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Knight News Challenge: Connecting the world is great, but Front Porch Forum wants to connect neighbors

The Internet connects people around the country and around the world. But what about the people right next door? One of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners, Front Porch Forum, won a $200,000 grant to build on its successes in connecting neighbors in Vermont through a system that is a mixture of message board, listserv, and local newspaper.

Michael Wood-Lewis launched Front Porch Foum in 2000 as a way to connect with the folks in the area around him. He has since expanded to 38 towns, mostly in the last four years. With the Knight grant, he expects to expand across the state, into 250 towns.

“People who live near each other, if they connect, good things happen,” Wood-Lewis told me. Front Porch Forum makes face-to-face interactions easier, he says, and pushes people to buy into their local communities. “We’re talking about the people you’d borrow the proverbial cup of sugar from.”

The results have been positive, he said. Community members who have signed on become more active: they attend local meetings, they’re more likely to talk with neighbors, and they’re more engaged, active locals overall.

Though increasing community and civic engagement are common goals of nonprofit news organizations, Front Porch is actually a for-profit. It draws half of its revenue from local sponsorships, plus subscriptions from municipal entities and other institutions, as well as reader contributions. Wood-Lewis runs the company and employs three other full-time people.

Here’s how it works: Users register with a neighborhood-specific forum. (You can only belong to one, and you can’t post on other community forums.) Posts show up on the forum webpage and get delivered to users via email. The topics range from missing pets to stolen bikes to queries for goods and services. (Anybody know a good plumber?) Posts are not typically edited by Forum staff, but sometimes new headlines are added for ease of use. “It’s a little bit of a lot of things that add up to something different,” Wood-Lewis told me in explaining how he thinks of what they do. It’s not exactly a classifieds service, or a newspaper, but certainly provides elements of both.

For the grant, Wood-Lewis’ goals are threefold: rebuild the underlying software, expand across Vermont, and draw up a plan to expand to communities beyond Vermont. There’s already a waiting list of interested communities. The software project will be a major component of the project, with the end result (as Knight requires) being an open-source product.

I asked Wood-Lewis about how he sees Front Porch Forum fitting with the future of news. While he acknowledges the role local newspapers have traditionally played as community forums, he wouldn’t call his operation a news organization. “Our end-all be-all is not journalism,” he said. “But we are enhancing an audience for journalism,” arguing more engaged community members are more likely to consume local news.

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