Communities, Audiences and Online Journalism

The word "community" gets thrown around a lot in the media and dotcom publishing business. With more channels and websites to choose from, marketers can't count on any one message hitting a "mass audience" the way they could during the three-broadcast-network days. As a result, people with something to sell are targeting smaller groups -- or trying to convince people they are a group that can be labeled and sold-to. Step right up for your "Boomer" life insurance, "Gen-X" automobiles, "Gen-Y" hair gel, "Gen-Z" tattoo parlor, "patriot" self-waving flags, "devout-believer" firearms... you name it. This niche-market targeting isn't new, there just seems to be more of it.

Groups of all kinds have never needed a marketing department to tell them who they are. People used to share experiences at the corner barbershop, bowling alley or Moose Club, or in a political organization. What does it take to make a group "a community" in a time of digitally-mediated communication: Internet-linked computers, e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, pagers and other wireless devices?

Topic for class page-design discussion: Are the underlined blue links in mid-sentence distracting, or are they entertaining "asides," gratuitous or ironic though they may be? At least the page is coded so that the external links all pop up in a new window, which the reader can resize and put in the corner of the screen.

Some of this new electronic in-group communication is amateur public-relations, some is more like a family-dinner conversation. Some is do-it-yourself journalism by one person or by a scattered group, which may or may not produce intelligent, well-researched, fair, honest and sincere reporting. (Yes, I'm dodging the word "objective.") The writing may be virulently biased, or just plain sloppy. Some of this self-publishing is computer-assisted, issue-oriented, advocacy, partisan "do-it" journalism from one clear point of view; some takes the attitude of more traditional American "save overt opinions for the editorial page" journalism. If done well and/or by trained professionals, it might be part of the "civic journalism" or "public journalism" movements among newspaper and TV people who think telling the news is not enough. (Or it might be part of the muckraking journalistic tradition of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.)

In almost 20 years online I've seen unlikely "real world" groups use bulletin boards and other tools -- folk music clubs with e-mail lists (as well as Friday night concerts), boating enthusiasts with usenet discussions (plus weekend rendezvous), swing dance and contradance fanatics with events-calendars and mailing lists that let people "dance gypsy" their way from coast to coast. This online sharing is a lot like the "news you can use" service journalism that fills so much of commercial television, but it's more specific to group members' interests. Journalists themselves have quite the online support-group presence through an alphabet-soup of organizations and publications from AEJMC to FAIR, IRE, OJR, RTNDA and SPJ to the unabbreviated Poynter Institute and Nieman Foundation. That could all be seen as a "virtual community" support system for the profession. At least having professional journalism resources online gives anyone with the address an opportunity to search out ethics codes and techniques and consider applying them to their own online publishing.

(I thought I was going to teach a whole journalism course about this subject next spring, but the schedule didn't work out. Instead, I'm sharing some of my thoughts here and in my other classes--online journalism and digital culture this month, newsgathering and beat-reporting in the spring.)

Here are a few basic questions concerning the makings of a "virtual community" or a "smart mob" (Both terms popularized by Howard Rheingold in books by those names.)

Maybe the common theme is a possession -- in either sense of the word: A thing you own (a Volkswagen bus, a Macintosh, a Palm Pilot) or a case of something "taking over" each person -- an obsession, passion, devout belief, or some kind of demon.

More questions:

Shared interests may be enough to introduce people to each other; the shift from "similar interests" to "community" presumably requires more dimensions of shared experience, if not direct contact. An online publication that includes "forum" discussions, meeting announcements and useful resources may make the difference. There are counterparts in the non-digital world. Am I part of the same community as the person I've never met who lives three doors down the hill? Does "community" happen when we pay our tax bills, or when we meet on the street during a power failure, or when we sign a petition to get better lights for the school playground?

I think "community membership" looks like the old Ballantine beer symbol of three linked rings, or the bigger Olympic symbol with more rings and less overlap: We all belong to a bunch of groups in a myriad of ways; the rings expand, contract and move into different positions of significance based on all of the forces and coincidences in our lives. Online "civic behavior" adds another possibility for linking those rings.

Here are a few more sources and samples of the variety of groups using online lists, sites and services, with or without real-world meetings. Examples:

Feel free to suggest more!

Nov.8, 2002 -- Bob Stepno

What happened to the "Audiences & Communities" course I'd been promising for spring 2003?
     Because of a misunderstanding undiscovered until rooms were assigned, I was faced with a choice between teaching the online-related "Audiences & Communities" in a room without computers, or teaching it from 6 to 10 p.m., along with my morning classes. "No computers vs. sleepy professor" didn't seem fair to students. Instead, I'll have a second section of freshman Newsgathering at 8 a.m. Apologies to any seniors or grad students who wanted one more course with me before leaving Emerson.