Nieman Report: Communities, Not Paywalls, Are The Key To A Successful News Business Model

In an age when news organizations are scrambling to keep up with technological innovation, it is easy to lose sight of the original strain that kickstarted social networks in the first place: people are inherently social beings, and flourish in spaces where we can genuinely connect with each other. According to a new Nieman Report entitled “Community: A New Business Model for News,” the simple evolutionary fact that humans not only love but need community is the key to creating a successful news business model.

“We have long known communities are powerful and that local media thrive when they bring together and serve their community,” writes Michael Skoler, the VP of Interactive for Public Radio International. “Somehow though when it comes to the challenge of online media, we forget this. We search for new business models that involve paywalls, more video, the iPad, and wealthy donors, while the most powerful emerging business driver in the new economy is community.”

This is not necessarily a new discovery, particularly to those of us who work as Community Managers (Disclosure: That’s my day job!), but the important part is figuring out how to appropriately harness our desire for togetherness and turn fans into community members. Skoler makes this distinction in his piece, arguing that there is a difference between fans of a brand and the active community members that generate enough passion to make the community influential. “If media organizations are going to tap the new community business model, they will need to avoid mistaking their audience for a community,” he writes. “Fans become a community when they have the freedom to explore their interests and connections and organize themselves.”

Skoler cites a number of organizations, including Angie’s List, a member-based service provider reviews site, and Red Hat, an open-source Linux community, as examples of communities that are getting it right: their members are passionate and active, and because of this, the businesses that support these communities have flourished both financially and in brand cache.

So how can news organizations foster a successful community for their fans? “To harness this model, news organizations need to think of themselves first as gathering, supporting and empowering people to be active in a community with shared values, and not primarily as creators of news that people will consume,” says Skoler. This may seem like a massive ideological shift for many news orgs, but in some ways it’s simply about getting back to our roots. Small, local papers have always known that community comes first, which is one of the reasons hyperlocal ventures have become so popular in recent years. Hosting conferences where community members can connect outside of the Internet, or implementing virtual goods rewards like badges, are two other ways news organizations can begin to cultivate happy, healthy communities.

At its core, the social economy is about connecting people through the things they care about, and successful news organizations will work hard to produce the tools that allow for this kind of valuable interaction. “Creating community engenders value for people,” writes Skoler, “And providing value is the heart of any successful business model.”