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August 12 2010


NowSpots: Working to Make Local Web Ads That Work

NowSpots are beautiful online ads that feature the latest social media updates from advertisers, and make it easy for a reader to follow and share their content across the web.

For the last year at WindyCitizen.com, a social network for Chicago news aficionados and urban explorers, we've been selling a simple version of NowSpots ads to small businesses and local colleges -- and we recently won a Knight News Challenge Award to spin the format off into its own company that provides these ads to other publishers.

In a world where thousands of small businesses are signing up for sites like Facebook and Twitter every day, these ads deliver a more personal, dynamic, relevant experience than the banner ads offered by most publishers. NowSpots.com will provide these "real-time ads" to local publishers large and small. Over the next year, our team will be blogging our progress here. You can also receive an e-mail alert when we officially launch this fall by signing up at http://nowspots.com.

Why Do We Need NowSpots?

Local publishers need better ads. This is true for both the little guys and the big guys. The last few years have seen hundreds of neighborhood and small town blogs spring up around the United States. Many of these sites, like Lake Effect News in Chicago and West Seattle Blog in Seattle, are edited and published by journalists who left mainstream media to try their hands at something more entrepreneurial. Some of them are finding audiences. Some of them aren't. But very, very few of them are making money.

A publisher reaching 1,000 people in their neighborhood each day on a local blog has only a few options for converting that audience into dollars: She could sell text link ads to local businesses looking to boost their SEO -- but Google frowns on that practice -- and unless her blog has a PageRank of five or higher, few businesses will be interested. She could place AdSense or some other cost-per-click ad offering on her site, but the payouts for readers clicking on those ads will amount to pennies and her audience will be subjected to bottom of the barrel ads that have nothing to do with the content they're reading, thereby degrading their experience.

The third option, and the one chosen by a growing number of small, local publishers, is direct sale display advertising. With display ads, which are sold directly, the publisher has to get out and sell, but she will have better targeted ads that pay out at predictable rates, depending on how they're priced.

The problem with this third option is that traditional banner ads -- static or animated images that display an advertiser's messaging each time the page is refreshed -- simply don't scratch much of an itch for small businesses. They convey brand awareness and help an advertiser get clicks. That's great for a large advertiser that can afford to develop a strong web presence with high-conversion landing pages, but for the average small business that still doesn't have much of a website even in 2010, clicks just aren't that valuable.

Local businesses are looking for customers, not clicks; increasingly, they're finding those connections on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where they can interact in real-time with customers and potential customers. Once someone likes your business on Facebook, they've entered into a relationship with your business that can lead to sales. A "like" is therefore much more valuable to a small business than a click.

Our Goal: Get Local Ads Past the Click Economy

That's where NowSpots come in. NowSpots are display ads on crack. They are inherently social ads that let advertisers step beyond the click economy and into what we call the introduction economy. When an advertiser buys a NowSpot on Windy Citizen, and soon, on other sites near you, they're not buying clicks -- they're buying an introduction into that site's audience and community. They're buying a very specific kind of relationship that actually converts into sales.

If local publishers are going to make money on the web, they need better ads. NowSpots is going to be there for them starting this fall.

How You Can Help Us Make Local Ads Better

We've spent this summer assembling a handful of Alpha Publishing Partners. These are local publishers who talk to us about their needs, pain points and goals for online advertising. These conversations are informing our decisions as we develop our product. If you run a local publication or work at one that would be interested in working with us to make your online ads more social, less annoying, and more effective for advertisers, drop us a line at info@nowspots.com and we'll get back to you soon.

June 16 2010


Knight Announces News Challenge Winners for 2010

knight placard.jpg

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- I am at MIT for the announcement of the latest round of News Challenge winners. First up is the president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Alberto Ibarguen. (Note: The Twitter widget on Idea Lab is now a feed taken from the conference's hashtag: #fncm.)

Alberto Ibarguen, Knight Foundation CEO: We didn't have a clue as to how to deal with the changes in the media business, so we started the News Challenge. We've had thousands of applicants. It was designed to be open, and was meant for news and information to be shared in a community using a digital platform. We got sidetracked looking for technical innovation but righted the ship by looking at information that engages communities.

We're actively engaging community foundations. Have of the community of foundations in the U.S. have applied to a separate contest we have for them to meet the needs of communities. It's also open ended, and we match funding they get. The Knight fellows program at Stanford, where we have no power, has also shifted onto an entrepreneurial, digital-based solutions. We also gave a grant to NPR to train all of their personnel on digital, and are about to do a second round with them, trying to bring NPR into the digital age.

We are about to enter our fifth year for the contest, but we will remain committed to innovation in the field after that.


Here's the full list of Knight News Challenge winners for 2010, the fourth year of the contest that awards grants to people who are helping to reinvent community news. The winners will be blogging here on Idea Lab over the next year or more, so you'll get to know them even better.

Award: $400,000
Winner: Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen Design
Web URL: http://stamen.com; http://crimespotting.org
Twitter: @stamen
Location: San Francisco
Summary: To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.

