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February 23 2011

21:00

Rockville Central: set to become a Facebook-only outlet

Say you run a community news site. In your spare time. And Patch has moved into your neighborhood.

How do you, with limited resources but a desire to keep contributing to your community, stay competitive?

One site’s solution: Take the “site” out of “news site.” Starting March 1, Rockville Central, a community news outlet for the DC suburb of Rockville, Maryland, will move its operation to…its Facebook page. Entirely to its Facebook page.

“There are always two different conversations going on,” Cindy Cotte Griffiths, the site’s editor, told me — one on RockvilleCentral.com, and the other on the site’s Facebook page. Why force the two to compete with each other, when they’re actually manifestations of the same community? As it is, Cotte Griffiths notes, “a lot of our traffic is driven from Facebook.” (Rockville Central currently gets about 2,000 of its average 20,000 monthly hits from Facebook, she told me.) “Everyone’s always trying to get people out of Facebook,” she notes. “And we’re like, ‘Well, we’re already here.’”

There are some obvious benefits to the all-Facebook approach. Facebook, for one, has a huge built-in audience — one that is used to sharing and commenting on and contributing content. It has a built-in infrastructure — one that easily accommodates multimedia. It has, essentially, a built-in mobile app. For an outlet that’s run by people who do that running in their spare time — that is, publishers who have even less time than most to deal with concerns about site design, server capacity, and other logistical aspects of digital journalism — Facebook’s insta-infrastructure could free up time that may be spent on more traditionally journalistic endeavors: fact-gathering, conversation-guiding, content-aggregating, community-building, etc.

In fact, with the move to Facebook will come, its publishers hope, a more efficient approach to the content of the journalism itself. “One thing that will change is that we will do less duplicative reporting,” Cotte Griffiths and the site’s founder, Brad Rourke, note in a blog post announcing the move. “For a city its size, Rockville is well-covered, journalistically. We don’t need to duplicate the efforts of our friends. (How many recaps of the Mayor and Council meetings can you read, really?)”

Instead, Cotte Griffiths told me, they’ll redouble their efforts at community-building itself, curating conversations around the news. And the hope is that the Facebook move will help facilitate that curation. Again and again, the social network — probably because of the direct connection it enforces between user behavior and user identity — shows itself to be a generally more “civil” place than the rest of the Internet. (That’s one advantage of a walled garden over an open web.) Cotte Griffiths and Rourke are hoping that the authenticity factor itself will serve as a kind of automatic moderator of commentary within the Rockville Central community. (Currently, the pair polices the site’s comments in addition to their other duties.)

“It seems like a place where people are themselves,” Cotte Griffiths says of Facebook — with all the good that can be connected to genuine identities. “We’re curious to see what happens with that.”

Which is not to say that there won’t be downsides to the move — some inevitable, some merely possible. (A Facebook-hosted outlet, for one example, doesn’t allow for easy tagging of content, which means that an easily accessible archive likely won’t be in the cards for the site — at least for the time being.) The most immediately obvious drawback, though, is that a site hosted on Facebook can’t host its own local ads. In fact, to make the switch, Rockville Central had to return money to its advertisers.

And that’s a sacrifice it’s willing to make. Profit, Cotte Griffiths notes, isn’t itself the site’s overall goal: She and Rourke see the outlet not so much as a money-making vehicle as an experiment in civic engagement. (That gives Rockville Central much more financial flexibility than, say, The Batavian or the West Seattle Blog, which function not merely as labors of love, but also as livelihoods for their publishers.) “For entities and organizations that are trying to turn a profit, or have other institutional or organizational reasons to have a separate identity, it can make sense to have a separate web space,” Cotte Griffiths and Rourke note. “But Rockville Central is different and, as we thought hard about it, we realized we could find no compelling reason that Rockville Central needs to exist as a separate rockvillecentral.com site.”

Then again, Rockville Central isn’t, you know, opposed to turning a profit. And building a strong, committed community on Facebook, Cotte Griffiths points out, could be a means toward developing non-ad-based revenue streams in the future, from hosting conferences to staging community events. (Cotte Griffiths’ day job? Event planner.)

