The exact numbers are somewhat fluid, but most analysts agree that only 1-5 people out of every thousand that visit a UGC site will actually contribute something. That works out to between 0.1 and 0.5%

That is a very small group to base the success of your community site on. Small, fragile, fickle and easily discouraged by trolling and flaming.

The Guardian had this take:

you shouldn’t expect too much online. Certainly, to echo Field of
Dreams, if you build it, they will come. The trouble, as in real life,
is finding the builders.

I come to this question because of a recent screed by Paul Gillin on Newspaper Death Watch, micturating on the idea that newspapers should be concerned with building a community. Gillin is skeptical about communities (H/T to Amy Gahran at Poynter for bringing this to my attention) because, he says, “the question came up about what publications can do to build community.
I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try
because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.”

Apparently, Yelvington has beaten me to the punch here, with this post “Bzzzzzt! Wrong! Community should be job #1”

This is just thoroughly, thoroughly wrong, utterly self-defeating.

Failure to build community is one of the many reasons so many
newspapers are in so much trouble right now. Yeah, the Internet this
and the economy that and television blah blah blah, but don’t overlook
“failure to lead.” Far too many newspapers have either intentionally
abandoned or simply lost interest and wandered away from the mission.


Community doesn’t scale. I’ve previously written about the Dunbar Number.
Each of us has hard-wired limits, so don’t go looking for nationwide
“USA Today” community around general news. That’s clearly the wrong
place to look.

Because of the scale issue, community flourishes in the niches, and
geography happens to be one. But as I’ve said before, this whole notion
of “hyperlocal” seems to be sailing over most journalists’ heads. Or
beneath their noses.

Oh yeah. Yelvington says that when you do research, you find that newspaper readers are seeking some kind of connection. Since, to my knowledge, newspaper readers are, in fact human beings, rather than thin-sliceable demographically segmented consumerbots, yeah, that would follow.

So here’s my research. It was my first story for OJR, and still the foundation of a lot of my thinking about what newspapers + New Media are capable of, and why the old-school values that we’ve lost along the way are the keys to survival.

The nut grafs from the interview I did with Bob Cauthorn are as relevant today as they were three years ago, when I first did them:

Looping back to Point Reyes, what you see there, and I do think
there is a metaphysical story in there – not metaphysical as in magical
– but deeply emotionally compelling. And that’s why I’m delighted that
you’re bringing this story to light. Because what this tells you in no
uncertain terms, with a kind of heat and passion that I wish existed in
the normal newsroom, that our public wants us to succeed.

public wants us to survive. Our public wants us to thrive. Our public
wants newspapers that matter. Our public is leaving us because we are
chasing them away with a stick.

Folks, the core purpose of a newspaper is to allow a community to have a discussion with itself.

The Light survived because it was such a part of its community that the whole town banded together and refused to let it die. The ongoing saga up in Point Reyes only proves this point – since Mitchell sold the paper, it has strayed from its purpose of providing the community with a place to have a conversation with itself. The community has reacted like an organism, stricken with a particularly noxious infection; it has isolated the Light and formed antibodies (the West Marin Citizen) to combat the toxic intruder. Feel free to chime in the comment section with your own similes involving raw sewage, surgical waste, etc.

So here’s how I tie this together. The reason that so many newspapers are getting things wrong is that they seem to expect to just set up a “Community” section and have every reader show up and eagerly start shoveling stories, photos, videos, etc. into their CMS. Oh, if only. Newspapers, as Yelvington noted, have been bought up by “giant, faceless corporate chains” which has cost them their connection to the community, and thus their position of leadership in the community’s conversation with itself. Which is why our civic sense of decency has become necrotic & foul.

The problem, as I see it, is that newspapers haven’t quite gotten that even on the most successful UGC site, the percentage of people actually contributing content is miniscule. The commenters (latter-day letters to the editor) run about 10%. And to even get that, you have to:

  1. Actually reach out to the readers – make them aware your community site exists.
  2. Care about them – as more than just stats that allow you to gouge advertisers for more money.
  3. Know what they care about, and what they want to see.
  4. Give them a good reason to respond and reward them when they do something right.
  5. Have provocative content – rather than he-said she-said stories that make the corporate lawyers happy.
  6. Have sysops, board leaders and wizops that monitor the conversations and spice things up when they get moribund.
  7. And … aw hell, just read the goddam Cluetrain Manifesto again. It tells you how to do this far more eloquently and effectively than I ever could.

It’s not time to dismiss “Community Building” as yet another Web 2.0 consultant meaningless buzzword. Community is the frickin’ core mission of the newspaper – or indeed any local media. It’s just that to do so, newspapers are going to have to disaggregate, along the lines of what Bakotopia has done; split into niche groups that allow people to actually talk to their neighbors about things that are geographically significant/interesting/infuriating/delightful. You know – the way that newspapers used to do, before they got so self-important, pretentious and serious…