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December 01 2011

15:20

LocalWiki Launches First Pilot, Announces Major Software Release

Hey friends! We've got two extremely exciting announcements for you. Our first focus community, serving Denton, Texas, has launched. And we're making the first major release of the new LocalWiki software today!

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The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Launching our first pilot

The DentonWiki, serving the community of Denton, Texas, has officially launched to the public. Check it out.

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Denton is a small, college-focused community in North Texas, about an hour from Dallas. Being a college town, it's easy to see parallels to Davis, Calif. But it's a radically different place than Davis, as anyone who's been to the Dallas area can attest.

Folks in Denton had been building up and playing around with their project for a few months. With the new LocalWiki software at a good point, and a solid amount of interesting pages on their project, I packed up and headed out to Denton for two weeks to help them get their project ready to launch.

We held several marathon editing/hang-out sessions while there, met with lots of local Denonites, got a feel for the community, and did a bunch of work to prep the site for launch.

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The Denton project has already seen a higher level of participation and usage than DavisWiki did in its early days. And we're really seeing our extreme focus on usability pay off -- I watched many non-technical people simply get handed a laptop and just immediately start creating great stuff without any guidance.

If you want to read more about DentonWiki and the launch process there, check out some information we're compiling on our guide site.

This first focus community launch -- the first of many -- is a huge milestone for the project.

LocalWiki software released

Today we are also excited to announce the first major release of the LocalWiki software! Check it out at localwiki.org. Make sure you watch the video.

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Starting today, any community can create a local wiki using our new software. The software is designed to be installed by someone who's somewhat technical -- someone who's had some experience working with Linux, for instance. We worked hard to make the software as easy to install as possible.

Most people will simply use the software -- not install it, though. We're hoping that over the coming months many technically-savvy community champions will set up LocalWiki for their communities. The localwiki.org site is currently focused on targeting these sort of technically minded folks.

There's a list of communities currently running LocalWiki here (and a map here). We'll let you know as more come online, develop and launch!

There's so much more we have planned for the LocalWiki software -- but this day marks a significant step toward realizing the dream of collaborative, community-run media in every local community.

xo-
Philip & Mike

A version of this post first appeared on the LocalWiki blog.

October 18 2010

15:30

Launch! Five lessons from the first months of running a news startup

Six exhilarating, nerve-scraping months ago, I left my daily newspaper job to put my livelihood where my mouth is: to build a topical local news service serving riders of public transit in Portland, Oregon.

In print, Portland Afoot is an image-rich four-page monthly newsmagazine about “low-car life,” distributed by mail to homes and, starting in the next month or two, to workplaces. Online, it’s a heavily reported wiki, with evergreen pages on every bus route, bike law, and commute subsidy in town, among many other things.

Crazy? Obviously. But four months after launch, I’ll tell you this: I’ve never been learning more or learning faster. Now that I’ve become one of the entrepreneurs I’ve covered here at the Lab, Josh has generously invited me to spin out a few of the practical lessons I’ve been spooling up. Let’s start at the beginning.

Start scheduling meetings immediately, at least one each week, and do not stop.

Michael AndersenYou know how one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight? One coffee date before your launch is worth two coffee dates after your launch.

Maybe it’s because people like to be in the know. Maybe it’s because they’re proud to see their advice shaping your product. Maybe it’s because they have a reflex to root for risk-takers. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, the earlier people hear about your plan, the more they’ll want to help you. And “people who want to help you” happen to be the things you’re about to need more than anything else in the world.

Loop in local institutions that share your interests.

I thought I was picking a topical niche for the sake of our audience (harried readers without time for irrelevant news) and our sponsors (retailers wanting to target green consumers at the neighborhood level). What I didn’t realize was that I was also opening my arms to a whole universe of private local organizations predisposed to help me succeed.

Portland Afoot needed early subscribers and legitimacy; celebrated local-news blog BikePortland.org ran a positive preview. We’re planning a neighborhood-specific product; the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, a regional advocacy group, helped me brainstorm the contents. We needed a pilot location for my workplace-distribution scheme; the Swan Island Transportation Management Association, a federally funded traffic-reduction nonprofit, agreed to host it in the industrial area they oversee.

Spare me the warnings about lost independence. Yep, that’s a major risk, and I’m doing my best to deal with it through full disclosure. But it’s a jungle out there and you’re not going to survive without friends. In our case, the whole revenue model depends on print distribution partnerships; entanglements are a fact of life. If your news startup is ever going to get important enough to make enemies, it’ll need to make a few friends first.

If you’re going to sell ads, sell two cheap ones before you launch.

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social NetworkMy gut says Justin Timberlake is right: a website with ads is like a great party that has to be over at 11. I’m sure Portland Afoot would have a few more print subscribers, a bit more web traffic, and most importantly a few more superfans if it had launched with zero ads.

