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May 20 2011


October 30 2010


Blimee Brings Local News, Engagement and Instant Offers to Digital Signage

New ideas, new ventures, new visions: They never turn out quite the way the entrepreneur expects, and often the path to success comes from walking backwards into a great idea. That's what happened with an innovative digital media journalism venture that emerged from the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The founder wasn't even a journalism student. He was a film student with an idea for a better way to get people interested in watching movies. In fact, his idea was nearly a Thumbnail image for Blimee-logo.jpgproduct with a customer and investor lined up when the student, sophomore Marius Ciocirlan, asked to become one of our special Advanced Projects in Digital Media Entrepreneurship students. Within a matter of hours, the founder had deconstructed his original idea to design a new kind of product and business model that may have a significant impact in reviving an audience for local journalism.

Ciocirlan noticed something that was no more radical than a fish noticing that they live in water. He looked around and observed digital screens and billboards everywhere -- in cafes, restaurants, stores and malls; at gas pumps, and even on roadsides. Furthermore, he noticed that largely they were being used merely to push more advertising and marketing onto the public. With a new medium this pervasive, he mused, there had to be a better way. And Blimee was born.

The Blimee concept is deceptively simple: The online platform pushes content to specific screens at specific locations, and then allows people to interact with the content -- and with each other -- while in front of the screens via Twitter, text messaging and other novel means. Local content plus social interaction displayed on digital signs while people are "out and about."It's a simple combination that yielded profound results.

True Hyperlocal

While so many upstart ventures claim to be close to the holy grail of "hyper-local" news and content, Blimee achieves it handily. By pushing content to the locations, Blimee allows each screen to have unique news, relevant to the neighborhood, mixed with news relevant to the community, town or city at large. Users can tweet comments and responses about the content or even about the activity surrounding them. Viewers in front of screens at other locations can join the conversation -- as can readers from home.

Relevant hyperlocal content is part of what makes Blimee so compelling, but where does all this content come from? One powerful behind-the-scenes feature is that reporters can be assigned to neighborhoods where they regularly write and deliver news and then get feedback and tips from readers in real-time or later via the web. Blimee revives the local beat. The reporter can develop a relationship with area residents, build their personal brand and develop a following.

Back to the Future

By combining real-time local news and local political issues with local events and attractions in the heart of the community, Blimee revives a trio of concepts that long ago defined community: The town crier, the town hall and the town square.

In the 21st century, Blimee uses digital signage scattered throughout malls, cafes, offices and stores to push local news (town crier), allow people to interact about local issues (town hall) and inform them about local attractions and events (town square).


Blimee displays news on each screen that is most relevant to the neighborhood or town where the screen is located. Passers-by can stop and see the latest local news, mixed with other fun and compelling information. Later, they can go to Blimee on the web, and look at a map of all its locations and view the news and information on the screens in case they missed something, and even forward new information to the beat reporters. The content has some advertising around it, but Blimee's business model is not to make money from ads -- these revenues go to the content providers: The journalists. Yes, this is a product that actually has a way for journalists to make money.

Blimee also has a strong social networking aspect. While people are standing in front of the screens, Blimee displays tweets and text messages from viewers who are standing in front of screens at other locations. The screens can inform people on timely local civic issues -- from city council votes to reports of traffic or roadwork -- as they stroll through town. People can even tweet just-in-time messages of value for other screen owners, such as the availability of parking or the proximity of aggressive tow trucks. Viewers can comment on the news or on community issues, and Blimee takes ad-hoc polls, and showcases interesting and insightful comments. When viewers get home, they can log on and continue the discussion with their neighbors.

Blimee-4.jpg Blimee-5.jpg

There's also another feature that makes so much sense, it's almost funny that so many have missed it: While people are in front of a Blimee screen viewing news and messages, Blimee informs them about local attractions, events and special offers -- all of which are within walking distance of where they are right now. Then, when a local movie theater discovers that the "Wall Street" sequel only has a few people seated 15 minutes before the start of the movie, it can broadcast a special offer to all screens within walking distance for a 50 percent discount to all those that can arrive in time.

Of course the same concept is just as valuable for restaurants and any other retail store within walking distance. In fact, this is Blimee's primary business model: Making money from local businesses pushing last-minute offers to attract immediate walk-in customers.

To make the experience even more compelling, Blimee has other aspects to keep people engaged -- from trivia games where several people can play against each other or be quizzed on the "host" restaurant's menu for discounts and prizes -- to the ability to view live webcams from other areas of town nearby.

