News Leadership 3.0

December 15, 2009

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Driving is much easier—and safer—when you can see the dashboard. It helps to know how fast you’re going, whether your engine is overheating, and how much gas you have left. Plus, if you’re driving a newer car, your dashboard may show where you are, how to get where you want to go, and whether you’re using gas efficiently.

No driver ever watches the dashboard constantly. However, if those indicators weren’t there, you’d probably get pretty anxious behind the wheel.

Similarly, communities seeking to steer toward a healthy future need ongoing, easy access to relevant, structured, local information—a “community dashboard”...

(This is the second in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Last week I wrote about how news organizations could help strengthen communities by presenting more structured information about vital community issues, as a complement to traditional news stories.

Structured information is organized consistently to make it easier to manipulate or reuse in a database, computer program, or web application. This, in turn, makes it easier for people to sort, search, trend, and compare that information. image

...In contrast, unstructured text (like most news stories) can be searched but not easily reused, analyzed, trended, or otherwise manipulated.

News organizations already publish many kinds of structured information: weather forecasts, sports scores, election results, stock prices, and more. They also publish many kinds of vital community information, such as local economic indicators—but typically in story format, such as: Denver home resales up 23% in November from 2008

News venues are an ideal place to display a community dashboard of local economic, civic, or quality-of-life indicators. The catch is: Developing indicators and compiling that data continuously is a big job—and not always a core strength of news organizations.

Fortunately, other community players are already doing a lot of this work. Finding and collaborating with them can help:

Researchers and officials: Academic researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and social service organizations often are skilled at compiling structured community information—which is why the Knight Commission report listed some of them as vital community information intermediaries.

However, often these players’ efforts to share their information are not easy for community members to find, understand, and use.

For example, Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project has compiled and analyzed a wealth of information benchmarks to gauge the status of community issues such as civic participation, transportation, the regional economy, housing, education, and more in the 353 municipalities in and around Philadelphia. This information is gathered through rigorous surveys and analysis, but presented mainly via complex reports in pdf format on a web site that probably is not well known among community members.

A search of, the leading metro daily news organization for the region, revealed only one story mentioning this project. More collaboration between the university and the news organization might go a long way toward helping people in the Philadelphia area understand their communities.

Librarians: These information professionals are skilled at sharing information (including structured information) with community members. Also, public libraries typically have a strong local focus and commitment to community service. Most importantly, librarians usually know what kinds of information community members seek or need.

The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog is a great resource for understanding what libraries have to offer on this front.

Other news organizations: It’s possible—and perhaps increasingly desirable—for local news organizations that once considered themselves competitors (or serving different audiences, like local ethnic, college, or business media) to collaborate to create community resources based on structured information.

Web application developers: These programmers (rather than web site designers) are skilled at making structured information user-friendly and engaging. However, few web application developers focus on local communities. The Knight News Challenge-funded startup Everyblock, recently acquired by MSNBC, is one example of how web applications can support community-level democracy and quality of life.


Identify willing and able local information partners. Partnering is first and foremost about relationships—which means talking to (and collaborating with) people.

Look over the list of potential partners above. Your news organization probably already has many contacts in each category—probably as sources, but perhaps as partners in various community or publishing projects. List your best contacts in each category: Cooperative people who tend to know a lot of about who’s doing what in their organizations or fields.

Call some potential partners with whom your news organization has existing relationships. Tell them you’re considering publishing a community dashboard of important local indicators. Suggest weekly or biweekly to start. Ask them: What kind of indicators do you think should be on that community dashboard? And: Could you help supply information for our dashboard?

If people have trouble grasping the community dashboard concept, show them Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project. Then say: “We’re thinking of packaging a small-scale version of something like this in a format similar our weather forecast box. We’re not exactly sure what the final product would look like, but it would be more like an infographic than a story. And it would come out regularly, so people could track it easily.”

The web application developers represent a different type of partner. Ask them for their ideas about presentation and delivery of a community dashboard. But they may also have content ideas, too.

Once you’ve identified at least a few potential partners who are willing and able to help, get them together for a brainstorming session with the people on your staff most skilled at working with structured information. (Last week I suggested how to identify these valuable staffers). The goals of the brainstorming session would be:

  1. What kind of a community dashboard would we like to see? (Creativity)
  2. How could we start to create that dashboard? (Prioritize options)
  3. What are the first tasks to get started? (Commit to action)

If you can only get through the first two goals, that’s significant progress. It’s most important to build momentum and relationships, and to create opportunities for action (not just abstract discussions). Having such an action-focused base of collaboration can help move forward many of the Knight Commission report’s recommendations.

Also, from here, you can design small-scale pilot projects to introduce your community to the idea of a community dashboard.

December 08, 2009

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Communities need relevant, timely information in order to function well. Traditional narrative-format news is one way to package that information. News stories work great as snapshots, but generally not so well for gauging relevant issues on a daily basis. By publishing more structured information, news organizations might help people more clearly understand their world and make decisions about their lives and communities.