But this nonprofit business, unlike Facebook, is not headed for an IPO. It’s got about a year to succeed or fail to pay my rent. And though I haven’t yet started selling ads in earnest, I’ve done enough to guarantee that you second ad is easier than your first, and your third ad is easier than your second. Prove to advertisers that your audience has worth by getting some ads on the page.

You are not too cool for e-mail.

I hate spam. I hate it so much that when we launched, I promised to ping our mailing list no more than once every three months. It’s a promise I’ve kept — and it was a big mistake.

For people who care about you, regular emails aren’t spam. They are reminders that you exist and are doing wonderful things of which they approve. How do I know? Because nothing — not direct mail, not inbound links, not tables at neighborhood events — drives traffic or action like a mass email to people who’ve opted to receive it. One of my lucky breaks before we launched was that I popped a single box on the site to start building a list of the emails of early visitors. Here’s the PHP script. Steal it.

The weirder your product is — and ours, a heavily reported wiki and four-page monthly magazine, is almost as weird as they come — the more important email, with its universal familiarity, becomes. Email is the U2 of Internet communication — all these years later, it’s the one thing we all still share. Embrace it.

Launch as close as possible to the summer solstice.

Trust me — you’re going to need the energy.

September 16 2010

18:33

What I read today…

September 01 2010

14:41

The Awl gets a sister site, Splitsider, which will be its “newsy-voicey” compliment in covering comedy

It sometimes feels like all the good topics are taken online — it’s uncommon to find a promising but untrampled niche for a new website. The folks behind The Awl hope they’ve found one in a new site up in beta today called Splitsider. It’ll cover the comedy industry for a ready audience of comedy nerds/lovers, and it’s the first evidence of the Awl expansion plans we wrote about in June.

Last week Adam Frucci, who is going to head up Splitsider, said goodbye to his readers at the Gawker Media site Gizmodo. Reflecting on his four years there, he asked: “What other job pays you to test drug paraphernalia and sex toys, to create goofy videos and unscientific quizzes? No other job, that’s what.” But there is still plenty in store for him at his new gig, where his colleagues will include Gawker veterans Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

I spoke with Frucci about why moving on to Splitsidder was so appealing, considering his success at Gizmodo. “I’ve been at Gizmodo for four years,” he told me, “but I was never going to run Gizmodo.”

He’s in the process of sorting out what kinds of posts he wants to write himself and which contributors he plans to tap for regular features. “It’s been a lot of back and forth with writers,” he says. “I want people to be excited about what they write about.” Contributors will be unpaid, at least at first. (When I asked if he can guarantee book deals, like the kind Awl contributor Chris Lehmann landed for his unpaid column called Rich People Things, Frucci deadpanned, “I promise 100 percent if you contribute, you’ll get a book deal.”) He says the core of the site will be a running stream of newsy posts from him about things like which shows and writers getting deals, plus columns on specific topics.

Sibling sites

The site will compliment The Awl, posting content that at least some Awl readers should find interesting. That cross-promotion will help push early readers to the new site. But it’ll have a slightly different tone: Publisher David Cho told me that if The Awl is all about voice, Splitsider will be all about showing they can do “newsy voicey.”

Cho told me that the combination of content opportunity and voice is what made this an appealing prospect. “To have a great writer and a topic that no one else owned, that’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think from a content perspective, it might even have more potential than the Awl.” This spring, The Awl was up to about 400,000 pageviews per day. The bread and butter of Splitsider will be the die-hard comedy nerd (“they have nowhere to congregate now,” Cho says), plus the casual reader.

Risk

Frucci and Cho are optimistic, but there’s obviously risk involved. Frucci’s contract offers him the perks of getting to build and shape the site, plus a share of site revenue. But, if the site doesn’t take off, there’s no base salary for him to rely on. His old job at Gizmodo paid him a base plus bonuses for big traffic.

Cho agreed there’s a risk, but said he wouldn’t push him into something he thought would definitely fail. He added that you pretty much need a sink-or-swim personality to make this kind of project work. If you’re looking for stability, “I don’t think that’s the type of person we’d want for a job like this,” Cho said. “That’s the type of person whose going to get burn out.”

Frucci mentioned his idea for the site to Cho, who had his eye out for talented writers and good ideas for sites. Why launch with Cho and share revenue rather than go it alone? “I have no experience launching a site or selling ads,” he told me. “Basically, it makes it possible to do.” Cho says he “can get him a significantly higher CPM than if he were trying to do it on his own.”

Cho told me back in June that he hopes to launch several new sites this year. He’s keeping his eye out for interesting ideas and great writers to lead them. The details on the other sites are under wraps, but Cho did say “in a lot of ways, this site is a pilot.”

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

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