Friday, July 25, 2008

Virtual Community or Private Club?

I've blogged before about the efforts of my hometown newspaper, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, to promote citizen journalism on its Web site. (See archived blog entry from March 14, 2008.) In my judgment, the editors* are sincere in their efforts to use the Web site to build a virtual community that supports and enhances the "real world" community.
(*Disclosure note: the top editors of this paper and leaders of this effort are friends and former colleagues, as I worked at this paper for more than 20 years full and part time.)

But I noticed something recently regarding audience reaction that makes me wonder whether the development of an online community supportive of the geographic one is really happening with regard to one of the tools the paper hopes will accomplish this -- the threaded message board forums.

Since the D&C relaunched the site, I've been regularly reading and occasionally participating in the forums. One thing that stood out was the large number of "regulars" among the participants. So one night recently I did a quick study of the frequent posters and their contributions, and came to some surprising conclusions. The forum area, a Gannett template using software called Pluck, conveniently reports total number of threads and posts in each forum area, and also reports stats with each user's avatar about their most recent post and total number of posts. That provided the data needed.

On the evening I did the analysis (July 17, 2008), the total number of postings since the March re-launch was slightly more than 10,000 (10,356 to be precise) in 42 forums. The individual forum totals ranged from around 4,100 posts in the "Open Forum" (where threads of any topic may be started) to zero posts in some of them. The forums devoted to individual communities are notably under-used; among the 14 devoted to Monroe County towns most have only a handful of threads and at most a few dozen posts, sometimes months old. Two forums dedicated to neighboring rural counties have total postings in the single digits.

But what was really interesting was the user analysis. By going through the most popular threads and looking at the most-frequent posters, I compiled a list of what I believe to be the "top 20" users based on total number of postings. (Disclosure note no. 2: that's not based on an exhaustive review, but I believe it to be reliable. In other words, in my quick review of the forums I may have missed one or two individuals who belong in the "top 20." But if I did that wouldn't change the numbers; if anything, it would make the results MORE top-heavy.)

Among these frequent posters, the top three accounted for nearly a QUARTER of the total postings. Together just three pepole tallied 2,481 postings out of the 10,356, or 24 percent. Notably, these three know each other and a great many of their posts are basically conversations among themselves. Two are friends -- a couple, actually -- and the third is an antagonist whose postings frequently are insults directed toward those two or rebuttals of insults they have made against him.

Working down the list, the "top 10" posters (including these three and seven others) accounted for about 40 percent of the posts -- 4,228 out of 10,356. Just 20 frequent posters accounted for more than HALF the total -- 5,337 out of 10,356, or 53.5 percent. I was, frankly, surprised that it was that heavily skewed.

The goal of setting up forums is to provide a community "conversational commons." And 10,000 entries since early March averages out to more than 500 a week, nearly 80 a day. Taken at face-value, those numbers seem to be reasonable indicators of good community conversations developing. And some of the forums are explicitly linked to off-line communities of interest, including area oenophiles and young professionals, and many conversations there are specifically tied in to offline community activities such as meetings and events. These are very explicit efforts to support the offline community with the communication tools of the online community, and something the paper is very committed to encouraging.

Also, the forums are not the only place citizens can partiicpate on the D&C's site. The paper has a number of designated community bloggers whose blogs appear on the same page with several staff blog. Any registered user also can maintain a blog, and most-recent entries are featured on the same page as those staff and community bloggers. An editors' blog allows readers to register questions and concerns about coverage and many stories have online chats associated with them where readers can comment separately from the general forums area.

But as this drilling-down into the numbers indicates, among the general forums only a tiny fraction of the user community is actually accounting for a large proportion of the activity, creating the potential for conversations to get lost in the "noise" generated by a huge number of postings by the regulars. The situation could be analogous to people who want to get into a conversation at a party but can't because it's dominated by a few fast-talkers who never let others get a word in edgewise. In the D&C's case, it probably doesn't help that the "top three" have a reputation for being aggressive and often insulting in their comments, primarily to other regulars but sometimes to newcomers as well. (One of the top three has boasted in forum postings that he does this intentionally as a conversational tactic, to see if newcomers will stand up for themselves or "run," i.e. quit posting.)

There's no real answer to this conundrum. If a forum is open to the community, then it must be open; it makes no sense to put limits on how frequently or how many postings an individual may make. And it's not as if there is any sort of upper limit on the number of entries in a thread, so postings by the heaviest participants don't prevent others from joining in -- except in the sense that people wishing to join the conversation might not because the thread looks like a small-group activity not welcoming to outsiders. (The party analogy again.)

