Analysis, Lessons from Beat Blogging - by on Thursday, July 3, 2008 9:17 - 0 Comments

Sometimes a Ning social networking site won’t work for your beat

One of the original 13 beat bloggers, Daniel Victor, is stepping away from his Ning social network that he built for his beat because of a lack of participation.

Ning is a service that allows people to set up their own social networks on any topic. Victor called his “Hershey Home,” because it was a place for people from Hershey, Pa. to talk about what was going on in their community. He also wanted to make contacts, and he did make some worthwhile contacts through the network, just not that many.

The problem was that the social network never got enough buy-in from the community, and Victor admits its not a very technologically inclined population. Just 36 people signed up and only 15 wrote something in the discussion forum. Only five members started their own discussions.

He’s not going to close the network, but he is stepping back and
concentrating on other Web efforts. Ideally, Victor would like to find
a community member to take over the network and try to make it into a
community gathering place. At first, Victor wanted it to be a place to discuss hard news, but he eventually realized that it would make more sense if it were a community gathering place to discuss any issue.

Victor, however, is not giving up on building an online community. His paper is launching a new blog for Hershey, which might allow for Victor to organically grow a social network. They are even allowing users to make their own blog posts (moderated, of course).

The idea of allowing community members to make their own guest posts whenever they feel like it might be a good way to get buy-in from the community. Whether or not community members will regularly make guest posts remains to be seen.

The other big issue with Ning is that it’s not part of Victor’s newspaper, The Patriot News. People have to go out of their way to get to Hershey Home. The new blog, however, will be part of his paper’s Web site. That should make it much easier to get buy-in from the community.

Kent Fischer told me that he wishes he started blogging before trying to set up some other social networking utilities around his beat, and Victor came to the same conclusion as well. Those efforts didn’t pan out for Fischer, but a social network organically grew around his blog. Once a blog gets established with regular users, a Ning network might be a way to take it to the next level.

In many ways, blogging before something like Ning is like learning to walk before you run. Establishing a successful, dedicated social network is difficult for anyone to pull off, especially if there wasn’t an online community to build around in the first place. A blog can give you that base to build from.

“At the beginning it showed some promise,” Victor said about the Ning network. “People were contributing a lot, but by the end the participation had gone down a lot.”

Victor originally hoped that people would make their own posts and that he would be more of a moderator, but he found out that he had to the catalyst for discussions on the network. Victor didn’t always have the time or energy after he got done with his other work to be starting discussions.

Victor also listed on his blog what worked well and not so well with Ning:


  • Though the network didn’t bear much fruit in terms of immediate translation to the print product, it did help create offline relationships that were very important. Contacting these people, either by phone or by e-mail or by messaging new members, meant I was able to make personal contact with 36 potential sources I might not have otherwise. A lot of public and private messages on the forum led to productive phone calls.
  • As I detailed in an earlier post, the site’s mere presence was an advertisement for my willingness and desire to hear from residents. I called it an “Open for Business” sign.
  • Due to my insistence that members use their full, real names, the quality of conversation was usually higher than some of the noxious forums that are used otherwise. The members often expressed appreciation for that.


  • It hasn’t been the “Set it and forget it” reporting solution I hoped it might be. One time a big story broke, and I only had about two hours to gather community reaction. I took 20 very precious minutes to pull into the Panera Bread parking lot to use the wifi and solicit reaction on the site. I e-mailed all the members to let them know of my desire to hear from them. When I came back two hours later to see the mountain of riches that had come in, there wasn’t a single message in response. I ended up just calling one of the members.
  • In a community with very little activity on social networking sites, it was difficult to find a full buy-in to the concept.
  • The site did nothing to overcome what residents have repeatedly called a “culture of fear” when it comes to criticizing local officials. So in some of the most contentious and important issues, the ability to be anonymous elsewhere redirected traffic to those other forums.

None of this is to say that a Ning social network can’t work for your community, or that “Hershey Home” won’t be popular one day, but it may not have been the best first course of action for social networking.

Listen to Victor discuss what went wrong, what went well and what
he will be doing in the future with social networking for his beat:

Click here to stream the interview. Or click here to download the MP3.

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About 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. 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.