Arment Dietrich

Building a Community of Champions

By: Arment Dietrich | April 9, 2014 | 

439197_80220216By Clay Morgan

In the 1990s, one of the metrics we used at our newspaper to measure reader engagement was letters to the editor.

I relished in them, especially when we had more than our competitors.

To me, they were a sure sign that readers felt what we reported on was important.

Reader engagement. Building a community. These were as vital before the Internet as they are today.

Kickin’ it Old School

About eight years ago, I was editor and publisher of a newspaper, and we became embroiled in a huge story. By the time all was said and done, the mayor and vice-mayor of the town had been thrown out of office in a special recall election, the city manager and assistant city manager had been fired, and a charter amendment passed that was designed to keep certain valuable city property from being sold without the public’s consent.

When things started smelling a little funny and we, as in the newspaper, started reporting the story, we were alone. There were “warnings” and attempts to bribe the staff. There were efforts to get my boss to fire me. A lot of people were calling us very bad things.

It took several months for the truth in what we were reporting to start percolating in people’s brains.

Finally, more and more started to think, “Wait a minute. The paper’s on to something here.”

The recall election highlighted the largest voter turnout in the city’s history, and about 75 percent of voters voted in favor of recall.

But it was touch and go for a while, and on more than one occasion I was very concerned for the physical safety of my staff.

It was through community and relationships that we were able to sustain during those few hard months.

Where Did this Community Come From?

Community and relationships started well before our reporting on this story. The community support was already built before we needed it.

Much of it was traditional. We sponsored Little League teams and the Christmas parade, gave a high school senior a scholarship, and were involved in Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, and downtown merchants groups, and we volunteered on a variety of festival committees.

The other thing we did was establish and maintain pretty liberal policies in regards to comments on the website, letters to the editor, and even guest columns and editorials.

I maintained my open door policy for the public, which proved very challenging.

This was important for a couple of reasons. As a member of the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, I had relationships in place. I was able to go speak to key business leaders about what was happening, shoring up the advertising support.

More importantly, they also became a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) group of defenders.

Nobody could say we were uncaring because our contributions and sponsorships of youth causes was so very well-documented. I believe that helped.

And when things got really bad, no one could say we were suppressing opposing views because we ran every single letter to the editor they sent us and we deleted no comments.

The Real Win

Our paper had what we called a reader advisory board. They got paid with a free subscription, a t-shirt, and a free monthly lunch.

During their monthly meetings, I had two jobs: Listen and answer questions.

Notice that “defend” was not one of them.

Members of the readership advisory board were also allowed to attend our news budget meetings and a few other planning type sessions.

“Jennifer” was a local business owner and friend of the vice mayor. She was convinced our reporting was the result of having been paid off and was a critic of me and the newspaper. She wrote letters to the editor which I published, letters so caustic my competitor refused to publish them.

I put her on the board.

The first couple of board meetings and budget meetings were hard. The caustic feel carried from paper to face-to-face.

However, in time, her attitude began to change. She saw how we did our work and how we made our news decisions. She became a part of the process.

I would like to say we won her over (we didn’t), however, her approach became more about supporting her friend rather than being an enemy of the paper.

She understood us.

The real victory in my mind came many months after the recall when her tenure on the board ended. Her free subscription was expiring and she handed me a check to continue her subscription.


Yes, that was a newspaper and this is a digital world, but the foundations of building community are the same.

The most important thing is you have to genuinely care.

Our paper did not offer a scholarship because it looks good. We did it because we were in a low-income city and higher education is important.

We wanted to help!

Here are a few tips to building community:

  1. Care. You have to care about and believe in what you are doing, and by default you have to care about your community.
  2. Treat your community fairly. Establish guidelines and enforce them for everyone.
  3. Engage. We constantly sought opportunities to talk with readers. You should do the same.

When you talk to them, zip your mouth, and listen. Open it only to answer a question and don’t be defensive.

Building a community isn’t rocket science. However, it takes time, real caring, and deliberate effort. And I’m here to tell you, that community can save your hide.

  • Excellent points, Clay. You also referenced something important — that you used those existing relationships to speak with people in venues outside the meetings ….. to one-on-one create connections and more intricate understandings, even when you disagreed.

