Lessons from Reporters - by on Monday, February 18, 2008 6:25 - 2 Comments

Ed Sussman – What Magazine Websites Will Look Like In Four Years

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"When editors are going to assign a story we typically think about different elements that go into it; who is the writer, who is the photographer, do we want a video or a podcast or any kind of poll? Now we ask an additional question: what is the community aspect?"

 

I met Ed Sussman briefly at the Networked Journalism Summit where we talked about Drupal, a subject I’m fond of. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ed, along with Lullabot, was working on a massive relaunch of FastCompany.com using the open source content management system Drupal.

If you haven’t checked out the site – you should. It is one of the most sophisticated implementations of Drupal I’ve seen. The NY Observer, for example uses Drupal in a very sleek manner – and while the site looks great, the social networking capabilities aren’t there. Fast Company, however, is trying to leverage the networking aspects of Drupal in every way possible – from user-generated content blogs, to bookmarking, crowdsourcing questions and letting people make business contacts. They’ve spread their arms out pretty wide in the hopes that they caught something interesting for everyone. I think they are about 3-5 years ahead of their time in terms of internet publishing with a major magazine.

I caught up with Ed briefly to talk about the new site and what lessons there might be for beat bloggers. I think Fast Company is moving more and more in the direction of beat blogging – and their website is about 3-5 years ahead of their time in this respect. If you have any doubt about their intentions – just consider their recent contract with Robert Scoble, one of the original great bloggers period, who today literally broadcasts moments of his live in streaming video via Qik, Twitter, Facebook and whatever means he can, to connect and chat with viewers in real time.

So, without further adieu – here’s the interview.

This site is more than just "beat blogging" – it’s creating a network for your site. You have dived head first into the deep end. Why?

One of our editors at Fast Company print magazine used Facebook to network and track down a source and even used it to conduct part of the interview. It was a little gimmicky but he just wanted to see what it would be like to do it through Facebook.

What we are doing now is not a gimmick. It’s more profound. It will allow people to ask journalists questions and they can answer directly back on a daily basis

Fast company is a business magazine which focuses heavily on innovation. I think not only do we have more license to be experimental on our site, there is an expectation that we will be on the cutting edge. That’s been the case since the site launched in 1995.

We start with that – that there is an expectation that we will be innovative. Also, we are preaching to our readers that they should be innovative. We are not a ‘just the facts’ type of publication, we have a point of view. It’s not political, it is in favor of innovation and people taking risks in business, so it just follows that we should do the same.

I think this is where media companies that have websites will all get to pretty soon anyway, in the next 3-4 years. I think we are a little ahead of the curve – the idea of heavily involving your community, if you truly are a website that attracts a readership of a common interest — then you have a community and you should listen to them. Letters to the editor are not enough, that’s very old fashioned.

What’s the history of this?

We’ve had community on our website for a long time. This isn’t going from 0-60 for us. It’s more like 35-60. We had a bolt-on community since 1997.

I refer to it as a bolt on community because it was a fully functional social network but it was not integrated with the rest of the website. It was a place where the rest of our audience could meet, greet and see each other and make friends.

That took us to 100,000 members and they were pretty passionate and they still are. They had 200 groups around the world that would meet every other month or so. They came together because they liked to talk about business, they used the web of friends to learn about each other and make friends. It is like an early version of meetup.com but limited to business and discussion about technology and innovation.

But we didn’t know who they were and we weren’t capturing what they were saying and doing at their meetings either. Here are all these people that are meeting because they love Fast Company and there was no way for us to capture that. We had somebody on the road who would go from meeting to meeting, but that doesn’t scale very well. There are only so many cities you can absorb with one person taking notes. It’s not a bad thing to actually meet people in the real world but we wanted to hear what they had to say and capture the content they had on the website too. So we are first and foremost giving the community a lot of tools.

We also were thinking; there are a million people on average that come through the site, that’s from our internal logs, so there are at least 900,000 who don’t participate in our community aspects at all, because it might be too much for them to join a local group. But those people might still have something interesting to say that we are interested in hearing – so we wanted to recognize that they are part of the community and find a way to include them in an easy way.

Turning the light on for the invisible community that is already there. Excellent. But tell me, how does this change the journalism? What’s the relationship between journalism and reader or source.

We started thinking about journalism as we were building it.

We made a commitment in 2003 in Fast Company that we were going to have the voices of outside experts in significant numbers, so we created FC experts to blog and we got about 60 of them now.

But there are lots of people who want to contribute and had something to say. We didn’t have the capacity to treat everyone as op-ed contributors. Right now, with only four days since we launched, there are 353 blogs from readers. I spend a lot of time reading through these and a lot of them are great, we are pleased to include them.

