Many people running sites struggle with participation, because people don’t naturally leap up and say “Let me at it!” Writing for any publication brings with it the possibility of retribution and ridicule, so it’s not something people take on without a special motivation. Three of these are anger, enthusiasm or the fact that somebody is wielding a deadline at them.
To recruit and develop contributors to your site, you’ll need to learn how to channel some of those motivations.
The most common, but least constructive route to contributing. The letters pages, the comments on blogs. Asking people to write about what makes them angry is a good way of kicking things off, but bear in mind it often sparks more anger. Simply writing to wind people up is very mainstream media and I’m not sure how much positive effect it has on places. But many people relish writing with anger – indeed it is many people’s starting point – and the best columns are generally written by angry people, so don’t be too afraid to bring people in this way. The web gives us some more constructive outlets – for example, your angry mob can now collaborate on investigations, informative articles that will achieve balance after titanic struggles or emails to the people in charge of the thing that makes them angry. Keep these constructive outcomes at the back of your mind: flashpoints of conflict are normal, but a community trapped in anger is not going to thrive.
The happiest type of content. To harness enthusiasm, you need a framework that results in something coherent, but doesn’t dampen passion.
I’ve managed production on several volunteer-led publications and this is what I’ve found works well:
1. Imagine all the sections you would like to see. Ideally, open this up to a group of enthusiastic collaborators, but you can do it on your own. Look around the publications you enjoy and then steal their structure. Broadly speaking, a Sunday newspaper will have all of the following: news, features, comment, arts, music, listings, sports. Many popular blogs follow this type of format, for example the Huffington Post and Salon. Your collaborators might also suggest things like cartoons, pubs, history, architecture, knitting, books, gardening, computers etc. All great stuff for your features section. If you’re not sure how it fits in with the overarching theme of your publication, keep talking to the person suggesting it until you have both established how it will be of interest to your readers. For example, an article about Cornwall will look out of place on a website about Stoke-on-Trent, unless it is part of a series on possible holiday destinations.
2. Once you have your broad themes, the ideal way of making the work manageable is to appoint section editors. These simply need to be enthusiasts willing to spend a bit of time gathering content and (if you’re lucky), turning it into something readable. Ideal section editors – as well as editors – will be able to produce the whole lot on their own if necessary, but will not be so obsessed with the subject that only their view can go in. If you’re very lucky indeed, you will find people who love correcting English. Embrace them – they are your sub-editors. Once you have created editor roles, it’s also easier for people to hand it over or share it if they have less time.
3. Open it up some more. Now you have your sections, you have an idea of what you are looking for. You must now think of yourself as the hyperlocal hunter-gatherer. Talk to people about their passions, collect flyers, snap photos of posters. Ask people to write, by all means, but be ready and willing to take any sort of contribution. A good starting point is small shops and businesses and the secretaries of local clubs, but you’ll find most people have some area of expertise even if they haven’t thought about it before. Don’t ask for too much of their time: deliberately asking people to give you 150 words is less time-consuming for them and is more readable.
4. Delight in the unexpected contribution and work out how the random article submitted on a beer mat can fit into your carefully designed structure. This is easier than it sounds – remember the reader doesn’t know that you never planned a Knitting section. It’s even easier online than in paper.
5. Organise editorial meetings as soon as you are ready, even before you start the website. Even a meeting of two people is a much better way of bouncing ideas round than just you on your own sending emails and you’ll get a good sense of the issues and discussion interests of your readers because they are probably also your writers (an advantage you often have over mainstream media outlets). Other people will prefer to put their ideas forward to you by email or private conversation, so keep all channels open.
6. Many enthusiasts struggle to convey this on paper and the dry committee report is a fairly standard response to a request for contributions. You’ll often find that the really good content is right down at the bottom. Don’t be afraid to use snippets of people’s contributions but make sure you explain it to them. If they are very insistent that their contribution must go in without editing, you may want to turn it down, but as long as people trust you, they will be happy to leave their writing in your hands. Try to cut for length while keeping their ‘voice’; you’re not the BBC pronunciation unit and a local turn of phrase is perfectly appropriate. Neither should you change the sense of what they mean: this is the quickest way to lose their trust.
7. I’ve hinted a few times that you might need to do all this yourself. A lot of people won’t understand what you’re describing until they see it really happening. I’ve produced content for most sections in the past, feverishly filling empty spaces with rewrites of the bits and pieces I’ve collected, and the only two areas I shy away from are religion and sports. Those are two areas where ignorance can really irritate the experts. A good work-around is to write about – or photograph – an area of interest, without trying to make yourself sound like an expert. Indeed, this is the trick that most journalists are playing most of the time. It is a good way of getting to know the experts themselves and if you get on well with them you can end the conversation (or follow it up) with “Our readers would be really interested in hearing about this regularly. Is there anyone you know who would like to write for our website?” Before you know it, you could have a correspondent sending you reports from every tiny sports club in the area.
If all this sounds time-consuming, remember it is your structure and you can develop it in whatever way is manageable – even deciding you are just going to have one angry column a week gives your site the structure it needs to get people into the habit of visiting it. By having a clearly thought-out structure, you are making it possible to share the workload and even make it possible for your site to continue if you move away, but it will need core time and commitment by you to get it off the ground. Showing willing by doing it yourself is a better way of getting people on board than to keep asking people for help on something that isn’t built yet; I’ve had several experiences where once I’ve shown I’m prepared to do it all myself, people will come forth to help out and, in many cases, do it much better. This also applies to elements like the proofreading and moderating. Consider this the reward for exposing your own amateurishness. So don’t wait – unleash your ow
enthusiasm and you will fi
nd others follow.
The only thing that keeps most professionals writing. Really. Most writers don’t link their work with the paycheque (probably because they are so used to not being paid), it’s the deadline that they fear, prevaricate over and (the editor hopes), right at the last minute bash away at the keyboard to meet. Even for volunteers, deadlines are a useful way of ensuring that you get content in – otherwise your website will contain nothing but empty promises of articles, which looks rubbish. As you are not tied to print deadlines, you might need to create an artificial deadline such as a fortnightly email newsletter or poster that you are going to circulate round town, or simply give your section editors days in which you want to showcase their content. Try to stick to what you’ve said, keep track of what you are expecting and send reminders frequently – even if people miss the deadline, seeing the thing that you said would come out will remind them and, more than likely, they will get their contribution in shortly afterwards or at least in time for the next deadline (or the one after that). Keep the reminders friendly and be encouraging – remember how nervous a lot of people are about showing their work. And that you’re not paying them.
In the end, most people like a deadline – it shows you are interested enough in their contribution to get it online and promote it.