Everything’s on the table; “we’re willing to try anything,” Cotte Griffiths notes. And while a Facebook-hosted outlet could have a leg up when it comes to the holy grail that it “community engagement,” there’s always the chance that the hoped-for audience expansion could end up going the other way. Not everyone’s a Facebook fan. As reader Nick Ferris put it in the comments of Cotte Griffiths’ post:

As a loyal reader of Rockville Central for several years, I must say this decision appalls me. Facebook is the garbage dump of the internet, and Rockville Central really deserves to stand separate from it. I also think putting your entire infrastructure in the hands of a third-party service already well known for its growing privacy concerns and ever-changing terms of service is a bad move.

Rockville Central will be making this move without me and certainly many other readers as well.

Still, though, the move — with all its implications for the future of community news — will be an intriguing experiment to watch. “There’s this big party,” Cotte Griffiths says of Facebook. It’s likely only to get bigger. “And we want to be in there.”

February 18 2011

19:30

Chattarati wants to change how we talk about schools

Last month, the state of Tennessee released its comprehensive report card on pre-K-12 education for 2010.

The news wasn’t good. In Hamilton County, the seat of Chattanooga, not only did schools as a unit not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals; in addition, not even half of the county’s elementary school students were able to demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math and reading. Overall, the data suggested, 37 percent of Hamilton’s K-12 schools aren’t meeting the (not-terribly-ambitious) education standards set by the federal government.

That’s a problem for Tennessee’s education system. But it’s also, argues one news publisher, a problem for journalism. Chattarati, a community news site for Chattanooga, is trying to do its part to improve its community’s public education system by making the data about that system comprehensible to readers. The broad goal: to change how we talk about schools.

“We wanted to have productive conversations about how the schools and students were performing here in our local county system,” John Hawbaker, Chattarati’s editor, told me. “It’s really easy to look at [the data] and say, ‘Okay, our county system got a D overall.’ You could bemoan it for a few days, and then move on.”

“But that doesn’t help anybody solve the problem. And we all have a vested interest in how the schools perform,” he says. “So it was really important for us to take a deeper look. We wanted to change the conversation.”

To do that, Chattarati’s education editor, Aaron Collier, put together an interactive, graphic depiction of the state report card results. (Chattarati started with math scores at Hamilton Country elementary schools, but plans to break the data down further by subject: another for science, another for reading, another for social studies, and so on. The plan is to produce a new graphic, in the same style, every week.) The journalists employed a local freelance designer, DJ Trischler, to design the graphic — it was inspired, Hawbaker told me, by the clean images and bold colors of the graphics in GOOD magazine — and worked together on it over the course of a couple weeks. In their spare time.

“What we knew from the beginning,” Hawbaker says, “is that we wanted to find a visual way to represent the two different measures that schools and students are graded on”: achievement (that is, how much a student learned over a year in relation to an external, set goal) and value-added (that is, year-over-year progress). Of those two, achievement tends to get the most attention, Hawbaker notes; “but I think it paints a really interesting picture — and there’s a lot more you can learn — if you’re able to look at both of them, side by side. So we wanted to represent that visually.”

That led to a grid design that puts the low-achieving, low-value-added schools at the bottom left, and the high-achieving, high-value-added schools at the top right. So you have both overall learning and relative improvement tracked on the same chart. “There’s a lot of data there; you can’t get around it,” Hawbaker notes. “But we tried to present it in a way that was easy to understand.”

That easy-to-understand aspect is key: Often, challenges in the education system — or, for that matter, problems in any huge, complex bureaucracy — can be amplified by their intimidation factor alone: When we can’t wrap our head around the problems in the first place, how can we hope to try to solve them? Complexity fatigue can be one of the biggest, broadest impediments to finding solutions to common problems. The charts Chattarati is building, like its dataviz counterparts at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, offers a micro solution to the macro problem: They try to take the “data” out of “dataset,” making sense out of the information they contain. And making that information, overall, less cognitively intimidating.

“We’ve gotten so many private comments: emails, people talking to us,” Hawbaker says. “I had a teacher at my daughter’s school stop me and tell me how much she liked it. It’s been gratifying.”

As Hawbaker and Collier, put it in a post announcing the experiment: “The temptation, of course, is to resign ourselves to disparaging talk and absolve ourselves of the school system with the coming of hard news. But with Tennessee’s dramatic shift toward tougher curriculum standards, the success of our schools will depend on an informed, community-wide dialog on some of the challenges they face.”

