Five steps to running an independent media platform

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I attended a New England Press Association seminar called Rebooting the Web. I addressed some notes from the seminar and expounded on my thoughts therein. Now I bring another byproduct of the seminar. A speaker (sorry, name escapes me at the moment) mentioned five steps to running a platform. I’ve adapted those steps to running an independent media platform (except one, which we’ll get to). These steps were designed for interactivity on a newspaper but can easily be applied to independent/social media.

Keep in mind that most of the people in attendance hailed from newspapers and the like and the seminar was geared to promoting social content on the Web site. The five steps to doing so are important to everyone and rather simplistic to model.

1. Identify your audience and objectives (“What do you want them to do?”)

The crux of every blog created or social platform is the identifying of your audience. When I created Fire Brand of the American League, I did so with several objectives in mind. First was to have this Web site be a haven for Red Sox fans to find intellectual and engaging content. Second was to offer a unique voice, and third was to have the Web site to be perceived as an informative and opinionated resource for Red Sox fans. I have succeeded on all three levels. That is what makes Fire Brand successful to this day, and there is no other Red Sox blog that has been able to match Fire Brand in the demographic I have assigned it. (There are, however, several other fantastic Red Sox bloggers that I read that do an excellent job in matching the demographics they build around.)

The second aspect was to define what I wanted readers to do. In the old model, I wanted them to come to Fire Brand, read our take on the Red Sox and then provide feedback. We are still stuck in this model for now, but we’re making strides towards a new model where I will be able to make readers part of the Fire Brand fabric, not part of the Fire Brand commenters fabric. More on this later.

2. Consider different technology models

MVN, since it’s advent, has been housed on WordPress. It made the switch to WordPress MU a year ago, which has been a godsend. While WordPress has allowed us to do many things and I am a fan of it (as evidenced by it being my blogging tool here) it has also become sadly outdated for what MVN needs in its next platform, which we in the know call MVN 3.0. (The current MVN is known as 2.0, or 2.5 if you factor in recent design tweaks, and the former MVN on mostvaluablenetwork.com is known as 1.0.)

Our Content Director and Web Administrator went through many different prospectives for a new platform, and it seemed as if the “best” platform shifted every day. Finally, however, the most cost-efficient platform was settled on. While it did represent a small shift in how we envisioned 3.0, I sit here today thinking that this paradigm-shift was for the best.

If we had been unwilling to recalibrate the idea we had in mind for MVN 3.0, we would have not chosen the platform we did — Moveable Type Community Solution. We would have gone for a more expensive platform that would have given us what we thought we wanted, and in the end, would have been worse off for the wear. As you explore various platforms to deliver your content, please try to keep in mind that not only does the content make the platform, but the platform makes the content. Don’t hesitate to adapt your thinking if necessitated. Life is about change, as much as we all hate it.

3. Assign people to moderate

This is something that is a bit underutilized on MVN as is and I suspect will continue to be on 3.0, but it is something that newspapers swear by. Comments on MVN (and most competitors) are allowed to run amok with very loose guidelines. Compare that to a newspaper which has very stringent guidelines and are constantly moderating comments. On MVN, we may not reach double figures in deleting comments the entire year, but double figures are easily reached each day at the newspaper I currently work for, The Patriot Ledger.

I am not knocking either MVN or the Ledger; the two come from different business models and points of origin, but assigning people to moderate only depends on a) if you feel you need moderation and b) what should be moderated. Right now, MVN does not need a moderator — it deals with comments as they are brought to attention while newspapers regularly screen comments before allowing them to go live. As MVN grows and develops into the new platform, moderators will undoubtedly be needed to keep tabs on both comments and user blogs, but I very much doubt MVN will ever reach the screening phase. Case in point is ESPN.com, which has hundreds of thousands of comments a day, and I very much doubt they have someone moderating each and every comment (although I profess no knowledge).

In the end, however, some sort of moderation is needed on every social media platform. Earlier, I mentioned that MVN does not moderate comments too much. However, what we do do is make sure that the profanity policy and other MVN policies remain in effect for writers. These policies will largely still exist on MVN 3.0 although only targeted towards specific people. For now, however, these polices exist all across MVN and we need to ensure that the product we deliver is in accordance with this policies.

As with any endeavor, regular maintenance is essential to success.

4. Get people to participate

Earlier, I mentioned that I had started pushing Fire Brand to a more involved type of Web site rather than a site where people come to read and leave. I am pushing Fire Brand to be a site of community, where people can come engage in discussion on the Sox. Some things I have implemented:

  • For a long time now (over a year) we have had polls, which continue to rise in popularity. I ran a test in which I put up polls but did not put up an article with results; put up polls with an article with just results; and polls with an article with results and reaction. The latter idea got the most reaction, response, discourse, and more voters on future polls. Gee, I wonder why.
  • We have added QuickPosts, which enables our readers to keep coming back throughout the day instead of having each day consists of a morning opinion piece, a game thread and ending with game recap. A reader used to be able to come just once a day for fresh, unknown content in the morning and then not return. That needed to change.
  • We also, as writers, needed to get more involved in the community. Readers need to feel like they are being heard, and writers need to converse with readers to build community, rapport and get ideas. Since I started being more heavily involved in responding to comments, I have found it easier to have the blog topic ideas come. Not only that, the readers have responded by leaving more comments, which is, after all, the idea.
  • We have added trivia posts that enable more comments to be left that also give readers an ability to “compete” and win “prizes” such as naming the next poll topic, the next trivia question, writing game notes, picking article ideas… the list goes on. This facilitates involvement and gives the reader a sense of inclusion. Speaking of inclusion…
  • When Fire Brand moves to its own layout, I am looking to implement diaries, something that SB Nation has done very well. As a matter of fact, MVN 3.0 is taking the concept of diaries and pushing it one (or two, or three) step further. However, that’s a network-wide concept. For a singular blog concept, diaries works very well, and I look forward to readers having the ability to submit their own articles to Fire Brand for engagement and discourse therein.

5. Intercede to minimize objectionable content

This is a little too similar to No. 3 for me, so I’m going to change it. Besides, there’s one other key point to independent media that I don’t think newspapers grasp because they are, after all, mainstream media.

5. Provide fresh, original content not found elsewhere.

Why is Fire Brand considered one of the best Red Sox blogs out there; a blog that Peter Gammons says club officials of the Sox read? Easy: it’s an original voice that you can’t find anywhere else. Same for Surviving Grady. There is a clear flavor to the posts; a clear topic delineation, a sense of consistency in how often there are updates and what those updates are. If you’re in the mood for opinionated, analytical Sox talk, you head to Fire Brand. If you want to find the humor in the Sox and perhaps rant obscenely as well, you head to Surviving Grady. (This is not a knock on SG — it is an absolutely fantastic site, and since more people love ranting, there’s a reason why it gets hundreds of comments per post.)

The key is that you can’t find this content elsewhere. Definitely not SG. Could you find Fire Brand content elsewhere? There have been blogs that try to, but they haven’t quite matched up to daily, informed takes on the team. The closest is probably the Boston Globe with their daily coverage, but they don’t delve into strict opinion/analysis — a newspaper relies on just facts, remember? No, the reason why both sites are so popular is because they update consistently with a singular voice and engaging content.

Mainstream media just needs to outspend and outproduce other media outlets to be declared the victor. It needs quality reporters, quality editors and a good marketing budget. Those media outlets win. With independent media, quality writing is of course, integral. A good marketing budget sure helps, too… but the end all be all?

Any independent site is destined to fail unless it doesn’t provide fresh, original content found elsewhere. Find your voice and deliver it consistently. The audience will find it.

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