We had something like 12,000 people sign up in our first few days in addition to the people that were already members. The level of participation is pretty high, but I think the larger number of people don’t want to make a commitment to do a blog. But we have lots of people who are microblogging. They are answering questions and participating in the discussion that way – the "fast talk" microblogging is becoming really popular

[Fast talk is an aspect of the site where questions are posed such as:
Q: Can a business publication blend journalism and online community to create something better than either by itself?". All answers are accumulated in your profile.]

I call it a microblog because it’s not just an answer to a question, you can click on their profile and anything they answer whether it’s a question or a comment or a blog post. If all they do is answer a couple ‘fast talk’ questions a month, in essence, they are blogging in a guided way, answering questions which our journalists are posing to the community. In fact, you can subscribe to their feed externally or internally, so you can follow all the content on our site. There are people already who are answering every single question and they seem to like that a lot more than blogging. I also like the fact that our editors are in there mixing it up with them.

So we intend to do a whole bunch of projects that are based on what our users are contributing to the dialog, a dialog that we are provoking. It can be as simple as testing the waters with these questions and it can be more subtle, such as sourcing via our own membership, looking for people who have interesting ideas and expertise – using our membership because we are drawing on a community that thinks innovation and business is important and I’m pretty impressed with the level of expertise of those who are participating.

It’s all very visible too. We are very transparent to the outside world. Everyone can now tell who our readers are in great detail. This is something that media companies might have to grapple with. For the advertisers and readers its a very open approach as to who is on the site, which is pretty different. I know social networks do it, but media sites don’t. But it can be a pretty amazing resource for our journalists to source our own readers.

What were we going to do before? Put a link on our home page "do you want to participate in a story about next generation automobiles?" That was the extent of what we could do before. But now, if we want we can search for people who have good credentials in a field, put up questions about the topics we are writing about and follow through with them directly on the site. We are just beginning to think about larger scale projects that we can coordinate with the magazine as the membership gets bigger and more robust.

So what were any issues along the way?

We had to think through some issues. First, we identified the eight main topics that we cover. Everybody that sets up a profile has to let us know which of the eight topics their content fits into and then do some free form tags. If a member doesn’t choose one of those eight topics, then their content and their profile isn’t going to bubble into the directories for each topic. There is no chance. You could submit something way off topic, but you’d have to actively be disingenuous to tag it as something to be in technology or design. And we have a team of people who are filtering for bad content and will send gentle reminders ‘please don’t tag that it’s about something when it is not.’ The organizational framework allows us to align our professional content and our member content in a way that makes sense to the readers and keeps things still ‘Fast Company’ in terms of what people are writing about. And then we select the best to highlight on the home page.

The fear is that readers will create content that is inappropriate or unrelated to the brand – we are pretty pleased so far. It’s really self-tagging and the members are regulating it themselves.

How does the journalist’s job description change?

For some it doesn’t change at all, for others it changes a lot. There are some people who are long-form feature writers, who will remain long form feature writers. They are not going to be moderating groups, but they will probably answer a lot of questions and messages about the stories they write and engage in more personal conversations. Some of our journalists, like Charles Fishman, write six or seven features a year and turn out a book every year and a half. Thats still what he is going to do – but he will engage with our audience in a much more direct way.

Other people have totally new jobs: The senior editor at the website became senior editor / community director. She is in there answering as many questions as she can that need to be answered. She is working full time with the community, so it really runs the spectrum – some people participate with the community full time – and others who are doing long form.

When editors are going to assign a story we typically think about different elements that go into it; who is the writer, who is the photographer, do we want a video or a podcast or any kind of poll? Now we ask an additional question: what is the community aspect? Are we going to form a group? Are we going to ask a question of the audience? Are we going to have the journalists within the groups doing live discussions (which hasn’t launched yet, but will). It’s something that has to be considered in every major package now — how is the community going to participate? It could be an all out group – Green should be a big initiative so we should hire green bloggers in the group ahead of time and monitor the group to see what companies they suggest? Community is just one of those parts that editors have to consider along with thinking about the photography for a big package.

It makes it less of a one shot deal, but a continuing work and discussion that is going to have a life for months or years because of the community.

What advice do you have for beat bloggers?

I have very specific advice – they should set up groups right on FastCompany.com, announce what they are doing and tap into our membership so they don’t have to build this platform themselves. They should try us the same way they are trying Twitter or Facebook. They can blog in the group for all members to see and they should keep opening up discussion topics and move around the site and invite members who they think might be appropriate for their stories — and try to invite them into their group. The platform is there and it’s free. It carries our branding on it, but so what, if you are using it to gather information.

So what’s the bigger idea?

The platform is in pretty good shape and we’ve started discussions with four different media organizations about using our platform to power community on their sites. You wouldn’t be able to tell it was FastCompany, the only condition is that people search and the group search has to link everybody together and the signup has to be the same across all websites. We could make something significant like Facebook and LinkedIn – those don’t have to be the only networks people participate in.


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About BeatBlogging.org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.