To its surprise, the FT Alphaville team discovered little more than a month after its launch, that members of new online community, the Long Room, had started to meet independently and in person.

"Sometimes they invite us along, and sometimes they don't," explains Paul Murphy, Alphaville's editor, to an AOP forum on online communities

Fellow speaker Julian Gairdner, online editor of Farmers Weekly, describes how online agricultural dating, new blogs and tractor video clips have redefined the title's online presence and scooped it the AOP B2B online community award earlier in the year.

Farmers Weekly Interactive (FWI) is as important to the brand as the print product, he says.

Here, Journalism.co.uk rounds up how the two specialist publications facilitate and troubleshoot their online communities of readers:

Reader connection

FT.com: The Long Room was built on Alphaville's existing identity, Murphy says, adding that while he sees Alphaville as the 'alter ego of the FT', it's sometimes referred to as the 'bastard child of Lex'.

"Where the FT is an old, established newspaper (...) [of] considered opinion and fact, the blog is clearly different," he said.

The Long Room is based on Alphaville's popularity and the recognition that conversations were starting to take place independently of its journalists.

The Long Room is 'very much driven by them [the users]'.

At a publication like the FT 'your readers will tend to be a unifiable, unique bunch and you have to listen to them', Murphy says.

FWI: Initially it was difficult to see how farmers would use the online space, but it has taken off in many directions: there are now over 42 farmer blogs and FWI has hosted over 100 videos, describes Gairdner.

Another massive success in the community is the regular Farmer Frank live chat using CoverItLive technology, which has attracted up to 129 users and 73 questions in the timeslot. The average user participates for 23 minutes - an impressive amount of time in web terms,  Gairdner adds. 

Different from print
FT.com: Several hundred comments will come in during one MarketsLive session, Murphy says, describing how they have had to bring in new technology, like a 'zapper gun', to cope with comments, which come in every few seconds.

FWI: Going online first has challenged some of the die-hard journalists, but now the model is working, says Gairdner.

While the web-only approach allows competitors to pick up stories before it has appeared in the magazine, an online focus has expanded their readership - traffic has increased 73 per cent year-on-year, for example.

Trial and error coupled with caution
FT.com: "Building something like this is trial and error and involves something called luck," Murphy says, adding that 'it does help to begin with some basic building blocks'.

Technology doesn't need to be complicated, Murphy says, describing how they use simple MSN software for conversations between reporters.

"We're actually experimenting - quite cautiously, quite carefully," he says, outlining the difficulties in hosting conversations between people who are under extremely tight scrutiny from regulators.

FWI: "It's quite a culture shock. Sometimes people are more interested in user-generated content (UGC) than the stuff we've created for hours," explains Gairdner.

FW has had failures as well as successes, he says, but it doesn't matter: while they've been surprised at the popularity of online dating ('there are some very lonely people out there in agriculture')  and the Farmers Weekly Egg Test (almost a YouTube sensation), one blog format completely flopped and has now died a death.  

"Our view is that we'll provide the venue but it's the audience out there who hold the party," Gairdner adds.

Future for community-driven journalism
FT.com: Murphy stresses that 'no one has tried to redefine how you can report on a market in a genuinely live fashion' and that financial reporting is set in age-old methods, for example, in the way that tables and charts are constructed.

Live market chat begins to change that and the speed and ways in which information can be disseminated, he adds.

Plus 'online journalists are a hell of a lot more productive than print journalists', he says, using himself as an example: in his old print Guardian business days - he was financial editor for seven years - Murphy thought 800 words was an acceptable amount to file per day. Now, he does a few thousand by lunchtime.

FWI: Despite the change of focus to web-first news, Farmers Weekly will keep its name and brand, even if it's no longer a weekly publication.

IT and resources can prove 'a bloody nightmare', Gairdner says, and online journalism needs significant time investment for research, which is not always productive. Nonetheless 'the future for us has to be in this online space,' he says.

The site's biggest spikes in traffic are in the evening between six and ten pm, when farmers get home from the field, and Gairdner can only see demand growing further.

A website upgrade (planned for release before Christmas) aims to increase user interaction.

"We've taken a punt and said this is where the business is going to work," he says, before leaving to put in some late-night hours working on the new site.

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