The site’s experiment is a small but meaningful way to get beyond the statistics — which, they hope, will help empowerment to win out over resignation. “Every step of the way,” the journalists note, “our goal is to equip you to participate in a conversation addressing this question: How can we better serve our students?”

January 06 2011

19:06

LocalWiki: Laying the Groundwork

A few of you have been wondering what we've been up to since our Kickstarter pledge drive ended, so we want to give you a quick update on our Knight-funded project, LocalWiki. For those of you who are more technically inclined, we hope to also provide an insight into these early stages of our process.

To follow our updates in the future, please sign up with your email address at http://localwiki.org, follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/localwiki, or follow our blog directly. Or if you're a huge geek, join us on IRC in Freenode's #localwiki.

Right now, we are ramping up development of the wiki software that will provide the platform for all of our pilot projects. Starting in October, my partner Mike Ivanov and I have been working out of our awesome coworking office in San Francisco (shout out to NextSpace) and laying the groundwork for this new platform.


Making software that lasts

This may not make much sense unless you're a techie, but here are some details about what's going on:

Our initial focus at this stage is to build a set of reusable Django apps that will provide the core functionality of an extensible and easy-to-use wiki software, which include making it straightforward to edit a page, to track and work with revisions of pages and other objects, and to let people compare those revisions to see what's been changed. We will then use these components to build the first functional iteration of our wiki software. The benefits of this approach are that it helps us focus on each aspect separately, will help developers in the Django community to understand and contribute to our code, and makes it possible for other projects and organizations to use only the parts they might find useful. Software only survives if many people actively use it, and we want to ensure our software a long and happy life.

Next Few Months, Roughly Speaking

Until February: Core software. We will create the central components of the wiki software and put them together into something that will enable folks to start creating awesome content. We unfortunately have to work out some legal issues around licensing before we can easily accept outside code contributions.

As soon as our licensing issues are resolved, we'll send out an update with information about how to get involved with the development process. We hope the licensing issues will be resolved in the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, it may be difficult for outside developers to get involved at this point because core bits and pieces will be moving and changing at a rapid rate.

February-April: Focus on features. We will push heavily to involve more outside developers to help make our software awesome and get some initial user feedback. If you are a developer interested in helping, this will be the best time for you to get involved because we will have somewhat solidified our development processes and underlying, core software. We will also need help with and feedback about the software from a higher level (e.g. feature requests).

April and beyond: Pilot communities, educational materials, community outreach. With the wiki platform largely built, we can start new pilot projects and educating potential users about building successful local projects. At this stage we will need all the help we can get from you to select pilots, write helpful guides, submit bug reports, and develop a model for communities to follow.

19:06

Laying the Groundwork For a Community Wiki

A few of you have been wondering what we've been up to since our Kickstarter pledge drive ended, so we want to give you a quick update on our Knight-funded project, LocalWiki. For those of you who are more technically inclined, we hope to also provide an insight into these early stages of our process.

To follow our updates in the future, please sign up with your email address at http://localwiki.org, follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/localwiki, or follow our blog directly. Or if you're a huge geek, join us on IRC in Freenode's #localwiki.

Right now, we are ramping up development of the wiki software that will provide the platform for all of our pilot projects. Starting in October, my partner Mike Ivanov and I have been working out of our awesome coworking office in San Francisco (shout out to NextSpace) and laying the groundwork for this new platform.


Making software that lasts

This may not make much sense unless you're a techie, but here are some details about what's going on:

Our initial focus at this stage is to build a set of reusable Django apps that will provide the core functionality of an extensible and easy-to-use wiki software, which include making it straightforward to edit a page, to track and work with revisions of pages and other objects, and to let people compare those revisions to see what's been changed. We will then use these components to build the first functional iteration of our wiki software. The benefits of this approach are that it helps us focus on each aspect separately, will help developers in the Django community to understand and contribute to our code, and makes it possible for other projects and organizations to use only the parts they might find useful. Software only survives if many people actively use it, and we want to ensure our software a long and happy life.

