your team. They become the first layer of your community management and moderation.”

“They've become like our police on the site”, she added, explaining that they point people to the community standards when they are in danger of breaking them, or tell people to ignore the trolls. When this starts happening, you know you have a successfully formed community.

You are not the only source in town

If ever you wanted proof that the idea that users stick to one news source and trust it for all their news needs is a busted flush online, you need only look at the comments underneath a fast moving live blog. Sometimes it almost seems like the commenters are competing with the journalist to bring in the latest links and snippets of information from around the web.

This is, Laura said, incredibly valuable if used in the right way. By keeping an eye on the threads you are picking up lots of tips and links that enhance the blog “above the line”. Your audience helps make your website a definitive resource and guide to a topic.

Take care of your community

Laura finished with a very thoughtful point, saying that increasingly she worries about what happens when “you take someone from a community away from their website, and by linking to them, suddenly turn all the attention that the Guardian has onto their video or blog”. The attention and criticism from a Guardian audience can potentially be withering. Laura has been pondering what happens after the event, and how the Guardian can help support people in that situation.

News is social

One of the points I made in my response to Andy Rutledge’s news redux is that news is social and has always been social. The increasing two-way and peer-to-peer conversations enabled by news providers are just the latest incarnation of the shared experience of news that goes back to the days of the town crier or communally sitting in a darkened cinema to watch the newsreel.

Despite the sometimes abrasive nature of debate underneath our articles, working with the social and community aspects of guardian.co.uk is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, even more so since we have had community co-ordinators in place.

And it does make a difference that the audience appreciate - one of the comments left on a recent blog post talking about the Comment is free redesign simply said:

“Another thing I very much appreciate is that people like Laura Oliver, Hannah Waldram and James Walsh spend time on the various live update article threads to ask people questions, offer links to stuff and generally participate. That is excellent.”

Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks brings together notes from 16 talks, including those from Martin Rosenbaum, Stephen Grey, Alastair Dant, Scott Byrne-Fraser and Wendy Grossman. It looks at topics of interest to journalists and programers alike, including freedom of information, processing big data sets to tell stories, social activism hack camps, the future of interactive technologies, and using social media to cover your tracks - or uncover those of somebody else.
Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks for Kindle is £1.14.

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