To build business, engage readers directly

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More people consume news than ever. Yet, with headlines about circulation declines, it's easy to forget the expansion of raw interest. Marshall McLuhan once said the content of any new medium is an older medium, and, with the rise of Internet-based news consumption, it's a mixed story for traditional news providers. What was once “the product” is now one ingredient in the overall news experience.

The Internet is the world's first many-to-many communications platform. Unlike radio, television or print, it's interactive, and that drives its success. Articles or video are a starting point for the ultimate product: commentary, cross-posting and conversation about issues or news events.

Many companies are building a business via that interaction — from bloggers to Newsvine to Topix. Granted, interactive experiences are available on news properties, from Topix commentary on NBC sites to Digg buttons to using forums to source stories in print. From big publications like the Chicago Tribune to smaller folks like the Paris (Texas) News, traditional media can leverage its community efforts.

But more could be done to build engagement — and thus loyalty — to the news brand.
The news business could deploy its most valuable asset: get journalists to participate in the conversations surrounding their stories. Other than “blogs” or letters to the editor, when do journalists engage with readers? All blog networks (including those run by newspapers) have interaction from authors, which builds loyalty no third party can duplicate. Yet it's difficult to find a newspaper that encourages (or even allows) reporters to engage with communities. 

Why would you engage with a blogger quoting a story, instead of the author of that story?
Eventually, publishers and news providers will unleash these assets online, build community and see massive gains in interaction, repeat visitors and their business. Until then, protecting the old medium will prevent winning the battle for the new medium. It's time for the news business to remember its competitive roots. If you're going to win the game, you have to enter the field, muddy or not.

Chris Tolles is CEO of Topix, an online news community.

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