I'm curious what others make of this. When we talk about "news as a conversation" does this qualify? Is it a useful exercise for the community just to have the facilities for a conversational commons available, even if they are dominated by a relative handful of users? Is it a useful exercise for the news organization that sponsors it? Does anyone know of any research into this phenomenon that is more systematic than my back-of-the-envelope quantitative case study? Comments would be welcomed and appreciated!

Convention Programming Set (repost of earlier entry)

The Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group has a strong lineup of research presentations, panels and other activities scheduled for the annual AEJMC convention, to be held in Chicago from Wednesday Aug. 6 through Saturday Aug. 9.

CCJIG programming actually will start the day before the formal convention, with a special half-day program exploring "The Past, Present and Future of Civic/Citizen Journalism" taking place at Columbia College of Chicago from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 5. There is no charge to attend, although registration would be appreciated because refreshments will be provided. For information or to RSVP, contact CCJIG Co-Vice-Chair Nikhil Moro at

Two other highlights during the convention are CCJIG's co-sponsorship of a mini-plenary session on "The Transformation of Print Journalism" planned for Wednesday afternoon and sponsorship of the always popular and informative J-Lab Luncheon on Friday. The topic of discussion at the luncheon by a panel of media industry professionals will be "Networked Journalism: The Changing Face of News." CCJIG also will sponsor two panel sessions on teaching practices and two on industry practices.

For information about all of these programs see details below. For more information about the convention in general, including registration and travel details, visit AEJMC's site at

Hope to see you there!

CCJIG Program Schedule for Chicago Convention

Tuesday Aug. 5 (Pre-Conference)

"The Past, Present and Future of Civic/Citizen Journalism."
2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

This pre-conference event marks 20 years of the Civic/Public Journalism movement with three 75-minute panel sessions and a short tour of the Department of Journalism's Convergence Newsroom at Columbia College Chicago, which will serve as the venue. Some issues to be addressed include: How should the modern press re-engage with its communities? How do principles and practices from the public journalism movement address that need? How could representative journalism work? What are some newer media formats being used by hyperlocal journalists?

Part 1:
Title: Civic/Public Journalism 2.0
Description: 1988 marks 20 years since the Civic/Public Journalism movement started
in the U.S, advancing the need for the modern press to re-engage with its communities. Where do principles and practices from the public journalism movement now inform the press? How does the past inform us about where Civic/Public Journalism may influence future avenues toward press re-engagement with citizens?
Presiding/moderating: Jack Rosenberry
Jay Rosen, New York University; Ed Lambeth, University of Missouri; Mark Deuze, Indiana University; and Burton St. John, Old Dominion University

Part 2:
Title: Meet the Press: Hyperlocal, Community and Citizen Media in Chicago
Description: This panel will deliver insights into how the ecospheres of citizen and hyperlocal journalism coincide in Chicago, the storied "City of Neighborhoods." The panelists represent a variety of media, from print to video to Internet and include journalists who are experimenting with new media forms and community members who are creating media.
Presiding/Moderating: Barbara Iverson, Columbia College Chicago
Nikhil Moro, Central Michigan University; Suzanne McBride, Columbia College Chicago; Adrian Holovaty,; and Steve Rhodes,

Part 3:
Title: They Blog for Journalism Change - And It Pays Off
Description: Jay Rosen turns from the guru of public journalism to the guru of citizen journalism by starting innovative projects like Off the Bus and on his blog. Jeff Jarvis, former journalist, starts blogging about journalism change and then gets appointed to associate professor of journalism and director of the new-media program at The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Leonard Witt introduces a new idea called Representative Journalism at his blog Out of the blue, the head of a family foundation emails him and starts to underwrite Representative Journalism projects. Mindy McAdams, author of Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages, uses her blog to catalog and critique the latest developments in digital storytelling, from Flash to databases to video.
Presiding/moderating: Kim Pearson, The College of New Jersey
Leonard Witt, Kennesaw State University; Jay Rosen, New York University; and Mindy McAdams, University of Florida

Directions to Columbia College: From the conference hotel (the Downtown Marriott on Michigan Avenue), go about a mile south on N. Michigan and turn left on E. Congress Pkwy. The Convergence Newsroom is located in the Journalism Department suite on the second floor of the building at 33 E. Congress.

