Recently, the New York Times appointed its first ever community manager, someone to “concentrate full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers.”

Of course, the New York Times is a huge operation, and has an enormous community of print and online readers/users. Do we at Mediafin need a community manager at our newspaper? Or maybe we already have community managers, but we forgot to tell those people that they are, in fact, community managers?

Our newspaper may be smaller, but more questions than scale alone can be raised about the need for a community manager.

Shouldn’t every journalist help to manage the community? Once a journalist engages in a conversation with his readers, whether on forums, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or on his or her own website, that journalist is managing a community — if the conversation is done right.

A good conversation means that the journalist actually listens to reactions and suggestions, intervenes if reactions threaten to lower the quality of the discussion, and asks for input on upcoming stories or for feedback on published ones.

However, even though journalists have a crucial task here, I am convinced a community manager is essential for our media.

I have been reading a special report by ReadWriteWeb about community management. It consists of a 75-page collection of case studies, discussions and advice concerning the most important issues in online community. Complementary to this, ReadWriteWeb offers a companion online aggregator that each day delivers the most-discussed articles written by experts on community management from around the web.

The report includes case studies in various industries, such as newspapers. Reading this and reflecting on my own experiences, I have to recommend appointing community managers at media companies.

Five jobs for a community manager

So what is the role of a community manager? I’d like to suggest this non-exhaustive list of 5 key points of attention:

  • Helping the individual journalists enter into conversations with the community. It is not yet the case — at least not at my newspapers — that journalists happily enter into conversations with people commenting on their articles. They don’t use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn enough to research and promote their stories. Someone has to point out the possibilities and help them with this new media. That someone could very well be the community manager. Besides, new tools develop so fast — for instance, various Twitter clients, Twitter tools, the Google Wave project — that someone has to cover these rapid developments.
  • Thinking about the design of the website and the print publications. Does this design facilitate conversations? Is it possible for the community to rate comments and articles, to look up profiles of journalists and fellow members?
  • Developing formats to enhance immersion into the community. I think synchronous online events, like live blogs, regular and special chat sessions using 2D tools or even virtual environments, are important here.
  • Developing formats for events in the physical world. The community manager would put together community conventions, feedback sessions, and specific conferences. The manager would think of ways we could better organize these physical encounters, using online tools to create interaction long before the event takes place and continuing long after the actual encounters.
  • Dealing with criticism and irritation. The community manager would be the advocate for the community in the newsroom but would also explain the newspaper’s coverage and reporting decisions to the community in response to criticism. The organizer would help the community to understand the behind-the-scenes “making of” aspects of news reporting. This overlaps with the traditional role of the public editor or ombudsman.

Blurring boundaries

As yet our publishing company has no formally designated community manager. But several people are involved in some of the above mentioned tasks, so we do have some experience with community management. From this we learned that managing a community can blur the boundaries between marketing and journalism — an unsettling proposition.

Once individual journalists are told to promote their projects by using social media, they actually become marketers.

And once the community manager wants to organize feedback sessions and community events, one can be assured the marketing department will take notice.

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Traditionally, journalists are wary of becoming marketers. In the division of labor they are used to, they search for the truth, write or make videos, pictures and illustrations, and a completely different department — the marketing people — promote all this beautiful work in the marketplace.

The problem is that not only is journalism a practice in transition (crisis?), but so is marketing. Since the Cluetrain Manifesto was written, there has been an ever increasing awareness that marketers too need to acknowledge that hysterical campaigns full of empty slogans no longer work. They too need to engage in honest conversations with the audience.

At least, that is what I think about it. So my colleague Raphael and I decided to run our latest social media workshop not only for our fellow journalists, but also for our marketing colleagues. I’ll let you know how that works out!

Crossing boundaries

Maybe less controversial, the community manager is a person who will have to meet lots of people. The people formerly known as the audience, of course, will be a big part of that, but the manager will also have to deal with event organizers, marketers, site developers and fellow journalists.

Thus it is very important that the manager has a clear mandate and the support by the publishing company leaders, because being the voice of the community can and will cause tension. But then again, it will also point out opportunities, and actually engaging in a conversation with a whole community is an exhilarating experience.

In my humble opinion, the community manager becomes the chief deconstructor of boundaries — the boundaries between community and newsroom, and between storytelling and story promotion.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.