What newspapers and other media could learn from Reddit

Although it has a pretty wide following within a certain community of geeks and web natives, Reddit achieved another whole level of mainstream status recently when President Obama agreed to do one of the site’s crowdsourced “Ask Me Anything” interviews. In the wake of that event, New York Times media writer David Carr looked at how the web community has been able to grow even after being acquired by Advance Publications, the Newhouse-owned media giant that also owns a number of newspapers such as the recently downsized Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Is there anything that Advance or any other media company could learn from what Reddit has done or is doing? I think there is.

Reddit’s success and growth since the acquisition by Advance is unusual, as Carr notes — the history of web-based communities and other similar digital businesses after they get acquired by media giants is not exactly filled with happy stories. Typically, the larger media entity imposes various restrictions on the asset it has acquired and ruins whatever made it successful in the first place. But for whatever reason, Advance didn’t do this with Reddit: there were no failed attempts at “synergies” with the rest of the company, and no tinkering with the formula that made the service so appealing to so many — namely, a frontier-style freedom similar to the somewhat notorious community 4chan.

Communities are fragile — don’t mess with them

So the most obvious thing that a media company could learn from Reddit is the benefit of leaving well enough alone, especially where your users are concerned. In other words, when you have something that seems to be working, the best way to avoid screwing it up is to just let those who built it do whatever they want with it (within reason, of course). As Carr describes in his piece:

Steve Newhouse, the chairman of Advance.net, decided very early on that his company would not be the blob that ate Reddit, and for the most part, left well enough alone. “We had some ideas about what would be good, but it might not have worked,” Mr. Newhouse said. “We paid attention to the community instead.”

That’s a pretty rare comment for a media executive to make, especially if they have paid tens of millions of dollars for an asset like Reddit (although the New York Times‘ ownership of About.com — which is being sold to Barry Diller’s IAC — was reportedly also fairly hands off). And it’s probably rare in part because media companies like Advance don’t typically buy digital-only startups like Reddit. But the other key to what Newhouse said is that at some level he recognized that the power behind Reddit came from the community itself, and that messing with it would be a huge risk (although it should be noted that communities can also carry some risks, since content can be posted that runs afoul of various laws).

Although he didn’t mention it, there’s a pretty powerful contrary example to Reddit: namely Digg, the pioneering link-sharing and discussion community that ruled the early days of what was then called “Web 2.0” and drove so much traffic to websites that it could literally shut their servers down in a matter of minutes. Digg — driven in part by the need to please the financial backers who gave it tens of millions in venture financing — messed with its design and functionality to the point where it destroyed what community it once had and was eventually sold for spare parts.

Newspapers need to figure out how community works

These lessons are especially important as newspapers like the New York Times become much more reader-focused, since reader contributions now make up more than half of the paper’s revenue — having recently overtaken advertising revenue as the single biggest contributor to the bottom line. And they are equally important to newspapers like the Times-Picayune and others that are cutting back on print and trying to justify their move to either a mostly web-only or fully digital-only strategy. What is likely to be the single biggest determining factor in the success of either of these ventures? An engaged community of readers — much like those at Reddit.

As we’ve seen with the site’s coverage of breaking news stories like the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. and another in Canada, the Reddit community can be an incredibly powerful engine for reporting and for the distribution of real-time information. Why has no major newspaper tried to invest in or build this kind of community? Not only could it produce news-related benefits, but getting to know your readers better has other advantages as well. The NYT has tried to implement some low-level community features such as reader membership with special benefits, but has not gone much further.

Advance has taken a lot of heat for what has happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan since the daily newspaper there stopped printing and went digital-only. According to a recent piece in the American Journalism Review, many readers find that the website version of the paper is a pale imitation of the original, with a sharply reduced staff producing underwhelming content. And there is widespread concern about what will happen to New Orleans as the newspaper there stops printing several days a week and becomes digital only, because of the role that the printed paper is said to play in the community.

As they try to move online, or become reader-supported the way the New York Times is, more newspapers and other media outlets are going to have to get serious about building community — and that means more than just trying to get a bunch of Twitter followers who will retweet a headline. Reddit is a great example of a real community, and Advance has clearly seen the power of what that kind of community can do given the right circumstances. But can it take those lessons and apply them elsewhere? It and other newspapers are going to have to figure out how if they want to survive online.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Christian Scholz and jphilipg