How to start, moderate and benchmark a community news Facebook group: what GateHouse does to engage audiences

Facebook groups are a place where local news organizations can build a more engaged audience, and a space where GateHouse Media has amassed a collective 56,000+ members among about 50 groups.

Early last year, GateHouse opened the option to allow newsrooms to create Facebook groups as a way to engage readers and do journalism with impact. Since then, local newsrooms have launched successful, engaging, local Facebook groups that fill a void in the community.

Penny Riordan is the director of digital audience engagement at GateHouse Media.

“We realized that groups are good for newsrooms to directly engage with the readers,” said Penny Riordan, director of digital audience engagement at GateHouse Media. “We saw the benefit of having something that was a little more closed and a little more private.”

With Facebook emphasizing more personal and increasingly private interactions, GateHouse has made strides to support newsrooms’ creation of these types of spaces as part of its overall audience development strategy.

“Groups are being suggested so much more in the Facebook ecosystem,” she said. “Recruiting members hasn’t really been a problem for us with these open-ended groups. But you can include a link to your group in relevant articles, and link to it from the main Facebook page.”

Galesburg Foodies from The Register-Mail is an active GateHouse Media Facebook group.

To get started, leadership at GateHouse recommended newsrooms focus on group topics that community members were passionate about. Riordan said often those were history and nostalgia, pets and animal welfare, and dining and restaurants.

“Big newsrooms were doing a lot of galleries around nostalgia, archival and evergreen content and they were getting a lot of traffic,” she said. “That’s an example of ‘we saw that people are engaging with this content on our site, and so maybe we should provide an extra space for them to get more content around this.’”

Editorial teams used their expertise and data to determine the topics most valuable to local readers, creating forums that don’t already exist as dedicated Facebook groups. Sometimes hard news has a place, such as in the Facebook group Extra Credit: Palm Beach County schools, which includes news and discussion moderated by The Palm Beach Post‘s education team; as well as Storm 2019, which originated as a community source to help and connect neighbors in Palm Beach as Hurricane Irma closed in, and is now maintained as a hurricane season and weather information hub.

This post in the Storm 2019 Facebook Group was high-performing and related to weather and climate, the main topic in the group.

“If you want to do some hard news topic on some obscure thing that you’re really passionate about, you need to make sure you have an audience for it and you need to make sure it’s something that’s actually driving traffic already,” she said.

Riordan said it’s also helpful to select group topics that aren’t too broad, those that offer a lot of content on the subject, and subjects that don’t require a lot of heavy-handed moderation.

“One of the big benefits is when readers start conversations with each other. It’s just happening; the newsroom is not needing to facilitate that,” she said. “I do recommend having at least one person who can lead that charge and be passionate about that topic and really get behind the group to be able to moderate it.”

Moderation can include approving requests to join (for closed groups), polling and chatting via Facebook Live, commenting to intervene and answer questions, and offering up information — including links back to owned/operated sites — that builds a more informed and engaged local community.

Many posts in News-Journal Pets! are from members but often times the Facebook group is also a place to share original newspaper content.

“We know we’re doing well when it’s not just us talking to the readers but the readers talking to each other, and they only make that connection through us,” she said.

GateHouse is measuring Facebook group success using CrowdTangle to track its own groups. But also, at a local level, newsrooms review the posts and topics trending within other community groups as well as peer newsroom-run groups to benchmark success and get ideas.

“What you can get [from CrowdTangle] is membership growth, interaction rate, posts per day — this is really helpful for me to see which groups are more active, and suss out member participation versus reporter participation — and overperforming,” she said. “CrowdTangle Intelligence is also really good to chart out short-term and long-term growth.”

Here are some highlights and examples of what’s working for GateHouse in Facebook groups.

Food-focused groups
With more than 3,400 group members, The Register-Mail Facebook group Galesburg Foodies in Galesburg, Ill., is GateHouse’s third-largest and among the best-performing and most active groups. Galesburg Foodies is moderated by one newsroom staffer and has grown 43% since the beginning of 2019. Nearly 90% of posts in this group are photos, including members sharing food they make at home, promoting their favorite local restaurants, and discussing which eateries they’d like to see open in Galesburg.

GateHouse’s largest and fastest-growing group this year, Spartanburg Eats from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C., is a bit more focused on restaurant experiences than personal cooking, but both groups are consistently performing and engaging readers and facilitating community dialogue through the Facebook group.

The Vintage Times-Union Facebook group is a steady stream of nostalgic and iconic historical photos with rich context.

Pets and animal welfare groups
FO Pet Welfare & Rescue, moderated by staff at the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina, has more than 1,000 members. About 10% of posts are video, including adoptable animals and rescue stories, and 82% of posts are photos. FO Pet Welfare & Rescue has grown 13% since the beginning of the year, whereas the News-Journal Pets! Facebook group has grown nearly 19% in the same time. This group is similar in that it offers a place for its 722 members including nonprofit and welfare organizations to discuss fostering and adoption opportunities, low-cost vet care options, as well as engage over news stories related to animal welfare published by the News-Journal. Pet and welfare Facebook groups are ripe opportunities in communities where they do not already exist, connecting residents to their lost pets or animal welfare nonprofits.

Nostalgia and history groups
From the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, Remember when, Columbus? is among the largest of GateHouse Facebook groups with 1,500 members. The group averages five posts per week, primarily links and statuses. Some of the most engaging posts from the last several months were from members, and the group offers a lot of opportunities to send readers back to the newspaper’s website. Another nostalgia-focused GateHouse group is Vintage Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla., which utilizes the advanced features available in Facebook groups, such formatting text in posts. Most posts in Vintage Times-Union are from the newspaper’s main Facebook page, and are primarily photos with links in the descriptions.

How is your local news organization approaching Facebook groups? Have you found success around these or other topics? Reach out to share your story.

This report was produced by the Local News Resource Center at LMA, which is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project. Find more content like this and sign up for the monthly digest with news from around the web at the intersection of local news and social media.