Next Few Months, Roughly Speaking

Until February: Core software. We will create the central components of the wiki software and put them together into something that will enable folks to start creating awesome content. We unfortunately have to work out some legal issues around licensing before we can easily accept outside code contributions.

As soon as our licensing issues are resolved, we'll send out an update with information about how to get involved with the development process. We hope the licensing issues will be resolved in the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, it may be difficult for outside developers to get involved at this point because core bits and pieces will be moving and changing at a rapid rate.

February-April: Focus on features. We will push heavily to involve more outside developers to help make our software awesome and get some initial user feedback. If you are a developer interested in helping, this will be the best time for you to get involved because we will have somewhat solidified our development processes and underlying, core software. We will also need help with and feedback about the software from a higher level (e.g. feature requests).

April and beyond: Pilot communities, educational materials, community outreach. With the wiki platform largely built, we can start new pilot projects and educating potential users about building successful local projects. At this stage we will need all the help we can get from you to select pilots, write helpful guides, submit bug reports, and develop a model for communities to follow.

December 08 2010

16:48

3 Reasons Every Local Blogger on Drupal Should Get Drupad

Last June, my company, NowSpots, won Knight News Challenge funding to build better local online advertising products for newspapers, alt-weeklies, and community newspapers. We've been building our product and working in closed beta with pilot publishers these last months.   We're seeing great results and are about to open up to new publishers. If your publication is interested in getting in early on a new flavor of online ad, one that local businesses, colleges, and political campaigns actually want to buy, drop us a line. In the meantime, we want to use these pieces on Idea Lab to focus some attention on topics of interest and use to community news publishers. You can follow NowSpots on Twitter here or follow me here.

A new Drupal module and iPhone app makes it easier for community news publishers to juggle the demands of managing and building an audience online and getting outside to cover the community. 

1actions.pngDrupad (currenty $4.99 in the iPhone app store), is an iPhone app that lets anyone running a Drupal 6 site read and moderate the latest comments, content, and user sign-ups from their iPhone.  The app, from French developer breek.fr, requires that you install a companion Drupal module on your site. I found it while browsing new contributed modules on Drupal.org, installed it a few days before Thanksgiving, and now use it multiple times a day to check up on the latest happenings on WindyCitizen.com, a Chicago-centric social news site I publish.

While Drupad is in not aimed specifically at community news publishers, I believe any publisher running a Drupal 6 site who installs it will immediately find it indispensable. If you're using Drupal and own an iPhone, get Drupad. It does three things incredibly well for community news publishers.

Two Places At Once

  1. Drupad solves the "two places at once" problem

As a community news publisher or local blogger, one of your biggest problems is what I call the "two places at once" problem. Someone needs to be "out there" attending events, snapping photos, interviewing people, and generally reporting on stuff. Meanwhile, someone needs to moderate comments on your site, post stuff on Twitter and Facebook, block spammers, and update stories on the front page. If you've read any of the interviews with AOL's Patch editors where they talk about their daily job, you get the picture. You've got be outside and inside at once.  It's tricky. The first iteration of Windy Citizen was a more traditional news magazine site that required me to be out reporting and inside running the site. It was a nightmare.

With Drupad, local bloggers running Drupal sites can check up on how things are going while on the bus, waiting at a meeting, or in between interviews from their phone. It puts a simple administration interface in your hand so you can stay on top of what's new on your site and moderate comments on the fly. Since I set up Drupad last week, I no longer need to worry about staying near a computer at all times to check up on Windy Citizen. With Drupad, local bloggers will be able to spend more time out in the field and less time strapped to their desk keeping watch over their sites. This is a big win.

Block Spammers

3user.png

2. Drupad makes it easier to block spammers

If your community news site or local blog has decent traffic or any semblance of a commenting community, you probably have issues with spammers posting nasty comments and content on your site. With Drupal's default admin UI, you usually wind up:

  1. Spotting the comment
  2. Clicking the "delete" link on the comment.
  3. Clicking "yes" on the next page to confirm you want to delete it.
  4. Going to your user list page in the admin interface.
  5. Clicking the checkbox next to the user who posted the offensive comment.
  6. Indicating that you want to block that user.
  7. Clicking the button to put the change in motion.

That's seven clicks to delete a spam comment and block a user. That sucks. If the user has posted comments all over your site or you have multiple spammers to deal with, it can be a real pain in the butt.