Immediate Success

From the first day it launched, it's fair to say that Blimee has been a rousing success wherever it has appeared. Almost everyone who looks at the screen "gets it" immediately. Soon after, they realize they can text and tweet their opinions about the news to each other and they see the discussions appear on the screen as they unfold. It is engaging and compelling.

During the first deployments, people were so intrigued to see their comments in public they even posed for photos next to the Blimee screen when their tweets appeared. But viewers are not the only ones who understand Blimee's value. Retail owners and advertisers are quick to grasp Blimee's potential for attracting customers and new revenue opportunities.

Public tweets, movie tickets and tow trucks -- what does this all mean for local journalism? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Blimee provides three vital aspects local newspapers seemed to have lost over the years: Engagement, relevance and a viable business model. The audience remains as interested and as enthusiastic as ever. Now local journalists have a way to reach them again.

The extinction of the colonial town crier didn't mean people's appetite for local news diminished: It's just that the method and model became outdated. Local newspapers filled that role for centuries until their viability waned. Today, digital signs and billboards may the 21st century town crier, with Blimee leading the way.

Sponsored post

August 12 2010


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.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:

August 09 2010


Is the local coffee shop the new newsroom?

Could the local coffee shop become the new newsroom for local reporters?

According to Mallary Tenore at PoynterOnline, journalists operating out of coffee shops in the US have been finding stories and making contacts like never before, as they quite literally integrate themselves within their community patch.

Many editors consider their best reporters the ones they never see — because they’re out in the community. Fisher at The Washington Post said the reporters who worked out of coffee shops for the day found sources and stories they may not have otherwise come across.

Rather than keeping reporters at their office desks, it appears that editors who let a journalist’s quick ‘cuppa’ seep into an all-day pursuit will reap the rewards. Journalism.co.uk reported in June how Freehold InJersey (FinJ) had moved its newsroom to a local cafe. They hoped this would invite stronger links between the community news site and its local readers. They even provide a free computer for readers to use.

See the full post at his link…Similar Posts:

July 27 2010


Spot.Us Goes National, Gets Clay Shirky as Sponsor

Anyone that has followed Spot.Us from the beginning knows we've tried to remain iterative and agile. In the earlier stages of Spot.Us I thought this was one of the larger lessons for journalism-entrepreneurs. I went through the iterative and agile process and tried to document it so others could repeat. I hope to continue this tradition as I get ready for an academic fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Indeed, the heart of this post addresses two features of Spot.Us (expansion and community-focused sponsorships) which will be my focus while in Missouri.

Inherent to this mindset is the ability to acknowledge missteps and pivot. There are countless things I believe we've done right (pats self on back); but there are other things where we made the best guesses we could and upon failure had to pivot. Recently, Spot.Us made one big pivot and is openly thinking about how to dance around two remaining problems. Before we analyze those, let's get to the good news (pats self on back again, rewards reader with cute kitten photo).

Community-focused sponsorship continues.

We have another community-focused sponsorship, this one made possible by Clay Shirky (how cool is that!).

In this sponsorship we are asking the community questions about objectivity and journalism. Not only do we reward your time by giving you control over a part of our budget, but we will release answers to these questions so that we all may become smarter and learn about what the Spot.Us community thinks about this subject.

Community-focused sponsorships was also a notable entry at the Knight-Batten awards and we've created a sponsorship package to help spread the word. The next step is an affiliate program. If you help us sell a sponsorship, you'll get the commission. Interested? Contact me at david at spot.us.

Editorial Highlights

Just about every week we complete a reporting project and publish a handful of blog posts. Some of the recent victories are highlighted below:

  • The Los Angeles Times imitates Spot.Us reporting: They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If that is true, then the L.A. Times gave Spot.Us a huge kudos recently. Our ongoing investigation into the UC Regents found that one regent has invested lots of money into private educational institutions. The L.A. Times followed up our reporting, giving a small nod to the original investigation without really giving full credit. In a separate email the L.A. Times reporter did admit that our reporting inspired his column. The Spot.Us community can collectively pat itself on the back for that one.
  • Our most dynamic collaboration ever -- covering the Johannes Mehserle trial: This week we published the 40th post in our coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial. Mehserle, a former BART police officer, was found guilty of the second degree murder of Oscar Grant. What was unique and interesting for Spot.Us about this project was the number of partners that participated. Our pitch had seven different organizations taking part including Oakland Local, New American Media, California Beat, KALW and The Bay Citizen. In another era, each organization would have hired its own reporter and provided competitive (and perhaps overlapping) coverage. Through Spot.Us we were able to create a ethos of "co-opetition." We hope to see more pitches like this in the future, and our hat is off to these organizations who were able to pull it off.
  • The Treasure Island investigation: Our partners in crime, the SF Public Press, put out a print product recently with an exhaustive spread on Treasure Island. It's a fantastic look at development in SF from several angles and will be adapted and republished by Shareable.Net this week.

