The Twelfth Night – An epiphany for community journalists?

Originally uploaded by Pics by K.

So we reach the twelfth night, an evening normally associated with taking down Christmas decorations. But in Italy it’s the children’s Christmas when the good witch La Bafana visits families leaving gifts of fruit and sweets for children. And like La Bafana I am here to deliver a final Christmas gift – a blogpost rounding up my 12 Days of Christmas uploads.

Looking back over the previous days, I am finding a clear theme emerging in the content – community. As Adam Westbrook said back on Day 8, it’s becoming a big thing for journalists.

In an earlier post I highlighted the role of community manager as a key discipline for journalists in the future. Laura Oliver, who started her new job as a community manager at the Guardian earlier this week, told me that media organisations are taking this role more seriously. In the clip recorded back in June she said that community management is becoming a distinct role with its own set of skills.

For Adam Westbrook, the community manager must understand how to bring people together and connect people through mailing lists and events.

But Kevin Marsh, the director of the BBC’s College of Journalism, said that news organisations are still trying to perfect the concept of community and the roles that support it. In his view, the role of community editor has been too much about gathering user generated content.

Marsh favoured a more proactive model for community editors to encourage members of the community to collect evidence and for the editor to process it and fact check it. “Pushing as well as pulling” is how he described the interaction between the editor and community.

Marsh said that part of the role should be finding gaps in a story and encouraging the community to supply the missing information. “A lot of community editors should see themselves more as a newsroom editor,” he added. This reminded me very much of the open approach of the Help me Investigate blog and Guardian journalist Paul Lewis.

Marsh also discussed journalist’s reluctance to embroil themselves in data – something that I sense that has improved since our conversation in June. But what interested me more was his views on how journalists should go beyond the story and share relevant information about issues affecting their community.

Innovations like the Chicago Crime maps would help citizens to take action in their community, Marsh said. But he acknowledged that many journalists would be uncomfortable with this idea:

“They want to see the story, tell the story. ‘Bang’ it’s gone.”

What this points to is a much more long term and dare I say it, closer relationship between journalists and their “community”, whether it is one based on geography or interest. For community editing to work in the way that Marsh advocated (which overlaps with the role of the social reporter that was described on Day 2), the story must not be seen as the end product.

The role of community manager is of course slightly different from that of community editor, but the same principles apply. Both are about relationships and both are about the long haul.

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