One of the things I've come to enjoy about having Drupad on my iPhone is that the iOS-ified UI it uses makes blocking users a much smoother experience. With Drupad, I can go to my user list, click on their profile, and just click a button. There's no waiting around for pages to load. It's a more pleasant experience all around. Anything that makes it easier or even more fun to fight spammers on your site is a win in my book.

It Works!

3. Drupad won't crash your site and actually works

The final reason every local blogger and community news publisher should install Drupad is because the thing actually works. Those of you who run Drupal sites are nodding your head at this point. Those of you who never have are scratching yours. Those of you who develop and release Drupal modules (thank you!) are clenching your fists and gritting your teeth. The truth about Drupal is that it's an incredibly powerful CMS that can be modified through community-created modules (similar to WordPress' plug-ins) to function as a PHP framework. So you can do a lot of things with a Drupal site. That's one of Drupal's biggest strengths.  

On the other hand, the community modules themselves can be a real grab bag. Some are great and mainstays that every Drupal site needs to survive (see Steve Yelvington's recent piece to read about some of them); but many of them are very much works in progress that promise a lot but will break your site and cost you a great deal of time unless you're a trained developer or have one on your team to supervise. Drupal's great, but it's for developers, not lay people.

I'm happy to say that Drupad is not one of these modules. I downloaded it and installed it on Windy Citizen. It did not crash our site or give us Drupal's dreaded "white screen of death." Then I bought the iPhone app and filled in the admin credentials for Windy Citizen. The app was able to connect immediately to our site and start showing me comments, content, and the latest users.  Drupad just works, and that's a huge selling point for any Drupal module.

You can download the Drupad module for Drupal 6 here and buy it from the iTunes app store here.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. I'd love to hear what other people make of it. It's clear from the roadmap posted on the developer's site that he wants to roll out more features. Even in its current simple state, I think it's worth the $5 for any and every local blogger who's ventured out into Drupal land.


November 23 2010

15:00

A handbook for community-funded journalism: Turning Spot.Us experience into lessons for others

In creating a new system to fund reporting directly by donations from a geographic or online community, Spot.Us broke some of the traditional rules of journalism — namely that reporting is funded through a combination of advertising dollars and subscriptions.

That was two years ago, and now a network of individual journalists and small news organizations are attempting to use Spot.Us as a model to find new ways to fund their work and strengthen their connections to the community. And what they need are a new set of rules.

As part of his fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Spot.Us founder David Cohn is developing a handbook for community-funded reporting that will cover everything from how reporters can pitch stories to establishing partnerships in the community to learning whether crowdfunding is right for your project. I spoke with Cohn and Jonathan Peters, who are working together on the project. In their eyes, it’s as much an assessment of how Spot.Us methods work as it is a handbook.

“I don’t want it to evangelize Spot.Us,” Cohn told me. “I want it to evangelize the type of community-funded reporting of Spot.Us.”

Spot.Us has worked with more than 70 organizations, from MinnPost and Oakland Local to The New York Times. “In my experience so far, it’s been the journalism community that has been adopting the Spot.us model, not the journalism industry,” Cohn said.

Which is why the book will serve not only as a how-to, but also something of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Community-Funded Journalism) Galaxy, pointing out what has (and hasn’t) worked for Spot.Us, introducing the new players in community journalism, new methods of generating funding and a helpful glossary of terms (the difference between micro donations, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing for instance).

What they did not want to do, Peters says, is try and create a paint-by-numbers book that applies the same method to every community. “The community-funded model relies wholly on a very local focus, not only in the reporting that sites provide, but also in the structure of the site,” Peters said, adding that what works for one site may not work for another.

Only a few months into the project (they expect to be done by the spring), Cohn and Peters have found that one of the biggest questions the handbook can answer is how to explain the way community-funded reporting — and Spot.Us — works. For their research the two are surveying reporters who have worked with Spot.Us to fund and report stories. “The most interesting thing to the two of us was the majority of reporters who talked to us could not give an elevator speech to someone who does not know what Spot.Us does,” Peters said.

