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Are newspapers communities?

The question of whether newspapers are communities is a fascinating one. A comment on a post by Ross Mayfield who is guesting on Shane Richmond’s Telegraph blog raises the question this way:

Ross – would you describe a newspaper like the Telegraph in terms of being a community? And if it is, how would you go about mapping the ‘real-world’ relationships into an open online network? What’s the minimum that needs to happen in order to bring the community to life online – as in which tools, incentives and benefits of participation?

Mayfield has responded in a post which examines the way in which social software can be leveraged to form real world communities. But he starts:

Newspapers are brands that unite communities, and definitively serve communities, but I’m not sure you can call a newspaper a community. I’m sure we can all identify as newspapers as conversation starters. Two guys walk into a pub and say, “did you see that article in the Telegraph?” But the community is in the proverbial pub.

I believe that is true, but in the past many local and regional newspapers were communities. This was a difference between the national and provincial media. There were papers that were seen as “part of the community” and those from London which looked at the community from outside.

In a recent post I wrote about the history of the Bristol papers and the founding of the Evening Post which carried this line below the title: “The paper all Bristol asked for and helped to create.” It was the arrival of a new paper owned outside the city that led a Bristol community to found its own newspaper.

Now that the Evening Post is now controlled from outside Bristol and has become much more a product serving the community, a “brand” in Mayfield’s word.

Not that many years ago there were a lot of small independent newspapers, often run by one journalist, sometimes with the help of a junior reporter. Those papers were an intrinsic part of their communities. The editors were a part of the communities, often smoothing social interaction but sometimes taking sides.

Much of the space was taken up by submitted copy: who played the organ at Dove Holes Chapel, the thrilling darts final at the Kings Head, the funeral of the former school dinner lady and the prize winning dahlia in Kingston St Mary. A lot of the content was provided by members of the community — today some would call them “citizen journalists”.

Gradually these papers, like the city regionals, came under the control of large groups and the links that made them a part of their communities were broken. They had become brands serving the community.

Except that people are prepared to contribute to “their” media, I am not sure there are many lessons to be learned from the past. Online communities built around newspaper websites are going to be very different. But I have no doubt newspapers can be part of communities, not simply observers.

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