  • biggreenpen  Absolutely.

    One of the best professional relationships I had developed was with the mayor in a city where I was publisher. The city was a strong mayor (no city manager) form of government, so he wielded considerable power.

    He and I had a standing appointment – every Thursday morning at 4:30 a.m. we met for 2 hours of racquetball (this was a long time ago!). What was said on the court stayed on the court, but I gleaned much information that led to a greater understanding of why the city government was doing whatever it was doing. There were times that understanding did impact the paper’s coverage.

  • jensie_simkins

    Thanks, Clay, for showing what it actually takes to roll your sleeves up and create authentic relationships! i think this is where so many people get hung up – they think they can fake this stuff. You can’t put up a Facebook page or a blog or even sponsor a local mud volleyball team and think “Geez, I’m so engaged now!” Relationships take time, and everyone wants to cut corners, hand you a business card, and be BFFs.

    Also, those relationships have to be in place before the crap hits the fan, so to speak. It will be interesting to see how this GM thing shakes out – do they have the community to pull them through? Us in the D are watching very closely….

  • jensie_simkins  I bet you are watching. And you are right … any meaningful relationship takes a lot of hard work.

  • I’ve had this song in my head all day. Thanks, Clay. 😉  One thing that stood out for me in this post was how you posted negative and rather unsavoury letters to the editor – I think in today’s digital space, brands are so afraid of anything negative. But allowing for some negativity levels the playing field, shows that you’re human, and proves that you respect your community by allowing *all voices* to have their say (as long as they’re not being hateful or discriminatory). Very smart move.

  • belllindsay  Great video. I love me some Queen.

    The negative letters were important because some people felt we had an “agenda” other than reporting the truth. But a brand should never fear criticism.

  • ClayMorgan …or honesty and transparency. 🙂

  • jensie_simkins

    belllindsay  Gah, deleted or leaving out the negative is the worst. Talk about discrediting your brand. Like Gini says in Spin Sucks: address, don’t hide it, then take the conversation offline to resolve it. Unless it’s a crazy, then just let them stand up there and your “champions” will take them to task for you….

  • AlinaKelly

    Thanks ClayMorgan. This is a terrific post. Good relationships simply make good business sense.

    Meanwhile, any chance you could bottle that “bad Mayor-removal serum” and send it north. Please.

  • ClayMorgan It seems like people love to assume the worst when it comes to reporting that doesn’t turn up the exact results they expect.

  • AlinaKelly ClayMorgan  Thanks Alina.

    That “removal” was the result of about 18 months of hard work and pretty detailed reporting. I wish there was a serum.

  • belllindsay ClayMorgan  Yea. The whole story was a honesty and transparency issue. I’ll tell you about it at wine 30 sometime.

  • Eleanor Pierce ClayMorgan  True. In this case, it is a small town so a lot of people felt they knew the elected officials personally, and of course, those things just don’t happen “here.”

  • jensie_simkins belllindsay  Agreed. I think it is one thing when it is just a nasty attack, but because it is critical? Leave it up.

  • jensie_simkins

    ClayMorgan jensie_simkins belllindsay  Yep, isn’t the point to be more human and less of a faceless corporation? Well, at least, I thought that was the point of trying to connect to people….

  • ClayMorgan jensie_simkins  such a good point about relationship being in place ahead of time. Too many organizations think of ‘crisis communications’ as the strategy you put in place when something goes wrong. But actually the BEST crisis communications plan is based off of the values, relationships, and trust your organization builds all along the way.

  • Love this post ClayMorgan  

    And I am scouring…I SAID SCOURING….the Google for the early bloom county strips where Milo was a reporter with his editor deciding what stories to run,..because @SpinSucksmuch have on on this post! I will be back.

  • ClayMorgan not what I was looking for but will suffice!

  • Howie Goldfarb ClayMorgan  Classic classic. I loved Bloom County. Miss them so much.

  • Great stuff, ClayMorgan – we had a similar Reader Advisory Board (but we didn’t even given them the free monthly lunch!) and we had a couple people there who after their terms were up, would call in with tips and defend our honor to their neighbors. They got what we were doing and appreciated having the opportunity to see it firsthand. 
    And that’s the thing. If you treat people like adults, most of them will prove deserving of the honor.