Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

In the Ning of things October 13, 2008

Filed under: community,social media — contentninja @ 3:59 pm
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Tutto mi conduce a te

Image by .chourmo. via Flickr

I’m a snob.

You may have known this already, but it has come as a revelation to me.  What I’ve been a snob about is Ning, a super-simple social network in a can.

I have unkindly described it as “stupid-proof” and “social networking for the technologically intimidated.” Then I put on my fortune teller’s hat and decreed that it’s neither “robust nor intelligent enough to meet all our needs over the long-term.”

Geesh. What a snot I can be.

Ning is exactly what it promises to be — so easy to use that anybody can build an online community with it in about 20 minutes and so open that folks with the know-how can tweak it to be more than what it started as.

We have, in fact, launched The Fan Zone, the community component of, on Ning. I actually like that it’s easy to use and that it can be tweaked. I’m already asking developers here for more stuff, like the ability for users to flag comments for moderation and a place to put the forum code of conduct.

So why did I say such mean things about Ning? It never did anything mean to me. My best guess is that I’m really dissing on an online community I met that was built on Ning. It was my first encounter with Ning many months ago, and I was turned off by the people I encountered there. Some real stuffed shirts.

So, in the name of self-awareness and self-improvement, I’m casting off my snobbish gloom and admitting that Ning is alright.

Don’t believe me? Check out The Fan Zone, or see Beth Kanter’s blog post in which she interviews a non-profit Ning user/fan.

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Life of the party October 2, 2008

Filed under: community — contentninja @ 7:00 am
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Josh Bancroft uses the metaphor that having online communities is like hosting a party.

And to have a great party you have to be a good host. He notes that companies that have online communities often think they own the communities and often behave like dictators. Tsk, tsk. Here are Bancroft’s “rules” for being a great party host:

  • Think of yourself as an equal member of the community, with some special responsibilities.
  • Remember, you’re throwing the party. You built and “own” only the party venue.
  • Invite interesting people to the party and have interesting people for them to talk to and interesting topics for everyone.
  • Provide amusements, but not stupid, mandatory party games.
  • You’re there in case something goes wrong and needs to be addressed.
  • Enjoy the party for yourself, but don’t make yourself the center of attention the whole time.

The concrete example Bancroft gives is comments. He recommends that the community have clear rules for comments and only those that break the rules get pulled. In other words, a critical comment that’s within the rules gets to stay, even if it’s critical of the party host.

This isn’t just a great how-to point for online communities. It speaks to a fundamental problem for journalists as we move forward into a digital-first world. WE have always owned the party and been the center of attention. Or we thought so.

It’s not “all about us,” anymore. I’ve been saying that for months, and I’m not sure anyone’s listening. After all, I’m still hearing objections to allowing comments because “they might get ugly.” And?

Maybes and what-ifs cannot be reasons for refusing to change. To every what-if we should respond, “Then we’ll …” And since we aren’t going to be dictators or the center of attention anymore, we can ask the community for help, too, in finding solutions.

Will it get ugly? We hope not. Will it be messy? You bet. And have you noticed that real life is, too? Welcome to the party, my friends.

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So many ‘ships, we need a marina October 1, 2008

Filed under: community — contentninja @ 11:36 am
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Social Media Breakfast 5 montage

Image by BryanPerson via Flickr

Let’s talk about partnerships and relationships.

I spent the past two days with associate professor Rich Gordon and his graduate new media class from Northwestern‘s J-school, Medill. We’re partnering with them this semester on a community project (more details as they develop).

Frankly, I ran them ragged around the company and Cedar Rapids, trying to give them an overview of who we are, where we want to go and what obstacles stand in our way.  By the time they left, they looked haggard and felt admittedly overwhelmed, but I’m looking forward to whatever they might ask for next on the path to a focused project.

It was great to hang out with some sharp, young people. Of course, it meant admitting that while I might still be sharp, I’m no longer young. (I’ll thank the peanut gallery not to comment on either of those assertions, please. Sigh.)

Student Brian Boyer, one of two programmers recruited to Medill with Knight Foundation fellowships, asked a great question: What’s the big, high-level goal of experimenting with online communities?

I don’t know that my answer was satisfactory for him, but here it is: To build relationships. Really, it’s that simple. It’s not about delivering news; we are doing that and will continue to do so, no matter the delivery method. It’s not about experimenting with social or new media tools; those tools are becoming ubiquitous and we simply must adopt them or die.

I know that sounds glib and dismissive of our core strengths and current initiatives. I’m looking beyond them, though. We can have the world’s best content in the world’s coolest presentation, but if we’re seen as just another Corridor business, just another faceless media company, what’s the incentive to come to us for anything?

Relationships drive us and our choices. We ask people we know for recommendations, references and help, and social media are teaching us that we are willing to accept the recommendation of Charity1313 over that of an “expert” based on a relationship, however shallow, cultivated on Twitter.

So experimenting with online communities is about trying to meet a basic human need for relationships, because this company wants to be here and be viable another 150 years from now. The range of products we offer will be entirely different, and there may not be a newspaper, in the traditional sense, in the lineup. That’s OK.