Wednesday Aug. 6: (General Conference)

3:15 p.m.: Mini-plenary session "The Transformation of Print Journalism"
Description: This program will feature industry and academic experts from the Newspaper Division, Media Management and Economic Division, Community Journalism Interest Group and Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group examining the future of the genre known as print journalism -- which is rapidly transitioning to print/online hybrids, greater diversification and niche approaches in audience/content strategy and business operations.

5 p.m.: Panel session: Sustaining Innovation in Journalism
Description: Turning a great idea into long-term community change, anticipating the sustainability question for civic and community journalism training program proposals and creating a culture of constant innovation in the newsroom will be explored in a program sponsored by CCJIG and co-sponsored by the Newspaper Division

Thursday Aug. 6:

8:15 a.m.: Refereed research session on theme "The Transparency of News in the Digital Age"
Paper titles and authors:
  • Writer Information and Perceived Credibility of Stories on a Citizen Journalism Web Site; Kirsten Johnson, Elizabethtown College
  • Participatory Journalism and the Transformation of News; David Ryfe and Donica Mensing, University of Nevada, Reno
  • A Study of Journalistic and Source Transparency in U.S. Online Newspaper and Online Citizen Journalism Articles; Serena Carpenter, Arizona State University

1:30 p.m.: "Scholar-to-Scholar" Refereed research poster session
CCJIG will have five entries in this popular research venue. Paper titles and authors are:
  • Is there an Elite Hold? Mass Media to Social Media Influence in Blog Networks; Sharon Meraz; University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Developing a Citizen Journalism Site at a Small College: Lessons Learned as We Launch; Tamara Gillis, Heather Tillberg-Webb and Kirsten Johnson, Elizabethtown College
  • Madison Commons in Wisconsin: Experimenting with a citizen-journalism model; Sue Robinson, Cathy DeShano, Nakho Kim and Lewis Friedland, University of Wisconsin-Madison;
  • Journalism-as-a-Conversation: A Concept Explication; Doreen Marchionni, University of Missouri-Columbia;
  • Youth Make the News: A Case Study of Three Youth-Generated News Websites; Jeffrey Neely, University of Florida

3:15 p.m.: Panel session titled "College Papers' Mission: Confronting Issues of Responsibility, Diversity and Press Freedom"
CCJIG and the Minorities and Communication Division are co-sponsoring a session featuring student newspaper editors and academics

5 p.m. Panel session titled " What the F***?!! Dealing with offensive postings on news Web sites."
Description: In recent years, news Web sites from Washington to Los Angeles have encountered profanities, obscenities, racist comments, flaming and other offensive postings on their discussion/message boards. Some Web sites, such as the, have shut down certain boards to prevent the online publication of foul language. Other Web sites have started vetting messages before they are posted. This panel co-sponsored by COMJIG and CCJIG session will provide case studies, best practices and legal and ethical advice about discussion-board content.

6:45 p.m. Member meeting followed by executive meeting.
As with last year, CCJIG and COMJIG are planning to meet jointly for a while, separately for a while, and hold executive meetings after.

Friday Aug. 8:

12:15 p.m. J-Lab luncheon "Networked Journalism: The Changing Face of News"
Description: From crowdsourcing to user-generated content, community news sites to nonprofit news, former news consumers are now actively committing random, and not so random, acts of journalism. Sometimes they are competing with mainstream news outlets and sometimes they are collaborating with them. How should newsrooms and classrooms prepare future journalists for participating in community news and information networks? And how can journalists use the networks to juice Big-J Journalism?
Funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation

3:15 p.m.: Panel session titled "Whose Learning Curve Is It? How Technological Advances Have Changed How We Teach Journalism."
Description: CCJIG and COMJIG again are collaborating on this session featuring strategies for incorporating digital media into civic-oriented student media and courses.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

CCJIG Recruiting Officers

With the annual AEJMC convention coming up in Chicago just about a month away, one of the preparatory tasks of the outgoing officers is to recruit a slate of candidates to serve as officers for the coming year.

Several current officers have volunteered to step forward into the key leadership roles of group chair, vice chair (responsible for programming) and research chair. But several other positions are vacant at present, and we are hoping to find individuals interested in filling them. These are the Teaching and PF&R officers, Secretary and Newsletter Editor.

All of these are could be considered "entry level" officer's roles, and are excellent opportunities for anyone interested in the group to become involved in a limited way to learn more about it and get to know others involved with it a little better. Full "job descriptions" can be found below.

