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    How to Use Meta-Stories to Engage the Newsroom, Community

    by Roland Legrand
    January 19, 2010
    Chris Pirillo at LeWeb09 in Paris. Image via Blogowski on Flickr

    How do we create a community? This question is frequently asked by editors as well as by marketing managers and other business people. More and more, I don’t think you can create communities.

    Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.

    You'll be surprised how much your community will teach you -- not only about the news, but about what you do."

    In December, I attended the LeWeb conference in Paris. I was impressed by Chris Pirillo, who told us that people who view communities as “tools” are tools themselves. Control is an illusion. (In fact, during his passionate presentation, Pirillo said “control is bullshit.”)

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    With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a simple way to make your newsroom or website do a better job of connecting with the community you serve: writing meta-stories.

    Meta-stories are stories about what’s happening on your website, and about what happens in the newsroom. They’re a great way to engage the community.

    Tell a Story From Forums, Comments

    We allow people to post comments directly to our newspaper’s website, but we intervene and moderate whenever the debate gets personal or off-topic. This is a story in itself. I have started writing a daily story about the comments on our site and in our discussion forums. I’ve been amazed by the hidden gems of insight I’ve found. It really is a story in itself to examine how people react when a story breaks, and how the discussion evolves.

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    It’s also important to have a forum where people can come together and interact. This is a way for them to help tell a meta-story. Using CoveritLive, I hold chat sessions each weekday (for between 30 and 60 minutes) with or without a special guest. (We’re a financial newspaper, so mostly we chat about what happened with the markets.) This synchronous contact with our community builds trust. Beyond that, often people make very useful suggestions, like “why don’t you publish that investment guide each quarter instead of only once a year, we really like and need it.” Or they suggest interesting new angles for news stories.

    Allow the Community to Listen In

    My next way to create a meta-story is very simple: I talk to my colleagues. I ask them what they’re up to, and what their thoughts are about ongoing stories. I just jot down a list of topics and ideas and post them on our financial blog. This becomes a story about what’s going on inside the newsroom as we prepare our reporting.

    Go Where Your Community Is

    Once I’ve written my meta-stories, I share them on Facebook and Twitter in order to try and reach an even broader group of interested people. But even though I use Facebook and Twitter, I suggest focusing on the places where the community tends to focus its presence and attention.

    For our paper, we generate the most debate and comments on our website, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Our audience is interested in finance and economics, which means they have an interest in innovation and technology. But they’re not geeks and aren’t necessarily tech savvy, meaning that only a minority of them actively use Twitter.

    Even though I’m personally inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, I force myself to hang out more on our site. Maybe it’s not the latest in social media technology, but it’s where our community hangs out.

    They Actually Like It

    At first I was afraid that community members would complain about my comment meta-stories: ‘Why did you mention his comment and not mine?’ It didn’t happen. People actually told me they appreciated the effort, even if they weren’t the one being featured. I also get the impression some of them have started writing carefully worded comments in order to be included in the comments story.

    As for my colleagues, my fear was they would object to being quoted when they are in the early stages of their reporting. It seems, however, they have no objections at all. They actually seem to appreciate the fact that their work is being noted and updated, and all they have to do is to speak to me or to jot down what they’re up to — much like status updates, in fact. It gives the editorial work a stream-like, real-time web urgency.

    Keep Things Simple

    So forget about complicated community-building strategies. Meet the existing community you want to serve, talk to them, talk to your colleagues, write down the whole process, and put it out there for everyone to read. (This approach works equally well for those who work with sound or video.)

    Then combine that with a synchronous session (such as chat) and have real-time interactions. You’ll be surprised how much your community will teach you — not only about the news, but about what you do.

    *****

    I’d love to hear about your suggestions and thoughts about using meta-stories! Please share then in the comments.

    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.

    Tagged: chat comments communities coveritlive online communities
    • I love this idea, Roland… it’s very relevant to my work managing a project involving 12 organizations. For each org, there are multiple producers involved, and multiple products. How do I best “tell the story” of the work that’s happening – both to convey the pulse of the project, and its key successes, back to the funder, and to share information and best practices among the partner orgs themselves? I’m finding that “meta stories” are a critical tool (though the best vehicle for sharing these stories is still TBD, with people already drowning in info overload). Increasingly, it seems that in our industry, an effective project manager really needs to be an effective storyteller…

    • Hi Amanda, personally I find the good “old” blog format very useful to tell those stories, and of course talking about those posts on twitter and facebook.
      Using the blog format is great because it makes it very easy to use a conversational, informal style.

    • “Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.”

      So easily forgotten, also in many cases communities are observed by marketing , as this faceless blob to be aimed at, without the insight to see communities are made up of individual’s.

      One other rule of thump that needs to be considered, is not how many times the input in the debate is flung from media site to site, vie twitter, facebook or any other, but whether it is not only read, but commented on?

      Many a time one wonders whether writers of blogs ask themselves ,

      “am I making sense? ”
      “am I adding to the discussion/debate”
      “or am I simply gaining badges of honour for the number of blogs I can churn out, which get bounced from media site to media site?”

      with respect to the last question on purely anecdotal evidence, and I will spare the blushes of those concerned, I asked
      “what did you think of so and so’s blog with regard such and such” reply was “sorry not read it”, to which my response was “but I only found and read it because you not only tweeted the link, but also re tweeted so and so who also tweeted it”

      My point? All should actively seek to debate/discuss, answer comments on your blog, you are not a newspaper, and in these times of change there are no authorities just active members of a community.

      Julius Sowu Virtually-Linked

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