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September 27 2010

17:30

Block by Block: Once you’ve launched, what’s Phase 2 of a community news startup?

Jay Rosen called it “entrepreneur atomization overcome.” And, for an event that put nearly 100 formerly disconnected community news publishers together in one place, it’s an apt description. When those publishers got together in Chicago on Friday to share their experiences in publishing — to talk, in particular, about on-the-ground matters like audience engagement, advertising strategies, and, of course, revenue generation — there was a prevailing sentiment: Why didn’t we do this earlier?

The Block by Block Community News Summit, principally organized by the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Michele McLellan (a former Nieman Fellow), was thankfully well-recorded, through means both ephemeral (its Twitter hashtag), slightly less so (its CoverItLive’d live blog), and much less so (its official blog). I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, and if you’re at all interested in community news — and if you’re interested in the future of news in general, you probably should be — I highly recommend checking those out. In the meantime, though, here are some of the core ideas that emerged during the conference’s jam-packed day of panels, breakouts, and room-wide discussions.

Know — and grow — your role in the community

Community news sites, just like their larger and more established counterparts, need to be able to provide an answer when someone — a would-be reader, a potential advertiser or funder — asks, “So why do you exist?” As West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record put it during the conference’s panel on engagement: “You have to think how different your publication is…what need is it filling?” Starting out, answering that question could involve filling a particular niche in terms of content, or simply stepping in to contribute community coverage that a local paper is no longer willing or able to provide. (As virtual attendee Whitney Parks noted in the conference’s Twitter stream, “ask your community what they want to know about and what issue they want covered.”) But the purpose has to be clear, and easily articulated. It’s the foundation of a site’s brand, which, in turn, is the foundation for its success or failure.

Embrace a new relationship with readers

During the conference’s closing session, Jay Rosen invoked that classic de Tocqueville line: “Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers.” In another context, and in another conference, that reference might have been laughably romantic hyperbole; at Block by Block, though, it fit right in. There was a sense — to engage in just a smidge of laughably romantic hyperbole myself — of symbolism in the room. In some ways, Rosen pointed out, the publishers in the room are going back to the early days of American journalism, in which the connection between publications and the communities they covered was implicit, and therefore intimate — and vice versa.

And that relationship, the conference’s modern-day publishers said again and again, should translate to sites’ interactions with advertisers and other members of their local business communities. As the Patterson Foundation, one of the conference’s sponsors, noted in a tweet, “Small sites have an opportunity to create a closer relationship with users b/c a brand is not standing in the way.” Mike Orren, from Dallas’s Pegasus News, agreed — if in a roundabout way. In the ability they have to rally people around particular events, he noted, “we’re a lot more like radio than like newspapers.” Local sites have the ability to summon people, to engage them — to join them together into communities. And they should leverage that power. As David Boraks of Davidson News put it: “We are not writing about the community anymore; we are writing for the community.”

Embrace a new relationship with advertisers

Local advertising is a $100 million business, GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts noted, and he said Google and AOL have more than 50 percent of that market. Their services are easy to use, but taking the time to develop relationships with local businesses — which is to say, fellow local businesses — is worth the investment, many publishers agreed. The key is humanizing the transaction. As Windy Citizen’s Brad Flora, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner for a real-time advertising project, put it: “We don’t sell eyeballs — we sell introductions.” What that suggests is a shift, if a slight one, in the ancient wall dividing editorial and advertising. The Loop, a hyperlocal site in NYC, does sponsored stories — clearly identified as such. Santa Barbara’s EdHat prominently invites readers to advertise on the site, and, via a single button on the homepage, makes it easy for them to do that. And many publishers agree that word-of-mouth is key to success with advertisers. As Baristanet’s Liz George put it, “Your readers are probably your best salespeople.”

Branding matters more than traffic

Advertising is based on relationships. Brand matters more than abstractions like CPM and traffic, publishers agree. While national ad sales rely on CPM, “local advertisers cannot spell CPM,” said GrowthSpur’s Potts. And while metrics like traffic stats “provide a baseline for understanding,” Pegasus News’ Orren noted — proof that you’re generally legit as a news organization — they’re functionally meaningless for advertisers. “There’s actually an inefficiency in the market,” Potts noted. Because they don’t understand CPM — mention it, and “they’ll go running from the room.” West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record agreed. “Advertisers don’t care about metrics,” she said, “but they do care about your mission.” Convince them of your mission — and your reputation — and, she said, “they’ll buy ads to support you.”

Collaboration will lead to participation

Collaboration isn’t just a way to get more and better content for a site; it’s also a way to inspire engagement among readers. As OJR put it, tweeting a comment from Dave Cohn, “One key to engaging=collaboration w/audience and others says @digidave. Actually attracts others to participate.” And that’s true for the local sites themselves. Several participants expressed the desire to continue the conversations at other conferences, and online. They’ve made it through Phase 1, the creation stage.

But as VTDigger’s Anne Galloway put it during the conference’s wrap-up session, “We need a Phase 2 guidebook.” The publishers want a systematized way to share information and best practices. During the conference, there was a wealth of wisdom in the room; participants agreed in their desire to aggregate that wisdom. “It would be good to have tipsheets,” Galloway said. It would also be good, they agreed, to continue the conversation via further conferences. The Block by Block participants are already planning a meetup at next month’s Online News Association conference, during which they’ll consider more ways to consider the conversation; here’s hoping even more good things will come from that.

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