Making a pitch to an editor and convincing groups of people to help pay for a story are different things — largely because reporters tend to think journalism should be supported simply because it’s journalism, Cohn said. This is where a little entrepreneurship and the art of the sale come in, teaching journalists to articulate their goal and show their work meets an identifiable need. Just as important as the pitch is knowing how much of a story to tease out when trying to get funding. Cohn said reporters need to show what an investigation could reveal instead of giving up all the information their story will hold. Why would anyone pay to fund your story if you tell them the whole thing during the pitch?

Becoming something of a salesman and being more transparent in reporting are part of a broader question the handbook will deal with: Is community-funded journalism right for you? Those considerations, along with the amount of time it takes to raise money for reporting and having regular interaction with the audience, are key to whether a reporter will be successful working in Spot.Us model, Peters said.

Just as important is being able to navigate the playing field. Peters said its important for journalists to be aware of the varying options for getting funding for the work, whether it’s Kachingle and Kickstarter or GoJournalism (for Canadians).

Cohn and Peters say they don’t expect the handbook to be the definitive resource on community-funded reporting, but they expect it can help people who are curious. (As far as the actual book part of the handbook, they expect to publish it online.) Cohn said a large part of what he does now is talk to others about how Spot.Us works and how it can be applied elsewhere. Now all of that will be in handy book form.

“The audience is — as far as we can tell — writing for reporters who want to work with people like Spot.us or GoJournalism, and don’t know what it’s like,” Peters said. “We can knock down barriers and misconceptions.”

October 04 2010

08:00

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.

August 17 2010

09:46

paidContent: AOL hyperlocal network Patch plans 400 new sites

paidContent reports today that AOL’s hyperlocal venture Patch could become the biggest new employer of full-time journalists in the US, with plans to add hundreds more sites by the end of the year.

According to the media site, Patch’s president Warren Webster told them the company plans to add 400 new hyperlocal sites to its network of 100 so far, doubling its current advertised state coverage.

Webster says that Patch is selecting towns to expand to based in part on a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like the average household income of a town, how often citizens vote, and how the local public high school ranks; the company is then talking to local residents to ensure that targeted areas have other less quantifiable characteristics like a “vibrant business community” and “walkable Main Street”. Patch hires one professional reporter to cover each community; each “cluster” of sites also has an ad manager who is the “feet in the street” selling ads.

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August 12 2010

15:24

OJR: An interview with Washington DC’s new local news platform

Following the launch of TBD.com, an online local news platform in Washington DC, the Online Journalism Review has published an interview with Steve Buttry, director of community engagement.

OJR’s Robert Niles asks what the near future holds for the site, which combines the work of two television stations, local journalists, online bloggers and other community sites.

We looked for blogs covering local news, life and issues. We looked for blogs that appeared to provide quality content and post frequently. Washington has lots of outstanding blogs covering national and international affairs that we didn’t invite. We may at some point add a “Washington people” section, but at this point, we have decided not to include any of the many outstanding blogs that are primarily personal. We have some blogs that are mostly about cooking. They have been told that we will be more likely to link to a post that has a sense of place (here’s the recipe that I used to cook the eggplants I got at the Reston Farmers Market) than just a recipe.

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July 07 2010

18:34

Highlights and Pitfalls of Virtual Street Corners Project

We're just winding down my Knight News Challenge project, Virtual Street Corners, and haven't had time to sort through all the recorded materials and debrief the participants, but I wanted to share some initial thoughts and reactions.

The most encouraging takeaway from the project was the enthusiastic response it received. It seems to have struck a nerve and could be well worthy of further investigation. The piece is widely accessible without being overly simplistic, with the potential for opening up complex social interactions. On the other hand, there were also various aspects that fell short of my expectations.

Conversing.jpg

The project aimed to connect the Boston neighborhoods of Brookline and Roxbury through citizen journalists' video newscasts that were projected on life-size screens to enable real-time interaction between citizens.

It seems funny in this era of technology, but people treated the idea of seeing another street corner across town appear in the window as something magical. They laughed and many people just found it very entertaining to connect in this way. I had many requests to set the installation up in other places -- including the MBTA, Boston's public transportation system -- and we attracted a wide range of willing participants. We also received excellent media attention, ranging from wide coverage in the blogosphere to substantial pieces in the Atlantic, the front page of the Boston Globe, CBC Radio, and WGBH (PBS) TV.