Bio: Eric Rodenbeck is the founder and creative director of Stamen, a leading mapping and data visualization design studio based in San Francisco. Recent Stamen projects for the London 2012 Olympics, MSNBC and the City of San Francisco push the boundaries of online cartography and design. In addition, the studio's contribution to open source mapping projects are helping to make possible a bottom-up revolution in how maps and data visualization are made and consumed. Rodenbeck led the interactive storytelling and data-driven narrative effort at Quokka Sports, illustrated and designed at Wired magazine and Wired Books, and was a co-founder of the design collective Umwow. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Rodenbeck received a bachelor's in the history and philosophy of technology from The New School for Social Research in 1994. In 2008, he was named one of Esquire magazine's "Best and Brightest" new designers and thinkers, and one of ID Magazine's top 40 designers to watch. He is on the board of directors of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.


The Cartoonist
Award: $378,000
Winner: Ian Bogost and Michael Mateas
Web URL: http://www.gatech.edu
Twitter: @ibogost
Location: Atlanta
Summary: To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games -- the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don't have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.

Bio: Ian Bogost, a videogame designer, critic and researcher, is associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner at Persuasive Games. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on political and art games. Bogost is the author of "Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism," "Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames," the co-author of "Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System" and the forthcoming "Newsgames: Journalism at Play." Bogost's videogames cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Michael Mateas is an authority on artificial intelligence for games and interactive entertainment. His research group at the University of California, Santa Cruz, The Expressive Intelligence Studio, is one of the largest technical game research groups in the world. He holds the MacArthur Endowed Chair and helped create the first game design program in the University of California system. With Andrew Stern, he created the award-winning Façade, the first artificial intelligence-based interactive drama.


Local Wiki
Award: $350,000
Winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov
Web URL: http://daviswiki.org
Twitter: @philipn; @mivanov
Location: San Francisco
Summary: Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn -- and share -- their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.

Bio: Philip Neustrom is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. For the past several years he has worked on a variety of nonprofit efforts to engage everyday citizens. He oversaw the development of the popular VideoTheVote.org, the world's largest coordinated video documentation project, and was the lead developer at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a nonprofit focused on empowering traditionally underrepresented constituencies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.

Mike Ivanov is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. He, along with Philip Neustrom, was awarded the Excellence in Community Involvement Award by the City of Davis for his work on the DavisWiki, an honor usually reserved for traditional local media formats such as radio and television. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.


windycitizen profile.jpg

WindyCitizen's Real Time Ads
Award: $250,000
Winner: Brad Flora, WindyCitizen.com
Web URL: http://nowspots.com
Twitter: @bradflora
Location: Chicago
Summary: As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as "real-time ads." These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change -- showing the latest message or post from the advertiser's Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.

Bio: Brad Flora is a journalist and entrepreneur in Chicago. He is the founder and president of WindyCitizen.com, which gives Chicagoans a place to share, rate and discuss their favorite local stories, events and deals. His work has appeared in Slate magazine and Chicago-area newspapers. He was a 2008 Carnegie-Knight News 21 Fellow and is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


GoMap Riga
Award: $250,000
Winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus, GoMap Riga
Web URL: www.gomap.org; www.KristofsBlaus.com
Twitter: @kristofsblaus; @MarcisRubenis
Location: Riga, Latvia
Summary: To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.

Bio: Marcis Rubenis is a social entrepreneur in Riga, Latvia. In 2006, he initiated the first non-governmental organization (NGO) network in Riga, to foster greater transparency, sustainability and public participation in large-scale development plans in the capital. Rubenis is a multiple business competition award winner, including garnering second place in the biggest international student team business competition in Europe in 2006. Rubenis is also the founder of the crowdsourcing organization, "House of Ideas," and the co-founder of the event format, idejuTalka (ideaCamp), which uses crowdsourcing to fuel grassroots solutions for business and society. Rubenis studies economics at the University of Latvia and is researching how crowdsourcing, open source and similar models of social organization can benefit real world communities and businesses.

Kristofs Blaus is a European entrepreneur managing various innovative businesses in the Baltics. Since 2007, he has successfully worked with teaching-aid software for mobile phones, advanced marketing solutions, payment systems and delivering advanced IT services. Blaus, the winner of various business competitions in Latvia, is founder and CEO of Education Mobile Ltd., Technology Mobile Ltd. and Politics Mobile Ltd., and founder of the Society Technologies Foundation. He has lectured and presented to young entrepreneurs, teachers, young leaders and business students across the Baltic region.


Order in the Court 2.0
Award: $250,000
Winner: John Davidow, WBUR
Web URL: www.wbur.org
Twitter: @johndavidow
Location: Boston
Summary: To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and '80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.

Bio: John Davidow was named WBUR's executive editor of new media in July of 2009, where he has overseen the growth of the award-winning wbur.org. Davidow joined WBUR as news director/managing editor in 2003 after spending more than two decades as a journalist in Boston. Davidow's work has been recognized with regional awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Associated Press and UPI. He has also recieved a number of regional Emmy Awards. Davidow graduated cum laude from Tufts University with a bachelor's in economics.


