Newspapers have always been about communities, particularly local papers. We claim to represent communities and interact with them, and the internet provides new ways of doing that.
But how many newspapers are actually taking advantage of what the internet offers? As a general rule, we offer readers the chance to comment on stories and, um, that's it.
I believe we should be using our websites as places where readers can communicate with us and with each other. This is particularly important for local newspapers. People still care about their local communities. There are plenty of blogs about Birmingham (and no doubt about Liverpool and Newcastle too) - people have ideas and information they want to share. We should be presenting ourselves as the platform to do it.
And there's another reason for creating a community on our websites. People like establishing an identity online, for better or for worse. This is one of the reasons they create blogs. It's one of the reasons you get flame warriors on forums or among people who comment on blogs, and one of the reasons others try to establish a reputation for thoughtful, constructive posts.
It's possible for newspapers to go much further than they do in allowing communities to develop.
We shouldn't try to compete with Facebook, but I believe that readers of local newspapers would be interested in taking part in a specifically local community as well as, or in some cases instead of, the national or global communities they are also part of.
JomSocial allows people to create a profile, connect with friends, create groups, share RSS feeds (eg to promote their blog), share photos, share videos, add events to a community calendar, share their Twitter feed and share mini-blog posts (ie on a "wall").
It also interacts with the comments system produced by the same company (the one I use on this site) and with a blog platform they have developed. In other words, when people comment on a story, that comment also shows up in their profile. And we could allow people to blog on our own websites - keeping the "community blogs" separate from our "official" blogs.
One thing it does not do, but which I believe would be key for a newspaper website, is allow people to bookmark news stories - allowing them to share stories from our websites that they think others would be interested in, as well as rating them and commenting on them.
Although I point out that this particular application is dirt cheap in the context of a one-off investment by a major regional newspaper, I appreciate that developing something like it for ourselves might not be so easy.
But isn't it the type of thing newspaper businesses who want to adapt for the changing marketplace should be doing?
Edit: I have created a demonstration site to illustrate what I mean. For more information, take a look at this post: A demonstration "social newspaper".