Anyone interested in serving in one of these capacities, or in finding out more about the positions, may contact current Chair Jack Rosenberry at

Teaching Chair

Primary responsibility is to coordinate and support the group's activities directed toward teaching and pedagogy on the subject of civic and citizen journalism. Specific tasks include:
- Writing or soliciting other members to write articles about teaching related to civic and citizen journalism for the newsletter and blog.
- Working with Web master to update teaching tips area on Web site
- Providing ideas for panels for the convention on teaching-related topics, and helping programming chair(s) evaluate teaching panel submissions. Better still, going the extra step and organizing and moderating such panels for the convention.
- Monitoring teaching activities by the group and its membership for inclusion in the annual report due to AEJMC headquarters in June.

Professional Freedom and Responsibility (PF&R) Chair

Primary responsibility is to coordinate and support the group's activities directed toward what AEJMC calls "Professional Freedom and Responsibility," which basically means members' interaction with the media professions on five primary levels as identified in the AEJMC code of ethics. They are: (1) support for and encouragement of freedom of expression; (2) support for and promotion of ethical behavior; (3) fostering of media criticism and accountability; (4) encouragement and recognition of racial, gender and cultural inclusiveness; and (5) encouragement/recognition of public service by AEJMC members and media representatives.

Specific tasks associated with this include:
- Writing or soliciting other members to write articles on PF&R topics for the newsletter and blog). Note: This is a very broad area; nearly anything having to do with civic/citizen journalism activities in the professional world would qualify.
- Providing ideas for panels for the convention on PF&R related topics, and helping programming chair(s) evaluate PF&R panel submissions. Better still, going the extra step and organizing and moderating such panels for the convention.
- Monitoring PF&R activities by the group and its membership for inclusion in the annual report due to AEJMC headquarters in June.


Primary responsibility is to compile official proceedings of the interest group to be used in preparation of annual report and otherwise for documentation to AEJMC headquarters if called for.
Specific tasks associated with this include:
- Minutes of membership meeting at convention
- Summary report of any "virtual" meetings conducted by executive board via e-mail during the year, especially regarding decisions made/actions taken

Newsletter editor

Primary responsibility is to produce two issues of the newsletter during the course of the year, early fall (ideally, an Oct. 1 printing/mailing deadline with the call for panels/proposals in it) and late winter/early spring (ideally, a March 1 printing/mailing deadline with the call for research papers in it).
Specific tasks associated with this include:
- Soliciting articles from other officers and members to be published in newsletter. Editors occasionally write articles, of course, but are not expected to and should not write the whole thing themselves; they need and deserve support from others.)
- Editing, designing and producing the newsletter using a layout program such as Quark or In Design, and creating it as a PDF for posting on Web site and for production work by AEJMC staff.
- Serving as liaison with AEJMC staff for printing and mailing of the newsletter.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Call for Teaching Ideas: New Methods for Our Changing Media

As we're teaching our students about new ways that journalists use digital technology to connect with audiences, we're often exploring new methods ourselves to make our points.

As we teach about change, we're adopting our own new approaches. In this, we mimic those in the field who are involved in a continuing quest using trial and error to find effective techniques.

It's time we begin sharing more of our experiences and learning from one another. Here are some questions we can try to answer:
· What techniques have you adopted and which ones seem to be succeeding?
· What unintended consequences have you discovered?
· Have you introduced a class blog? How do you manage it?
· How are your students responding to this new approach?
· What sort of issues have you experienced in assessing student work?
· What should others know before they attempt a project similar to yours?
· Do you have a means of evaluating your new methods?
· Have you gathered empirical data that you can share with others?
· Do you have ideas for gathering meaningful evaluative data?

Those of us in the Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group look forward to sharing our ideas. Please join us as we compile our ideas and comments. Let's turn this into a conversation that benefits everyone. We are weighing a few different means of publishing this information, from creating a compendium to posting ideas on our group's Web site at to adding to our weblog at

To participate, please send your ideas to Glenn Scott, CCJIG teaching chair, at We will gather, edit and post from there.
Please keep your comments concise. This blog will welcome participation via comments. We'll follow AP style as long as it seems applicable. Be sure to include:
1. Your name and institution.
2. Name of course and your main teaching goals.
3. Number of students.
4. Length of time or number of semesters/quarters you've used the techniques.
5. Please add other salient information that will help the rest of us.

Thanks for your interest in participating!