How much ‘lived experience’ does your news site cover?

News, Community, and Lived ExperienceOne of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news. If you want to miss the opportunity with blogs and other forms of participation, go ahead and focus solely on news. You’ll be missing out on the vast majority of ‘lived experience’ as the Center for Citizen Media called it in a must-read report called “Frontiers of Innovation in Community Engagement“. I’ve been quiet this week because I’ve spent a lot of quality blogging time digesting the 66-pages in this report and the annual State of the News Media 2007 report, which if printed out would come to 600 pages.

In the Frontiers of Innovation report, Lisa Williams, with Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, have examined in detail both what works and the commonest mistakes and misconceptions made in building communities online. This paragraph and the graphic above just leapt off the screen at me.

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organizationis that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Too many times, news organisations look to participation to simply bolster the mainstream news agenda, not to broaden it. What stories are we missing? What part of the audience are we ignoring? Whose viewpoint are we ignoring?

I still remember last December when Clyde Bentley spoke about his project at a event where I also spoke. Clyde said that his team had expected more discussion and stories about politics, especially during the US Midterms elections last year. As a matter of fact, he said:

You know what’s not popular? Politics. … Religion is far more popular than we predicted. And pictures of dogs, cats, even rats trump most copy.

Banal? Clyde even went on to say that journalists are rather poor judges of banality.

Sometime we get so close to the stories we cover that minutiae excite us a lot more than they should. I lived in and covered Washington for six years for the BBC, and I saw this happen in the Beltway bubble. Certainly, there are C-SPAN junkies that love to watch the minute-by-minute movements of the machinery of politics, but for every political news junkie, there are hundreds if not thousands of other people interested in a myriad of other things – minutiae by journalists’ standards but deeply important to them and their communities.

That’s where the bulk of the opportunity is for communities for news organisations wishing to launch community sites. It’s not all about hyper-local sites, although location is a good thing for people to coalesce around. But it will definitely require journalists to think outside of their own box if their community strategies are to succeed.

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