If we build real relationships with people — look, we’re people, too, and we’ll talk to you in an authentic human voice and we’ll help you build relationships with each other — it’s with the aim of becoming so entwined in the social fabric of local life that people don’t have to think about where to turn for information and context. They’ll assume we have it or can get it.

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Gimme your lunch money, kid June 26, 2008

Filed under: community,journalism — contentninja @ 4:06 pm
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Meetings are sometimes held around conference tables.

Image via Wikipedia

Today started with a meeting in which, among other things, we discussed how some startups have taken our lunch in the flood-related community-building arena. Yep, I know that.

We spent time talking about branding and promotion and six-month strategies.

At least one of those startups,, already has a successful brand, viral word-of-mouth promotion and a clear-cut strategy — to serve the community faster than the official organizations could. It also has a limited lifespan. It meets immediate needs and will probably not remain relevant for the long haul.

What these little startup Web sites do better than we do is quick launch. Where they struggle is maintenance. We are good at that. So perhaps the question is not “How do we do it better and squeeze them out?” Perhaps it should be “How do we get our hands on that successful brand and take it to its full potential?”

And although I use the word “brand” here, it’s not about making money, not for the ninja anyway. A ninja community is about connecting members to each other and the relevant information they need and want. Call it a service, if you like, but the community directs it.

In the meantime, we’re planning more meetings.

Interesting reads today:

Nicolas-Kayser Bril has a good piece at the Online Journalism Blog on semantic journalism. He does an excellent job of explaining how the semantic Web solution, if found, might apply to journalism. It involves artificial intelligence, and it’s rather cool. It’s also “in English” and easy to understand.

Benjamin Melancon discusses the new responsibilities of digital journalism at MediaShift Idea Lab. In a world where (hmm, sounds like a movie trailer) online stuff lives forever and where search engines can find it, we have a responsibility to correct and update reports.

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Face the music March 26, 2008

I’m not just blogging as part of this experiment. I’m venturing into the social media wilderness in other ways, too.

Yesterday I joined Facebook. (Dun-dun-da!) You know what? It’s fun.

I quickly found a former co-worker from my college paper, The Daily Iowan, and we engaged in a game of comedic one-up-manship. I’d forgotten how good Jake is at one-liners. I laughed out loud at my desk like a complete ninnyhammer. 

I even did my part to populate Facebook with more grown-ups, sending invites to family and friends. A few have taken me up on the invite, a few more are promising to but haven’t yet. (You listening, girlies?)

I also discovered that, wow, Facebook can suck up time.

And there, folks, is the most valuable lesson learned, but perhaps not in the way you think. To wit: Facebook is fun, so it doesn’t feel like it’s eating up a lot of time. A healthy online community is not just a comfortable place to be (see previous post “Ciao, bella”), it’s a fun place to be. And that’s what drives people to spend more than 2 seconds there.

I know, I know. My “Eureka!” is someone else’s “Duh!”

I’ve also registered at Twitter, another place to be seen, but I confess I have not made time to explore its full capabilities. Have advice for me? Drop me a line. 



Ciao, bella! March 24, 2008

Filed under: content,journalism,newspapers,social media — contentninja @ 5:46 pm
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I’ve been under the weather lately. Perfect timing when you consider the less than ideal weather of late: roiling dark clouds, biting wind, spitting sleet. Pretty much describes the state of my stomach Friday and Saturday. Yech.

And my point is? It struck me Sunday, while talking to Mom on the phone, that even at my age I like whining to Mom when I’m sick. It somehow makes me feel better. Family does that for you. My heritage is Sicilian, and family is everything. (You have to go back at least three generations to find any “Tony Sopranos” on the family tree. Capisce?) Generally speaking, though, many of us turn to family for comfort.

Again, so? So that sense of comfort among people you know — maybe not well, but by god they’re family — is a Holy Grail, I think, for people building online communities. Those of us experimenting with social media should want to build a “family” online, where people come to be comforted and comfortable. Get to know us; we’ll get to know you.

Sure, there will be some crazy characters in the mix. That’s OK. A real family has them, too.

Oh, btw, Edward Sussman interview (see earlier post “Faster than a speeding bullet”) didn’t pan out. We failed to connect last week as planned. Moving on …


Potts and pans March 20, 2008

I talked this morning with Mark Potts, co-founder of the defunct Backfence was a company that built online communities around a handful of towns on the East Coast. Although it didn’t make it as a business and closed up shop last summer, it did successfully engage communities online.

Mark graciously agreed to share some of his insights with me. He also blogged about what he learned back in July in his Recovering Journalist blog:

We talked mostly about building an online community. “The single most important thing,” he says, “is trust the audience. That’s hard for editors because editing is about control.”

Be clear about what the community is focused on and what’s OK in its digital space, and then turn it over to the audience, he says. “It’s powerful; they really do take care of things.”

What’s more, Potts says, their motivation for getting involved isn’t compensation. Folks who contribute don’t want money or gifts. “They want to be experts on their community,” he says.

A little recognition in the form of reverse publishing is nice, too. “Don’t train them as journalists; that’s a turnoff,” he says. “Put their name in the paper.”

Now THAT’S humbling to a journalist.