Virtual-Greater-Boston-.jpg

Local politicians -- from city councilors to former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis -- joined with artists, educators and activists to take part in street corner dialogues on a range of issues. Electricians, carpenters, web conferencing experts, community organizers and commercial designers all stepped up to donate services. However, one of my biggest lessons is that free is never completely free. As one person on our team was fond of saying, "Out of fast, cheap and good quality -- you can get two but never all three."

Virtual-dukakis.jpg

Tech Issues

In the end, I underestimated the amount of resources needed to carry out the project on the scale I had envisioned. My biggest pitfall occurred in the tech department. We went into the project with tremendous momentum -- an article on the front page of the Boston Globe on opening night, a great team of journalists, an exciting lineup of participants to carry out the street corner forums. I put the majority of my time and resources into community organizing, outreach and design, wanting to make sure that I moved the conversation from simple greetings into important and unique dialogues that this particular installation had the potential of achieving.

Having experimented with the installation before, I expected the tech piece to fall into place without too much difficulty. Getting a high-speed internet connection, videoconferencing and recording it all to a hard drive seemed like it should be pretty straightforward -- but that was not the case.

The combination of the various components, and getting them to operate for extended periods in environments other than what they were designed for, created endless problems. The issues were compounded by working in a community like Roxbury, which has a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure. Things as simple as acquiring high speed Internet became major hurdles. Comcast assured me that they could easily provide the connection but when they arrived for the installation told me it was impossible to do. So we actually had to spend three days rewiring a historic building to acquire Internet access.

I was donated a myriad of high-end equipment, which saved me a lot of money; but it also cost me dearly in time and functionality since I was not familiar enough to troubleshoot problems when they came up. We had many dropped calls and dropped audio, meaning the system was often not functioning.

Furthermore, as I was running the entire tech myself, I had to run back and forth to reset the audio and video each time it went down. This was obviously very frustrating, but the biggest problem was that it discouraged participation. Profound interactions, both planned and spontaneous, were interrupted repeatedly, or had to be rescheduled or cancelled.

Intense Committment Tough to Sustain

Tech problems also posed a major obstacle to the journalism piece of the installation. Our plan was that journalists from each neighborhood would file reports every day, and the reports would run simultaneously, allowing pedestrians to share the same experience and generate conversation between the communities. For a good part of the project, however, the videos would only show at one location or the other. So it was news to only half of the observers, and it interfered with my goal of a mutual experience. This was a huge disappointment and was very demoralizing for the journalists who worked so hard on their pieces.

The other significant problem we encountered was that our staff found it difficult to sustain such an intense commitment over a short period of time (one month). For example, the journalists were hired to file reports five days a week for three weeks. We had three people quit less than two weeks before we started because other longer term and higher paying jobs took priority. No matter how enthusiastic folks were when they were hired, we could not compete with full-time employment and family commitments.

Final Thoughts

We are excited by the potential of the project and how it was embraced by the communities where we installed it. We were also inspired by the relationships that were developed through the piece, and by the number of requests we had to install it permanently or set it up in other locations.

However, I would never again work with equipment I wasn't able to test extensively for months in advance, and would make sure I was able to pay enough money to retain skilled labor despite the length of the project.

Those are my inital impressions, and I'll share more thoughts soon.

May 25 2010

18:00

Borrowing from burgers: franchise-model startup wants to make community news sites profitable

Launching a community news site is tough. You’ve got editorial decisions, like putting together a team of reporters and editors, plus technical hurdles like finding the right CMS and hosting service, and then there is the job of setting up and carrying out a successful business model. It’s a complicated set of factors that could defeat even a sharp journalist with a good idea for a local news site. A new startup called Main Street Connect aims to make it easier for entrepreneurial journalists to get their sites off the ground, keep them going, and make money. And it aims to do so via a model familiar to anyone who’s gotten the same McDonald’s burger in California as in Maine: franchising.

