Home, Home on the Web: Giving the Audience Some ‘Space’ of Their Own

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By: Steve Outing

Here’s something I don’t get. MySpace and Facebook are among the most successful media-related enterprises on the Web right now. Millions of people — yes, more of them young than old — are creating their own personal spaces online at these huge websites, sharing their lives, often in intimate detail, with the world. Through this deeply personal publishing, people are hooking up and communicating with friends.

Yet with rare exceptions, the newspaper industry is avoiding this personal-page and social-networking trend — well, other than Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., since he had the foresight to purchase MySpace; I’m sure we’ll eventually see some collaboration between MySpace and Murdoch’s more traditional media holdings.

But when it comes to the typical news company allowing its users to craft a “place to call their own” online and network with others, perhaps the concept remains too foreign for news people’s sensibilities. How about if we get over that outdated reaction?

Start With the Staff

I don’t want this column to become a rant, but one of my pet peeves about news sites is the lack of personal pages for editorial staff members. Read an article by a reporter online and you might get an e-mail address and phone number (which is good!), but seldom much information about the journalist. Bio pages seem most often to be left to the paper’s stars.

Thomas Friedman and other op-ed columnists at the New York Times, for example, get bio pages and personal pages that aggregate the content they produce for the website and coverage of them.

Meanwhile, staff reporters like William Neuman, a Times real estate reporter (and my brother-in-law), get only an archive page that aggregates what they’ve produced for the Times — no personal page. Neuman writes a weekly Manhattan real estate column called Big Deal, yet his byline doesn’t even link to his other writing (or archive page), nor is there a tagline that mentions anything about him.

Here’s a better approach for newspaper websites to take: Give every reporter and columnist their own personal page (a sort of MySpace space for professionals). Items to include:

— Bio section. Description of the journalist’s career and personal interests, including photos.
— Links to previous work.
— Any coverage of the journalist; external articles or profiles of him or her.
— Aggregation of reader comments to the journalist’s published work.
— A Q&A feature (or forum), where readers can directly ask a question of the journalist, and even talk among themselves about the person’s work.
— The journalist’s blog. (I think every journalist should have a blog, as a venue to interact with his or her readers, let them know what he/she is working on, and as an outlet for interesting stuff collected by the journalist that otherwise doesn’t have a home in the newspaper or on the website.)

In the last couple years, the notion of “news is a conversation” — promoted by industry thought leaders like Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor — has begun to take hold. Well, news isn’t much of a conversation if the news professionals don’t bother to share a little of themselves and engage in the conversation. So news organizations can start by giving some “space” to their working journalists.

Pages for the People

But that’s just the start. My larger message with this column is to invite online readers in, similarly. I mean giving them space, inviting them to become part of the news conversation, and facilitating communication between readers who share interests in the news or specific slices of it. (But before you can do that, you need to take the more elementary step of getting the editorial staff to join in.)

An example of this can be found in Bakersfield, California. The Bakersfield Californian’s Bakotopia website takes a quasi-MySpace approach, allowing any user who wants one to create a personal page — uploading a photo, telling a little bit about themselves, describing their interests, etc. (Here are some examples.) Now, Bakotopia is not the newspaper’s main website; it’s a Craigslist- and MySpace-influenced online community and free-classifieds site, where Bakersfield residents can go to sell a bicycle for free, look for a job, learn about local bands’ upcoming gigs, or meet up with friends or others with shared interests.

Bakotopia users are mostly younger people; the website is designed to attract that demographic. Its users are the generation likely to use MySpace. Yet there’s a good reason to create such an online community: As popular as MySpace may be among young people, it’s still a national company that can’t get as deep locally as a community-based online operation like Bakotopia. Just because MySpace is a huge success doesn’t mean that local news organizations should give up on the personal-space and social-networking market.

Bakotopia’s model makes sense for a youth-oriented website run by a news company. But I’ll go further out on a limb and suggest that a variation of that model needs to be taken to more traditional news sites. Here’s my prescription for creating within a news site a place for readers/users to call their own — and start to feel a part of the news conversation.

User bio and photo(s). Simple enough. Not much to say about this basic component.

User content. The cutting-edge news website these days invites readers to submit their news and information (that whole “citizen journalism” thing). The user’s page, then, should aggregate and archive what the user has contributed to the site: local news items; opinion essays; photos and videos; user blog items; comments on staff stories and other users’ submissions; comments within the websites’ forums; community calendar submissions; user movie or other reviews; etc. (The user’s other interactions and business dealings with the newspaper company also should be part of this — subscription information, classified ads placed or purchased, etc.)

User’s blog highlighted. A growing number of news websites now host blogs written by their users. If a site user has such a blog, then this should be a highlight of a user’s personal page (possibly the centerpiece of the page). If the user blogs on another platform (a distinct possibility), then figure out how to support integrating that into the user’s personal page by using the blog’s RSS feed. If a user already publishes photos on a national image-sharing site like Flickr, then support displaying those within the user’s personal page.

User-interest tagging. Bakotopia does a nice job of this. Its users, when creating their personal pages on the site, list their personal interests, which are displayed on their pages. For a user who lists “shoes” as an interest, clicking on the “shoes” link brings up other users who are passionate about shoes. I think you can apply that concept to more serious matters, so that people who are interested in evangelism, say, can get connected.

User’s news interests and expertise. Here’s a component of this that I think is really interesting and promising. Develop a community members’ expertise resource database, and integrate that into user personal pages. For example, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, has had a reader advisory network for several years. Online publisher Ken Sands developed it, and reporters use the reader database to look for sources on stories they’re working on.

The way this works in Spokane is that readers who have had contact with the newspaper in the past have been entered into the database. When a reporter has a story about, say, a rash of burglaries in a particular neighborhood, e-mails can be sent out to people living in the area asking if they have been victims or know neighbors who have been burglarized. Obviously, that’s a great and efficient reporting tool.

So, take that concept and integrate it with users’ personal pages. By developing a strong user-personal-page program, a newspaper is building a useful reporting tool. And for website users who participate by having personal pages, they get to participate more directly in the news product. We talk so much in the news business these days about being more interactive with the audience and allowing them to participate. Well, there’s a great way to support that.

The 800-Pound Gorilla

“What’s the point of local user personal pages and social networking?” you may be saying to yourself. “MySpace has already grown into such a behemoth that news organizations (other than Murdoch’s, perhaps!) can never catch up.”

It’s true. Just as eBay became an online auctions powerhouse and dominated the space before most newspapers even came to recognize that this might be a logical area of opportunity for them, MySpace has become the dominant player in social networking and personal pages. But I don’t think that’s reason to avoid what is obviously a promising area of the online world, as I expressed above.

But MySpace vs. getting into the social-networking space yourself needn’t be a zero-sum game. I encourage news organizations to also take an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. Utilize MySpace by providing content that MySpace users who are in your customer base can include on their MySpace personal pages.

This might mean letting users create a custom feed of news on topics that interest them and creating a news ticker that they can insert into their MySpace personal pages. If your user blogs on your news site, then do the same for his or her blog items. Don’t try to get your users to stop using MySpace in favor of your offerings, but figure out how to become part of your user’s MySpace experience.

An example of what I’m talking about can be found here. A California skate company has figured out that maybe it can take advantage of the MySpace community by providing them with a stream of news about skating. MySpace users who are passionate about skating can put the rolling news ticker featuring skating news on their pages. News companies might want to consider something similar.

I’m confident that social networking a la MySpace is not a “flavor of the month.” There’s still time to figure out how it can benefit news websites and their users.

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