Front Porch Forum
Award: $220,000
Winner: Michael Wood-Lewis, Front Porch Forum
Web URL: http://frontporchforum.com
Twitter: @MichaelFPF
Location: Burlington, Vt.
Summary: To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.

Bio: Michael Wood-Lewis has been pulling neighbors together into community since his Indiana childhood spent organizing ball games and visiting neighbors on his evening paper route. Decades later, he founded Front Porch Forum, which hosts a pilot network of 140 online neighborhood forums that blankets 25 northwest Vermont towns. More than 18,000 households subscribe to Front Porch Forum. The resulting news sharing and community building is attracting recognition from PBS MediaShift, the Vermont legislature, the Rural Telecom Congress and the Case and Orton Family Foundations. Previously, he led an innovative trade association of New England utilities. Earlier, he guided a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of U.S. municipal leaders in developing environmental technologies, building on his experience as an inventor of high-tech recycling equipment. He earned a master's in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as an MBA.


Award: $202,000
Winner: Teru Kuwayama
Web URL: www.novembereleven.org; www.lightstalkers.org/teru
Twitter: @terukuwayama
Location: Chicago
Summary: Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal -- steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.

Bio: Teru Kuwayama is a photographer who has spent most of the past decade reporting on conflict and humanitarian crisis. He has reported in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Iraq - traveling both independently and as an embedded reporter with military forces. His photographs have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic. Kuwayama is the co-founder of Lightstalkers.org, a web-based network of media, military, aid and development personnel serving more than 40,000 members. He is currently a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Kuwayama received a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany.


Award: $200,000
Winner: Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty, Stroome
Web URL: http://stroome.com
Twitter: @nonnydlp; @stroome
Location: Los Angeles
Summary: To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues -- all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video -- often captured by mobile phones or webcams -- is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.

Bio: Recently named an "Innovator to Watch" by the University of Southern California's (USC) Stevens Institute for Innovation, Tom Grasty is an entrepreneurial digital and media strategist with a diverse, 15-year background across the entertainment, advertising, public relations and Internet industries. Most recently, Grasty was head of creative development at Blaze Television, where he was responsible for the company's digital media operations. Grasty has a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a master's from USC's pioneering program in online communities.

Nonny de la Peña is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. At USC, she is pushing boundaries for entrepreneurial and technologically innovative journalistic endeavors. A graduate of Harvard University, she is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with 20 years of journalism experience, including as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine and as a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Premiere magazine and others. Her films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the globe, garnering praise from critics like the New York Times' A.O. Scott, who called her work "a brave and necessary act of truth-telling."


Award: $90,000
Winner: Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell, Arizona State University
Web URL: www.painteddesertmedia.com; http://codyshotwell.com
Twitter: @codyshotwell; @rethahill
Location: Phoenix
Summary: To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the "seed" of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to "geotag" the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.

Bio: Retha Hill is the director of the New Media Innovation Lab and professor of practice at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The innovative laboratory conducts research and development for the media industry. She joined the Cronkite School in fall 2007. Previously, Hill was vice president for content development for BET Interactive, where she was the executive in charge of content strategy, convergence and integration with the BET Network. She worked for The Washington Post Company in a variety of capacities, including as a reporter and a founding editor of Washingtonpost.com. Hill also is the owner of Painted Desert Media, LLC, a Phoenix-based media consulting company.

Cody Shotwell has lived in downtown Phoenix since 2008. A fresh graduate of the Masters of Mass Communication program at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Seattle-area native keeps his fingers on the pulse of the journalism community through his day job as web coordinator at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.


PRX StoryMarket
Award: $75,000
Winner: Jake Shapiro, PRX
Web URL: www.prx.org
Twitter: @jakeshapiro
Location: Boston
Summary: Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

Bio: Jake Shapiro is CEO of PRX, The Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace connecting stations, producers and the public. Since its launch in 2003, PRX has been a leading innovator in public media, pioneering new digital distribution models and social media applications. In 2008, PRX received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Prior to joining PRX, Shapiro was associate director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where he remains on the Fellows Advisory Board. Shapiro is also an independent musician and has recorded and performed on guitar and cello with numerous groups, most frequently with original rock band Two Ton Shoe.


Award: $74,000
Winner: Eric Gundersen, Development Seed
Web URL: www.developmentseed.org
Twitter: @ericg
Location: Washington, D.C.
Summary: To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.

Bio: Eric Gundersen is the president and co-founder of Development Seed. Over the past seven years, Gundersen has developed communications strategies and tools for some of the largest international development organizations in the world, in addition to working with U.S.-based public health and education organizations. He is especially interested in improving information flows within large organizations and visualizing information in actionable ways.

Gundersen, a 2009 winner of the Federal 100 award for his contributions to government technology, earned his master's in international development from American University in Washington, D.C., and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations. He co-founded Development Seed while researching technology access and microfinance in Peru. Before starting Development Seed, Gundersen was a journalist in Washington, D.C. writing on the environment and national security.


What do you think about the winning grantees? Which are you most excited about? What do you think is missing among the winners? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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