During the remarkable saga to appoint a new manager at Aston Villa, it was reported that the reaction on online forums to the possible arrival of Steve McClaren put the club’s owners off the former England boss, who is now at Nottingham Forest.
At Villa, of one the club’s senior bosses – a chap called General Krulak – is a regular on one of the Aston Villa fans forums.
Forums – or messageboards or bulletinboards – have been around for years and were doing social media long before the term was invented – even if they aren’t always that social, rather like the Facebooks and Twitters we know today.
And while they aren’t the most modern way of socialising online, there’s no denying they can still be an invaluable tool for journalists.
To that end, here are 10 ways for journalists to use forums:
1. Finding forums: There are several good ways of finding forums. The website omgili.com does a good job of trawling forums based on keywords for you – but is very thorough. Make sure you click the ‘order by date’ option.
Another good way of finding forums based on keywords is to use the ‘Discussions’ option Google search. This is better if you’re trying to find forums which use a certain phrase frequently – eg the name of a town or village.
What’s the difference between the two? I used the town ‘Rawtenstall’ in both. Omgili was better at giving me forums where Rawtenstall was mentioned maybe once or twice, while the way Google searched meant it focused on forums where Rawtenstall was mentioned loads of times – such as Rossendaleonline.
Another difference is that Omgili seems a little slower to update than Google – but does provide an RSS feed (see below).
2. Sign up as yourself! Once you’ve found a forum or two you think could be interesting for you, sign up – under your real name, or at the very least make reference to your job in the description on the site. I never understand why journalists often go ‘under cover’ on forums. Of course, it would be understandable in some cases, but if you want to get stories out of a community, it makes a big difference if they know who you actually are. A bit like when a journalist follows you on Twitter, people often are flattered to find a journalist is interested in what they are saying.
There’s another way of looking at this: What if you are found out? The Army Rumour Service almost makes a sport out of rumbling journalists who play at going ‘under cover’ on their sites.
Many forums have an ‘introduce yourself’ thread – worth using to test the water.
3. Ask before you start adding links: While it’s very common to share links on forums, you may find a backlash if you start posting links to your content before doing anything else. I’ve dealt with a number of complaints from people who run forums complaining about journalists posting links in their community. Generally, all those running forums – moderators – really want is for you to ask in advance. And the not to spam the site!
4. Don’t be put off by negative comments: It’s hard not to take offence when you see someone criticising your story or the publication you work for. But if they’re complaining or moaning, see it as a sign that they care. Get involved in the discussion, in a way which is constructive. For example, the Accrington Observer was criticised by many members of the Accyweb forum when it closed its offices in Accrington several years ago. The then news editor made the effort to get involved in the forum and offered to drop in several times a week to talk to people. Instantly, the mood changed.
5. Work out who the troublemakers are: Like any community, forums will have the troublemakers. You can normally spot them a mile off – they’ll be the ones who if you look at their posts will often get ticked off by other forums users. Most forums are well-run and self-moderate effectively.
6. Ask questions: If you are thinking of an idea, why not share it on a forum? It’s crowdsourcing of a sort and people will respond well to being asked to help shape something. Asking football forums in Liverpool to help promote surveys we ran on Liverpool and Everton football clubs helped to build bridges with sites which had rarely work with previously.
7. Vox pop on a forum?: Ok, so you won’t get many mugshots to go with it, but if you’re known on a forum and want reaction to a local issue, then this could be a solution.
8. Make use of RSS where possible: I’ve suggested before that all journalists should be making use of RSS readers to create specialised news wires, and adding in ones which track things said in forums can help make the readers invaluable. Omgili shines here.
9. Think of forums when news breaks: Journalists know to turn to Twitter or Facebook to chase news breaks, but forums are worth remembering too. Recently, a post office reasonably close to my house was raided at about 5.20pm. By 5.40pm, eyewitnesses were discussing it on a local forum.
10. Not everything will always be quite what it seems: Like every other aspect of journalism, if a piece of information appears too good to be true, it likely will be.