I’ve been building and managing communities for the last nine years — but before I stepped into this type of role, I was a young and eager reporter.
I covered city council meetings, wrote profiles of local artists, and reported on all the noteworthy happenings in my suburban town. It was a thrill every time I whipped out my reporter’s notebook, or saw my byline on a published piece.
Along the way, I developed some invaluable skills like actively listening to the council meetings I was in, asking thoughtful questions of my interview subjects, and building strong relationships with my sources.
I quickly moved on from reporting into creating connections between journalists, executives, fundraisers, and other business-side staff to help them build relationships and learn from each other. But my background in reporting has helped me build trust, understand different needs, and communicate clearly with all different kinds of stakeholders in my projects.
I’m not the only one! While writing this piece, I reached out to Pragmatic Institute’s Community Programs Manager Kelly Schott, who also worked in newsrooms previous to her community work. See my insights and hers below for how journalism skills can improve your community management work.
Stories are how we connect with each other.
Whether you're writing a community newsletter or covering breaking news, you need to be able to communicate ideas in a way that is clear, concise and provides the right level on context.
Both roles strive for people's attention, spreading essential details to help community members navigate their worlds. To do this, they must create captivating headlines, offer relevant background information, and provide clarity on updates or changes.
Have you ever felt someone give you their 100% of their attention? It’s powerful stuff! The ability to show up and be truly present for others is a skill.
For journalists, it’s crucial: in interviews, genuinely focusing on your subjects and giving them your full attention helps them feel more comfortable around you, making them more willing to talk and open up.
It’s equally as important for community pros. Making your members feel seen and heard helps cultivate a genuine sense of belonging.
CMs can get better at this by hosting live events where they facilitate conversations or one-on-one interviews with members. When you model being present, your participants are more likely to do the same, giving you more detailed feedback and following your lead to engage more fully.
To be a good communicator, you need to listen more than you talk. I received this great nugget of advice from the organizers behind journalism and tech conference SRRCON, and it's stuck with me ever since.
A good facilitator only needs to nudge the group in the right direction, and then they can sit back and allow the conversation to flow. When you're reporting or just chatting with your community members, remember that it's not all about you. Don't worry if there's some silence — it can actually encourage others to speak up and share their ideas.
Focus on asking really good questions to get the most out of your conversations.
"Journalism is question-focused; you start with a question," says Kelly, who started her career in newsrooms before shifting to community work just like me. "I really enjoy follow-up questions, though; that's where you get the bulk of good information and storytelling."
She's absolutely right. As a CM, when you're conducting a user interview or moderating a panel, you have your list of prepared questions, but the conversation really takes off when you can stop and dig deeper into detail. Through that, you'll learn more about someone's background, see them open up, and get valuable insight for your members.
It can be easy to assume you know what your audience wants, especially if you’ve put in the hours to get to know them. But a good journalist will suspend that bias and ask the question anyway.
“Sometimes I catch myself [starting to make an assumption] and then I think, ‘Why don’t I just ask them?’” Kelly says.
I have plenty of examples of coming into a project with an idea about a strategy I thought would work, only to see survey data that told me to act differently.
If I thought I needed to build my email strategy into a well-designed newsletter, then it would turn out that people preferred regular ol’ emails. If I was sure that a group wanted higher-produced Zoom events, I’d meet them and find out that they like the informality of a group hang!
People can surprise you. I’ve been much more successful when I’ve taken the time to ask what my audience wants and then act on it. On the user side, they also feel more valued when it’s clear their input is resulting in tangible changes.
Receiving negative feedback from readers — or editors! — is never fun. The latter is important for growth as a writer. The former can signal to a journalist that a topic is controversial and they should continue engaging and covering that story.
Managers of support communities are familiar with the challenges of receiving complaints and rude comments. However, if you can see past the language itself, such comments can be useful. Friction among your users means that there is an issue that needs to be resolved with your product or communications. It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate that you value their input, and will use it to make improvements.
There are some striking similarities between audience engagement and community moderation. Both are responsible for getting information to the right folks, communicating clearly, and setting the tone. They build relationships with superusers and those who are just passing through, helping them feel seen and heard.
I highly recommend checking out your favorite publication's social media page. See how they respond to comments on their posts and what they say to people on other pages. You might even see some of those interactions turn into news stories! The same can be done in your community. Community engagement = great content.
Whether you're working in journalism or community management, the core of both jobs is connecting with people, creating the right environment for them to share, and then taking that feedback and putting it into action.
A reporter’s mindset has helped me think creatively, establish new relationships, and conduct valuable research that’s made a real difference in my work. Try it out at home and see how it works for you!