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Many news outlets today have editorial team members who have the specific role of engaging with the online community, be it a social media editor or community manager, if not a department focused on this area.

Online community and social media management also falls within the wider toolbox of most digital journalists as well, if only to a certain degree, and is a part of their day-to-day role.

The news communities which they are enagaging with can be on the news outlet's own website, perhaps discussing issues in a forum or in the comments below an article, or they could be elsewhere on the web, such as on the many social networks at people's fingertips.

So this was a hefty subject to be discussed at the International Journalism Festival this week, where a panel, featuring director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and former deputy editor of Guardian News & Media Emily Bell, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media Steve Buttry and social media editor for Reuters Anthony De Rosa, came together to do just that.

Below are seven key takeaways from their discussion, which range from useful considerations for others working in this space and reasons to enage, to tips and advice for how to be most effective in engaging with your audience.

1. We don't know everything, be part of the community and embrace the power of the crowd

A point that has been made more than once during the festival this week, and as highlighted by Emily Bell in the communities session, is that "those who work in journalistic organisations do not own the news".

Therefore, the power of the community is undoubtedly a useful resource for journalists in a number of way.

"We don't know everything about everything, there are people in our communities who know more," Bell explained, adding that "having their active help and cooperation" can help journalists in many ways, from enhancing their reporting and fact-checking to flagging errors.

And journalists can also play an active community role in "engaging and pushing issues and making connections between other people in the communities", she later added.

Steve Buttry also spoke about the way journalists and news outlets can help already established communities "have more meaningful engagement than they currently have".

2. It might not directly make money, but the community is still a key business factor

One of three principles of community engagement raised by Bell is the need for news outlets "to remain relevant".

While the news business has, and continues, to face challenges to its traditional models, it is important to remember that the audience remains central, she said.

"If you don't have an audience you won't have a business model of any description".

For listeners of NPR, or those who pay the licence fee to the BBC, she added, "how you feel about those media brands is absolutely key to those business models".

Digital First Media's Steve Buttry added that "community has value that's clear but not tangible".

He used the example of Digital First Media title the Register Citizen in Torrington, which opened a newsroom cafe to engage with its audience in the offline world.

Journalism.co.uk has reported before about how the work the Citizen did with its newsroom cafe, and more broadly by inviting the community in to share in its editorial processes, helped boost digital advertising revenue.

Speaking this week, Buttry said "part of it is, our digital first focus is not just news and it's not just community engagement, it's doing a better job of selling digital," but added that the success was also because there was "a product the community cared more about".

And so it is "good for the community to be engaged," he said. "There's benefit to the community, and a healthier community is healthier for businesses serving that community".

Similarly, Anthony De Rosa said "there isn't a direct correlation you can point to about how much revenue it generates", but the impact of effective engagement is the "idea that you are listening to what they have to say".

And it is that connectivity to your community which then offers the "tangible effect" in terms of how the news organisation is viewed and regarded, he said.

3. Don't be afraid to get involved in the comments - and early on too

Another subject discussed by the panel was the level of comment quality, and what could be done to maintain a certain standard.

Emily Bell discussed a "simple experiment" which was carried out by the former head of digital engagement at the Guardian Meg Pickard, which found the "only thing that had a significant impact" on comment quality "was if the author got involved" in the conversation "within the first five comments".

During that stage of the conversation it seemed the active presence of the journalist was able to impact the manner of the discussion, she said.

4. You don't have to be on all platforms, but consider their journalism benefits

De Rosa said when it comes to which social platforms journalists are active on, is an individual choice, with some appealling more to different people.

Buttry added that journalists do not have to be active on all possible platforms, but he encouraged them to gain an understanding of they might be useful journalistically.

"When you see something knew, start thinking 'how can I use this as a journalist?'.

Although he added that journalists working in the world of breaking news being on Twitter, for example, is key.

5. Consider context and tone

Returning to the subject of comments, the panel also discussed moderation as well as how journalists, community managers or social media editors themselves should "behave".

In terms of moderating, De Rosa said that at Reuters there is a "certain level of decorum and [we] have a standard of what we want people to contribute".

The idea is to create "a place where people go to as much as they go to the articles".

Emily Bell added that it is important to remember that the community themselves often "view it as their domain and their material", so if the news outlet "pull things out of talk threads", for example, "it's still quite a shock to the community to see you do that," she said.

Therefore it is "important you have the right tone".

And when it comes to a journalist's own interactions, consider the context, Buttry said. "If the conversation is on your site, completely different thing to the conversations you join out in the community on someone else's," he said. "Context matters".

6. Refusing anonymity may not solve quality issues


Returning to the subject of quality conversations in the community, and the panel discussed the issue of anonymity.

Emily Bell said while "the enforcement of genuine identity" may mean "people are possibly more civil to each other", she argued that it also "stifles conversation".

"It's not an easy problem for news communities to crack", she said. In fact Buttry said DFM is "still wresting with the anonymity thing".

"It's not as cut and dry as we'd like," he said, "but I favour accountability and ways to maybe reward accountability", giving the example of using technology that would elevate comments left by those identifying themselves.

De Rosa added that "even if people put their name on comments they still say really horrible things".

"The role of the community manager is very underrated and I don't think there's any way to cultivate a community unless you have someone managing that community."

7. Professional news outlets still play an important role

Similarly, Buttry added that more generally in the digital communications space, the role of the professional journalist itself remains vital.

"As far down as I can see, there remains and will remain value in providing some meaning and sense and verification," he said.

"Reporting the news and breaking stories has always been a messy situation", he said. Even if we return "to the pre-digital days", he added, there would still be "the confusion", it would just occur "on the grapevine rather than Twitter and Reddit".

"If the professional media are just part of the chaos of what's not true then we lose some value... But there will continue to be some significant value in being the source that sorts it out and finds out what's true."

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