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How Journalists, Community Can Connect With Google+

Chances are if you read 10,000 Words, you’re a journalist of some stripe and you’re also familiar with — and likely already belong to — the latest social network: Google Plus. I’m no longer a news beat reporter, but I immediately saw an awesome opportunity for a specific journalist or even better a whole news organization to make this site into something awesome and useful to connect with their community. Here’s how:

Set up an account and create circles based on specific beats and topics. That’s basically it.

But what will make this useful is how you set up these circles and what you post and share with each. This is the part that I see as an interesting opportunity to build community.

Those circles are important because they will define who gets what news. You can go as deep or as broad as you like. If you cover education, your list will probably be broken down by school district or even individual school level (or maybe just high schools). If you cover city or county government, you could go down to the specific cities/counties, or if it’s just one city/county it could be broken down further to some of the departments or committees — city council, public works, street maintenance, etc. If you cover state legislature, you could take it down to parts of the state, counties or specific districts. If you’re creating this account for your entire news organization, you can do all of these or stick with broader circles for all education, city, county, crime, etc.

Now comes the fun part. Add people to those circles. Add all of your school administrators and teachers to the circles that affect them. (If you have both a general education and a specific school they belong to, put them in two circles!) Add your PTO and parents sources to their appropriate circle. Add the city councilors and mayor to their appropriate circles. Add the fire chief, police chief, judges and prosecutor to their circles. Add your sources who’ve expressed interest in these topics to the appropriate circle.

Create a general public “everything” circle that gets all the items you post — and place everyone you add (or who adds you) here by default. Tell people that these other specific circles exist, and give them the option to be included there and also to exclude themselves from other circles (including your everything list). Yes, this is absolutely going to take time, especially at first and especially if you’re a large news organization. But think of the usefulness.

With this general set-up, you’ll be able to target relevant news directly to the stream of people most interested in it. Rather than have multiple Facebook pages to keep track of, you can simply select which circle each post is shared with each time you post.

Think of the comment threads that can be developed among only people specifically interested in that area of news. Also, if you’re looking for news tips or sources, post a message to that circle. It only goes to relevant folks and other people don’t feel bombarded with pleas.

Beyond sharing your news and seeking sources and added commentary, there are a few other Google+ features that have great potential as news tools.

First, encourage eye-witnesses to tag your organization in photos from the scene on Google+. This gives you some ready-made sources to contact and also potentially some firsthand photos. Also with the photo albums, you could engage people in a caption contest, post photo galleries, or even seek photos for specific stories (maybe historic photos of buildings, pictures for a local feature about hoarders or just awesome Halloween costumes or Christmas light displays). Picasa is probably an easier tool for regular users to master than most news organization photo uploading tools.

Finally, you should host hangout sessions with your readers and reporters and sources. At least try it. It may prove to be unwieldy and you might go back to something like UStream or CoverItLive chats. But I think it would be great to have a reporter interviewing a source or answering questions, either on one screen or on separate screens in different locations, and allowing the readers to participate real-time and not just as a chat room. It might be slightly awkward, and you might get the one crazy person who interrupts, but you’ll have that anywhere. It might produce some interesting conversations and even break some news, though.

Now for some realism and caveats.

First, lots of these people probably aren’t tech-savvy. And lots and lots of people aren’t on Google Plus yet. If they can’t master Facebook or Twitter, or in some cases e-mail, chances are they’re not going to “get” Google Plus. I’m not even sure I entirely get Google+, and I’m definitely an early adopter. But I saw they’re projecting 10 million users in the next few days, and it’s still in invitation-only beta. But I see potential here that really excites me.

Second, people can’t add themselves to these circles. It takes some guess work on your part at the beginning to figure out who to put where. Also, some people may resist being put anywhere, and they may block you or ignore you, which is OK. (Not everyone who follows you on Twitter wants to be followed back, or vice versa.) Also, you need their e-mail address to add them. So you might start by culling your existing source list or simply asking people for it. It really would be a lot easier if they could apply to you and say, “Hey, I’m a lawyer interested in the crime news and also have kids in Y district and live in City Z.” But right now, all Google tells you is you’re in their circle. It doesn’t say you’re in Circle1 or CircleA, or even that such circles exist. So you’re on your own to monitor and curate this. Hopefully this will be improved as the product develops.

Third, people can’t just post on your wall about general news tips or topics. This isn’t Facebook! But as these are useful, you may want to post a daily/weekly “What’s on your mind?” post to solicit more feedback or to give people places for these items.

Overall?

This is a very new tool and it lacks critical mass and focus. I’ve joined more social networks to give them a spin than I can remember, but I presently use only a few. (This includes both Wave and Buzz, previous attempts by Google to be socially relevant.) But I can honestly say, so far, my experience with Plus has been a noticeably deeper level of conversation and thought than other networks I frequent. I like not being flooded with games and doodads on screen. Some of the features I don’t quite get yet, and some of them don’t work the way I think they should. But as I’ve outlined here, there’s some really rich potential for journalists who do it right — and lots of room for experimentation.

(BTW: I do have invites if you’re a journalist who wants to test it but hasn’t gotten in yet. Email me meranda at merandawrites.com)

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