Community management in journalism and beyond…

While Tom’s post earlier this week pointed to the i paper‘s successful and clever rehashing of an old newspaper convention, I want to look at something that happened this week, which, on the flip-side, shows how badly this sort of thing can go as well.

Yesterday, The Sun newspaper published an article in which they named murder suspect Chris Halliwell‘s children, including his 12-year-old son. I’m not going to meditate on the ethics or legal ramifications of the paper’s actions, but instead  concentrate on what happened among The Sun‘s ‘community’ following the article’s publishing.

On the paper’s Facebook fan page, which users must ‘like’ before they can post, a backlash erupted, full of readers angered by the naming of Halliwell’s family. Many seemed genuinely disgusted, and most demanded an apology from the paper.

A snapshot of the type of comments left can be encapsulated in Douglas Blackford’s post [all sic]:

We want an apology inthe paper on monday to all the victims. U know who they. And the whole community of swindon. If your human u would write an apology. Its been a stressful, upsetting week for sians family, friends, halliwalls family. We want it to stop now. Justice is done, I hope, but we don’t want anymore trauma now.

‘That’s fascinating and all. But what does this have to do with Tom’s post on letters pages though?’ I hear you say.

Well, in a time when letter-writing is becoming an ancient art, and the readership of The Sun becomes increasingly illiterate (judging by the spelling on some of the Facebook page’s posters), the Facebook fan page is the modern day equivalent of such a thing. Think about it – it’s free (give or take internet connection fees), involves very little in the way of energy, and somehow is within a forum where the rules of spelling and grammar apparently no longer apply.

The problem with using a Facebook wall as an ad-hoc letters page is one of moderation.

Letters pages are edited and letters are selected carefully by an editorial team. On a wall, any so-called ‘fan’ can post and the result is instantly readable. The Sun‘s Facebook team seem to have left even the most critical messages up, which is redeems them slightly, although this may not be deliberate.

Unlike Mr Kelner of the i paper, The Sun has chosen not to respond to any of these messages or comment on the issue at all. While readers demand an apology from the paper, I guess it will be a case of ‘watch this space’ for Monday morning’s issue.

If The Sun does ignore these complaints, what it does show, is that it is using new media in a very old media way. At first glance, by allowing the discussion, it seems to be trying to build a community, but if the community goes unheard, the bosses at The Sun have failed in engaging properly with that community.

If The Sun was truly engaged with its community of readers (assuming those commenting were readers), it would have known not to publish the names in the first place, as it would have known that this was not what they wanted.


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