Lessons Learned and Missteps

1. Expansion isn't clean: A careful observer of Spot.Us would have seen this coming and may have even noticed the change last week. We have removed the networks on Spot.Us. We used to say we were based in SF, LA, Seattle, Minnesota and expanding; we are now open to anyone with a good local/regional pitch anywhere in the United States.

As I noted in a previous post in June:

From the start, I thought Spot.Us would expand a la Craigslist: Pick locations, create sub-domains and let people aggregate around them. Certainly San Francisco and Los Angeles have worked like this. We always have about five active pitches in both locations at any given time. Seattle however, might not be that way. I fear I'm viewed as an outsider ... But that shouldn't stop me from expanding. Especially not when I am getting very solid pitches from around the country.

It makes little sense for me to tell a good pitch from Illinois or  Texas that they can't put their pitch up until we find a handful of other pitches in their region. So, as of last week, the sub-domains at Spot.Us have been removed. Trying to convince people in a specific region to use the site -- while stopping others from using it because they aren't in the right region -- is not the best use of our time or energy.

So the lesson here is really one about internal expectations and external realities. While in my mind's eye it still makes sense for Spot.Us to expand region-by-region, I don't see this happening anytime soon. This is not the end of the world. In some respects I find it freeing. In the end Spot.Us is a platform, not a news organization. Opening up the platform is a positive endeavor, especially considering the vast majority of pitches so far have been successful.

The major misstep then is not making this change sooner. The challenge going forward is finding a different organizing mechanism so that people can find pitches that are relevant to them as quickly as possible on our search page without expecting those pitches to be grouped geographically.

2. Letting go isn't easy: Related to the misstep above is a larger phenomena. Put bluntly I was a smothering Jewish mother (trust me, I know what these are like). I think I clung to the "babyness" of the Spot.Us project instead of letting it go free. It's natural for anybody who starts something to hold onto it and fear releasing it into the wild. I've tried to avoid that, but  I'm afraid I've put Spot.Us into a tough position of wanting it to expand but also being protective over the pitches that are uploaded into the site.

There are some pitches I felt very comfortable rejecting. The best example was a pitch from a Seattle fortune teller that was going to read people's future via the Internet and publish on Spot.Us. I feel justified in saying "that's not for us." As a non-profit, we have a mission to fund local/regional reporting.

At the same time, this tension hasn't always been easy to negotiate. Some pitches we get exist in a much more difficult space. The tension exists between being a site where the founder has authority over what pitches are included, and a site that is truly open but still filters out pitches that don't meet our mission. I am not 100 percent sure how we will negotiate that tension.

For the immediate future, Spot.Us will be a site where I filter pitches. I will not be filtering pitches based on "credentials" but rather the topic of the reporting and the earnestness and eagerness of the reporter. Ideally Spot.Us and its community board members will be able to come up with a system whereby pitches can be accepted and/or rejected not at the whim of my decision, but by the community and its representatives.

In Conclusion

Spot.Us continues to push forward. We've had some missteps and some beautiful moments. I suspect both will happen in the future as well. The beauty of all this continues to be that both happen in public, and that it is only with the public's participation that either can happen. This remains an experiment in transparency and public control over the process of journalism. It will continue to be such an experiment as we move forward.

January 04 2010


BBC Radio 4: ‘Has the local rag had its day?’

If you missed BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour last night, catch up with a feature on local news here at this link. It includes comments from City University journalism professor and media commentator Roy Greenslade, and the Lichfield Blog’s Ross Hawkes [Hawkes will  be talking at Journalism.co.uk's news:rewired event on 14 January; more information at this link...] The Westminster Hour discusses council newspapers, PA’s public reporting project (as yet still seeking funding) and the Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry.

Traditionally, local newspapers have reported the decisions of local authorities and how justice is administered in the courts.

But the role of holding to account public bodies is threatened by the closure of many local newspapers – last year alone more than 70 papers folded.

Full post at this link…

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