Main Street Connect launched this year under Carll Tucker, the founder of Trader Publications, a community news company he sold to Gannett in 1999. In watching the decline of community news in the last few years, Tucker, who is passionate about hyper-local news, wondered if he could come up with a model that would translate the revenue structure he enjoyed in the 1990s-era boom times to the web today. Display advertising doesn’t come close to the kind of money community newspapers once made. Ten years ago, Tucker said, he would pull in $20 to $25 per reader on advertising. If he could come close to the golden days of print in terms of revenue, he thought, he would see profits soar because the costs involved in publishing online are much less than printing news on paper. Tucker now believes he’s come up with something that could make money, and he’s got enough venture capital behind him to help get 3,000 sites off the ground in the next few years to test it out.

“The idea is to provide a local entrepreneur with all the tools he or she might need to start a prosperous — that is, profitable — high-quality site or group of sites,” Tucker told me in a phone conversation.

Tucker’s program is essentially a franchise model. A local team assembles the journalists who will cover a community, then Main Street Connect provides the framework for everything else, including the technical setup (and ongoing support), plus an underlying business strategy. In the long run, Main Street Connect hopes the network of independent local sites across the country will reach a sizable audience in the aggregate (comprised, Tucker hopes, of suburban moms who make household spending decisions), making the sites attractive to national brands. In the short term, publishers of local sites get the infrastructure help, plus the ongoing benefit from the collective insight of many sites working side by side. Main Street Connect also publishes five sites in Connecticut, and plans to launch more, which will act as incubators to test revenue-generating strategies. In exchange for that assistance, Main Street Connect takes 17 percent off the top of whatever a site pulls in.

The idea is a balance between the individual sites’ needs and the MSC franchise: Local site publishers handle the nitty-gritty of cultivating connections, but they employ the Main Street Connect strategy. Tucker wants small business owners investing in sites on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, he says, rather than based on ad impressions. He also expects to charge advertisers upwards of $700 a week, a price tag that dwarfs a typical online ad on a small news site. When we spoke, Tucker had just wrapped up a deal worth $57,000 for the year for his sites in Connecticut. He was in talks with a hospital about another deal that could be worth $100,000.

Tucker’s approach takes into account the problem of fragmented media consumption. In the last few years, local businesses have had to buy more types of advertising to reach their audience (cable TV, radio, direct mail, etc.). There’s no single place to reach customers in their community. That’s where a Main Street Connect site comes in. If the community site can become an addictive place for heads of households, it can serve as an invaluable place for local businesses to be, as well.

And, so far, Tucker’s Connecticut sites are proving there is an appetite for community news online. His first site launched, the Daily Norwalk, attracted 11,000 pageviews and an average of four clicks per visit (in a city with a population of 83,000), with more than half of all readers returning at least one more time that month. Tucker tells businesses to think of the decision to invest in the site as joining the virtual “town green” as a true community member. In return, the business gets traditional ad space, its employees featured in a “neighbors” portion of the site, and — the biggest departure from traditional ad/editorial divisions — a guaranteed number of stories written about it in the Features section of the site. (The sites are broken up into different verticals, with stories about local business sponsors running in the Feature sections of the site, not the main news vertical. Those stories will look like other features a staff writer would produce.)

“We support those who support us,” Tucker explained.

It’s a good deal for the business, but what about the site’s responsibility to keep readers accurately informed? Tucker gave me this hypothetical. Say a local grocery store is embroiled in a tax scandal. The news section of the site will cover the scandal in the main news section, regardless of whether the store supports the site. The store would still get its feature-section piece, which would not link to the scandal coverage.

Tucker was quick to say that this model works for community news, but not necessarily regional, national or international news. Community news is about supporting your neighbors, he explained. The local site wants local businesses to succeed, and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship. “The old paradigm — church, state, advertising and editorial — when you get to community news…becomes much murkier.”

Photo courtesy of Copakavanagh under a creative commons license.

March 25 2010

09:50

Herald Online: AOL’s hyperlocal network Patch gets charitable to fund community news

Patch, AOL’s growing network of hyperlocal news and information websites in the US, has announced the foundation of a new charitable arm, Patch.org:

Patch.org will partner with community foundations and other organisations to launch Patch sites and bring objective local news and information to communities and neighborhoods around the world that lack adequate news media and online local information resources.

The Patch.org sites will employ a local journalist to produce original news and content, and aggregate material and information created by the community. Any revenue earned by the sites will be invested back into the community they serve, a press release says.

Full release at this link….

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