College Media / Community

How’s your Dunbar’s Number? Some community engagement ideas for college media


Photo by Flickr user Capt’ Gorgeous’ (Ben Salter) used under Creative Commons license.

Eons ago in Internet time, I wrote about  Dunbar’s Number as it relates to college media. Now might be a good time to revisit some of the ideas in that post as a reminder for both print and digital media purposes.

As a reminder, here’s the original quote from Steve Yelvington where I first heard about  Dunbar’s Number:

I’ve referred to the Dunbar number frequently in explaining to journalism and new-media audiences the concept of hyperlocal relevance. It works like this: If I have about 150 people in my inner circle, and I never see them in your newspaper, then your newspaper isn’t about me and my kind.

For campus journalists, Dunbar’s Number is crucial to understand, as it might help explain declines in readership, or why students aren’t frequent visitors to your web site.

The math goes something like this: Lets say you have 30 staffers on your newspaper at a campus of 10,000 students. Between them, those staffers likely “know” at most 4,500 people (assuming there is some overlap because they know each other). That leaves at least 5,500 students that they don’t know, and the potential that over half of your campus has no social connection to your media outlet.

The key to increasing relevance, then, is to find a way to get those people into your coverage, so they feel a sense of belonging.

It’s difficult to do this in a newspaper, or a TV station or radio station, where you are limited by time and space constraints. Even in a print edition, however, more and larger photos of students doing things, and fewer photos of buildings and administrators can go a long way.

More pertinent for this blog, the Internet can help you build those relationships as well. Using social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (to name only the largest operators in the space right now), you can solicit news and photos featuring more members of your campus community.

Here are just a few ways you might consider to reach more of those Dunbar’s numbers:

  • Let readers submit photos to your Facebook page. Allow users to submit photos through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Then, choose a photo every week as your media FB page cover photo (with proper credit to the photographer, of course).
  • Use Storify to gather social media content related to campus events and stories. If something big is happening on campus, make sure to find out what people are saying on social media and collect artifacts for a story where possible. (see this example from a recent event at EIU)
  • Ask questions of your social media followers and publish the answers in the newspaper. See my previous post, What Jalopnik can teach college media about engaging readers, for more on this.
  • Seek information that wouldn’t make it into the newspaper and put it online. Intramural sports a big thing on your campus? Do you publish results? Photos? What about Greek life? Overlooked campus organizations? Do you provide a space on your web site for these organizations to publicize their activities?
  • Follow campus organizations on Twitter and other social media platforms. Retweet/share relevant information through your media accounts. Use these sources for potential story ideas.
  • Appoint a “community manager/editor/whatever” to reach out to groups who don’t normally appear in the newspaper. Ask for suggestions of how to better cover their activities. Seek their assistance if necessary.
  • Cross-promote your efforts. Promote your community outreach in your print/broadcast outlet, and promote your print/broadcast outlet in your community outreach.

People still view many media web sites as a secondary effort by publications: as a place to put stuff that’s not “worth” appearing in print/broadcast. By stepping up community engagement through your social media presence and web site, you can help turn that perception around. And also, hopefully, drive people to your other media products as well.

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