By Beth Loyd, News Partnerships
For more than a year, PBS NewHour reporter Elizabeth Flock had wanted to start a book club. Her audience loved reading, and Flock wanted to use discussions around topical books as a way to form a tighter-knit NewsHour community. After considering several options, PBS reached out to Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, and together they launched the Now Read This Facebook group in January, 2018.
Over the course of three months, Now Read This has already grown to more than 50 thousand members. Flock has already seen members meet up in person to have discussions about the book over dinner. Editors and critics from The New York Times and PBS reporters take questions from the group through Facebook Live, and jump into the comments to interact with readers. And each month, PBS NewsHour broadcasts an interview with the book’s author and sources questions directly from the community.
We talked with Elizabeth Flock about why she started the group, how PBS and The New York Times facilitate discussion over the course of a month, and the most surprising ways this engaged and thoughtful community has grown.
Why did you start this group?
We’d been thinking about this book club for a while. It was something we wanted to do because PBS NewsHour viewers are massive readers. Our chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown does about four to six interviews with authors a month, and people love those segments. We wanted to go deeper on that and build a community of NewsHour book readers.
Why does this work best as a Facebook group?
The concept of a book club is so similar to the concept behind Facebook Groups. It’s where people have conversations and dialogue. It’s the best place for strangers to be talking and connecting in real time online.
How do you decide which books to choose?
We decided these would be books that would help us make sense of the times that we’re living in. The only criteria is that it illuminates something people are already talking about and would want to understand more deeply. The first book revolved around race. Our February one was about Native American history. This month we are looking at the effects civil war have on people forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. A lot of work goes in to what books will provoke thoughtful discussions and get people excited.
How did you get the group off the ground and grow it?
We put a lot of thought into how to actually get people reading along and participating and decided to partner with The New York Times Book Review. That worked out so well because we have two very large and different audiences.
We launched it as a collaborative project. We mention the group on air and online whenever we do book coverage, on both PBS and in The New York Times Book Review. The New York Times created a banner ad for it, and mentions it in their podcast. We publish original content related to our book picks that live on our site and The Times puts original and archival content – reviews, articles, etc. – about the book on their site. But the goal is to funnel everyone to the Facebook group where the discussion is happening.
What does your group content strategy look like for each month?
At the beginning of each month we announce the book club choice. We do that on the PBS NewHour broadcast, on The New York Times website, in the group, and on the PBS NewHour site. Throughout the month we provide content around the book choice. This may include a photo essay from the book, advice from the writer, Facebook Lives, an annotated page where the author takes one page and tells you how she wrote it, reported it, or what happened behind the scenes. We share archival book reviews or interviews with the author from The New York Times or PBS. We also share discussion questions and people respond and have dialogue about it, like how you’d see in a physical book club.
At the end of the month we air a conversation with the author on the PBS NewsHour program. We source questions through the Facebook Group and play videos of group members asking questions for the author. When we air that segment at the end of month, that ends the cycle and we start all over again.
How do you use Facebook Live in the group?
We did a Facebook Live with Pamela Paul, editor of The Book Review, and our chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown talking about the book of the month. We took questions live, and Jeffrey and Pamela answered them. We also had The Times’s book critic Parul Sehgal do a Facebook Live with us. And we’re hoping in the future we can do Facebook Lives with prominent authors who have read the book and are passionate about it as well. We’re also actually trying to get people from the books we’re reading, when they’re nonfiction, to go live as well.
The point of us doing this in the group is that we wanted to start out and work on ways to engage the community. Going live in the group is a perfect place to reach that community.
What’s the conversation like in the group? Is it generally positive, or does it take a lot of moderation?
It really feels very democratic in there. And the geographic reach has been amazing to see. People from very rural areas around the country, and the world, are coming together in there.
There’s a whole thread for people that meet up in person and do a Now Read This book club in their own community. We’re also seeing Now Read This local mini groups pop up from Alabama to Berlin. It’s exciting to see how people are really engaged with this online and in real life.
Surprisingly the group has been a lot more civil and thoughtful compared with other online communities. We think its because it’s focused, and because of the subject matter. One of my favorite recent threads was around the book Killers of the Flowers Moon, which is about true murders on the Osage Indian Reservation. It was a news event at the time, in the 1920s, but not something we ever learned in school. Many readers posted the question saying “Why didn’t I learn about this in school?” and that started a great discussion around the roots of why this isn’t included in a normal curriculum.
Do posts generally come from you and other PBS and New York Times reporters or the official Pages?
We’ve decided mostly to do it from the PBS NewHour and The New York Times Book Review Pages because our personal posts will get lost in the shuffle of reader comments we’ve approved. But folks on our staff are always jumping into the comments.
How do you determine if the group is successful?
We’re just happy there are so many people excited about it, discussing the books and reading them. We didn’t have set metrics. We were definitely extremely pleased at how popular the group is and were so happy with those numbers, but we judge it more by the quality of the comments and discussion. The focus is on the quality of the conversation.
How does this group benefit the larger PBS NewsHour and New York Times brand?
This group is really in line with our brand because NewsHour is all about thoughtful, engaging discussions around the news, pushing people to think deeper, and building communities around that kind of content. This group is a direct extension of that, and the place where that dialogue can happen. I think Pamela Paul would say the same thing in terms of The Times’s mission.
What advice do you have for people thinking about starting a group?
What’s important is to make sure to put a lot of time and planning for what this will look like over the course of a month, or a period of time, and to make sure there’s an audience eager for that type of engagement.
It’s best to let it grow organically. We do light moderation, but you don’t want a moderator telling them how to comment. I want people to be able to find all these amazing things around the book that will help them dig into it more deeply. If they’re excited about the book on their own, then that’s the best way the group can keep building.
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