By: Steve Outing
by Steve Outing, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000
I’ve run three Internet ‘lists’ (a.k.a. discussion boards) for several
years, and I know first-hand that the concept is a wonderful way to
create a strong community among online users who share a common
But when I look around at discussion boards operated by newspaper Web
sites, it’s only rarely that I see online community bonds as strong as
those I experience with my own discussion lists. While my discussion
lists focus on professional topics (online news and online writing),
there’s no reason that lists focused on newspaper-appropriate topics
– be they a local zoning controversy, the hometown pro football
team, or parents concerned about their kids – can’t be just as good
an experience for list subscribers, and attract loyal followings.
In this article, I’ll offer some advice on how to make your news Web
site discussion boards a compelling component of your online
The person behind the curtain
The most important element of a discussion list is the person who sits
at the center of it. Every list needs a person (or two) who guides the
discussion, keeps things on track, helps attract active participants,
and serves as a focal point for list subscribers. Sometimes this person
will serve as a ‘moderator,’ screening messages as they come in and
forwarding approved ones on to the list’s members. Most lists, however,
will be unmoderated, so that the role is one of ‘administrator.’
Administrator doesn’t sound particularly glamorous, and to be sure the
list administrator’s job often involves drudge work – like
responding to subscriber questions about how to unsubscribe, change
their e-mail address or method of message delivery, etc. But there’s
more to it, and the job does get more interesting.
A good list administrator takes part in the ongoing discussion,
contributes his or her own thoughts to threads, and starts new threads
when things get quiet on the list. By virtue of being the person
‘standing on a podium’ in the middle of a crowd of people with a common
topic interest, the administrator attains a sort of ‘celebrity’ status
I noticed this when I launched my first discussion list, Online-News, back in
1995. I quickly became perceived as an ‘expert’ on the newly emerging
field of online news publishing, and reporters began calling me when
they wrote about Internet news topics. At the time, I hardly felt like
an expert, but my position at the center of this online community meant
that some people perceived me as one.
Newspaper discussion boards likewise should have an ‘expert’ overseeing
things. One of the most common mistakes is to open a discussion board on
a topic and expect users to make it work. The person ‘behind the
curtain’ is all important.
Every reporter gets a list
A great strategy for a newspaper company is to require each of its
reporters to be the host or administrator for a list (or more than one)
on his or her topic area. The sports reporter covering the local pro
football team hosts a list about the team. The city hall correspondent
hosts a city politics discussion forum. The legal affairs writer hosts a
list community for local lawyers. And so on.
The benefits to reporters for taking on this role are significant. While
it does eat up some of their time – and I urge publishers to allot
some of each reporter’s time to list hosting duties, so they’re not
expected to do it all in their spare time – it’s a good trade. When
a metro reporter hosts a discussion forum on local zoning issues, for
instance, his position as a local expert on zoning is confirmed and
Other benefits for reporters include getting better informed about the
topic(s) they cover. Many participants in a topical discussion list will
be experts in the topic. The reporter will be able to use some of them
as sources for stories, and list subscribers will suggest ideas that the
reporter will want to pursue. The reporter who hosts a discussion list
on the topic of his or her beat will be a better reporter than a
colleague who does not.
Lists, lists, lists
A major fault at many news Web sites that host discussion lists is that
they don’t have enough of them. Typical are sites that have lists on
several sports topics (local teams, or generic sport lists like
‘baseball’ and ‘hockey’); several generic news forums (‘city,’ ‘state,’
‘national,’ ‘world’); and a smattering of discussion lists on hot topics
of the day (for instance, a list to discuss the TV show
Survivor). That’s not nearly enough.
Here’s a better line-up (made possible by having many reporters serve as
hosts for lists covering topic areas where they are experts, or finding
outside expert volunteers host lists under the news organization brand
Sports: A discussion list for every local team at the
pro and college level, plus high school. Sports reporters can handle
administering the pro and college team forums, but high school teams may
be a challenge. Consider establishing discussion lists for every high
school sports program, but recruit a coach or interested parent to be
Also set up lists for various sports: football, golf, tennis, rock
climbing, etc. A golf or climbing list, comprised of local athletes,
will become a central community for local sports participants. They’ll
use it for everything from socializing, to selling used equipment, to
setting up tee times or climbing dates.
Entertainment: Take the same approach as with sports. Host
lists on topic areas like bluegrass music, jazz, hip-hop, classic
movies, local musical theater, etc. And have lists devoted to popular
local bands or local celebrities.
Politics: Again, go granular. Set up forums not just for
‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but for local city councils, boards and
commissions, local politicians, etc. Have lists devoted to each of your
national representatives and senators, the governor, and other notable
public officials – so voters can discuss the politicians’ actions
and voting records. (A newspaper’s political reporter is a wise choice
for hosting these lists.)
Food, gardening, hobbies: Many topics that are covered in the
typical newspaper make for great discussion forums. A chess columnist
might host a news site’s chess discussion list. A food editor can host a
recipes list. The gardening columnist hosts the regional gardening
techniques list. And so on.
Current events: ‘Permanent’ lists like those described above
tend to attract loyal subscriber bases, and that’s great. But lists that
can become really popular are those created based on significant current
events. If a local event of the magnitude of the Columbine High School
shootings occurs in your news organization’s back yard, set up
discussion forums immediately. They’ll likely be used for a long time to
Obviously, be prudent in starting temporary discussion lists based on
news events. The idea is to create them when you know that the news will
be generating discussion among your readers for many months. The
Survivor TV show (and no doubt some of its off-shoots) is a good
example. Tiger Woods is the hottest athlete in any sport right now;
ergo, a Tiger Woods discussion forum might make sense, as he chases golf
A criticism you often hear about this strategy of having many focused
lists is that they won’t attract enough audience. The last thing you
want is to host a bunch of dead discussion forums. The answer to this
problem is to read back a few paragraphs to the section about the
importance of having a credible, highly visible person at the
center of the forum. Part of this person’s job will be to attract
interested people to participate. A forum won’t be dead if there’s a key
individual who’s driving it.
Hosting many discussion lists is now quite simple, since list server
software has advanced considerably in recent years. There are many
e-mail list service bureaus operating now, but typically they charge per
list – which can get prohibitively expensive if you follow my
advice and create dozens of topical discussion lists.
A better approach is to purchase a robust, industrial-strength list
server application and run it on your own server – and thus have
the ability to create as many lists as you desire.
A revenue model?
Publishers often think of e-mail discussion forums as nice services to
offer online users but not significant money makers. Actually, when
discussion lists are narrow enough, they can serve as great sponsorship
vehicles. A sporting goods store, for instance, might agree to be the
sponsor for a number of sports-related lists – for high school team
lists, a softball list, etc. A concert promoter might sponsor various
local entertainment-related lists.
A serious consideration if you decide to seek sponsors, however, is that
the discussion must be kept under control at least somewhat. If a list
is frequented by people who post abusive messages (‘flames’) or the
discussion is seldom on-topic, sponsors won’t want to be associated with
the list. So, to return to an earlier point, your lists must have
administrators who police subscriber behavior (and kick out
trouble-makers) and nurture the ongoing life of the list.
Other recent columns
In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to
the last few columns: The Interactive Newspaper Columnist, Wednesday, August 30
Writers vs. Newspaper in San Diego, Wednesday, Augst 23
Do News Photographers Have a Wireless Future?, Wednesday, August
16 Archive of columns
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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Online.
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