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To be successful, we have to humbly admit what we don't know and can't do alone.

When it comes to building community, go small or go home

For years I've helped companies send hundreds of newsletters to active customers. However, the newsletter that I'm working on now will serve a community. A much different approach is required. You don't want people to click to order--you want them to engage in a conversation. Person-to-person recognition is required, and if the community will really grow, then we have probably have to staff employees to members at around 150-to-1. The total audience can be larger, but not the active community. 

Local News Lab: Journalism’s Dunbar number: Audience scales, community does not. 2019-Mar-4 by Damon Kiesow

To succeed, local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation, but reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.

Twenty years ago, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar postulated there was a limit to the stable and close social relationships a human being could maintain. He informally defined it as the number of people you know well enough to join “uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

“Dunbar’s number” is 150 — and he argued it was set by the cognitive capacity of the human brain. Smaller primates with smaller brains have smaller social groups.

Media have a similar limit — it is the number of readers who feel you are part of their community and are willing to invest their time or money with you.

We can work to boost that number, but it takes more than a marketing campaign. It requires actively listening and sincerely engaging with your community — see Trusting News as an example. It takes better understanding your readers, and better serving them — Shifting to Reader Revenue/API. And it takes a retreat from the artifacts of scale that litter your websites, organizational structure and business model.

What does that look like? How about fewer people focused on SEO and building products for Big Tech, and more working to source story ideas from the community — like Hearken. More ability to do targeted local news products such as pop-up newsletters and less time chasing the next “pivot” strategy — see Lenfest for local ideas. And less space on the story page taken up by spammy recommended links and… well, there is no “and” there actually, we just need less of some things.

But individual tactics are not as important as the philosophy: Local readers need to be served at local scale. The internet is infinite, your community is not. Go small or we are all going home.

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