(I’m pleased to have digital provocateur extraordinaire Amy Gahran on board as a guest blogger. Today, Amy starts a series of weekly posts that look at how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program published its flagship report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” on Oct. 2. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Knowledge is power—and knowledge springs from information. In any society, but especially in a democracy, people need current, relevant, and useful information in order to know how to exercise their power to make better decisions and build better, stronger communities.

imageThe Knight Commission report offered rich guidance for how news organizations, governments, schools, libraries, bloggers, and other leading players in the community information landscape could better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. The goal: to create robust local “information ecologies” that support local democracy and quality of community life.

In a new series of posts to the News Leadership 3.0 blog, we’ll explore opportunities to realize the Knight report’s recommendations—examples of what’s happening, what works (or not), and what’s possible. We’ll consider new kinds projects and collaboration, and suggest steps to take action.

Our starting point is the first question the report sought to answer: What are a community’s information needs?

The Knight report proposed 15 ways to to better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. However, it offered surprisingly little insight on which types of information communities need to support the goals outlined in the report: community coordination and problem-solving, public accountability, and a sense of connectedness.

According to the report, the tools to generate a specific list of vital community information types and measurements aren’t quite there yet. Information researchers are still working to develop them. But the executive summary did outline some general categories to consider:

“...In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed the path to civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including info about:

  • Jobs
  • Housing
  • Taxes
  • Safety
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment
  • Food and shopping
  • Utilities
  • Child care
  • Healthcare
  • Religious resources
  • Local news

News organizations traditionally have packaged these types of community and civic information in a narrative story format. In the narrative format, information is primarily communicated through a continuous flow of text, audio/video, or slideshow/photo gallery. Charts, interactive, or infographic components only play a supporting role.

Narrative news stories work great as snapshots—but they can be less helpful for ongoing public awareness, analysis, and decision making.

Fortunately, most of the vital community info types above already exist at least partly in the form of structured information (data sets, regularly compiled statistics, lists, surveys, forms, etc.) The strength of structured information is that it works more easily and flexibly as a kind of radar screen or dashboard. This helps people gauge on a daily basis the state of issues affecting their lives—and how they (or their communities) “measure up.”

Adopting a more structured approach to providing community information, delivered at least partly via news media, can complement traditional news stories in order to support community-level democracy. We’ll examine this strategy in the next post in this series.


Before you start trying to do something new, it’s helpful to assess what you’re already doing. Your news organization may already have more structured information capacity than you realize.

So: Assess which types of information your news organization already publishes periodically in a structured format: tables, info graphics, charts, statistics, interactive tools, etc. Ideally this information is published daily or weekly—but don’t discount monthly, annual, or event-related reports.

Look for information that you publish primarily through tables, charts, form-style blurbs, or infographics (rather than stories).

This can include information with obvious civic or community impacts, such as election results and candidate positions, school report cards, water quality reports, sales tax receipts, crime rates, health statistics, housing or real estate statistics or transactions, unemployment figures, and more.

...But it also can include non-civic information such as weather forecasts, sports scores/statistics, death notices, or stock prices. Again, when compiling this list, pay attention to the format of reporting, not the substance of what’s reported.

Once you’ve created this list, consider: Which of your structured information reports are most popular with your community? You might gauge this through audience surveys. However, simply recalling the feedback you get about this information (especially when you move or change how or where it’s presented) can help you decide what’s working best.

Then consider: What are your existing resources and processes for publishing structured information? It can help to map out the basics of your processes with flow chart tool like, or to draw it all on a huge brainstorming pad.

For instance: Newspapers often run a local “weather box” on the front page. Where does that information come from? How much time did it take do design that weather box? How much time and effort does it take each day to update it? Who’s involved with each part of the process?

Similarly, if your news organization publishes a form-style or tabular guide to candidates’ positions for local elections: What’s your process for deciding which questions to ask the candidates? How do you gather that information? What’s your process for compiling, editing, and presenting that information? How much time/effort does each part of the process take? Which parts of the process work well, and which are problematic? Who’s involved?

...Once you’ve mapped out some of those regular processes, look for patterns. Which people in your organization have a flair or affinity for any part of this work? Which tasks are streamlined, and which are vague or convoluted? Which of these efforts feel rewarding, and which make you groan?

Publishing more structured information can support healthier communities—but you don’t have to do it all at once. Clarifying your existing strengths and resources can help you decide where to start and set yourself up for easy “wins.”

Next week: How to adopt a more structured approach to providing community information

November 24, 2009

Online first? Four ways to show you mean it

Recent flare ups over the merger of The Washington Post’s print and online newsrooms leave out critical requirements for newsroom leaders who want their staffs to innovate online

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion about The Washington Post’s move to bring its well-regarded online news operation into the fold of the print newsroom. Since the announcement of the merger, talented top online managers have left the Post and this week came reports that a couple of award-winning multimedia journalists would be let go.

Mathew Ingram has a good roundup of the debate. He notes: “The recent cuts at the Washington Post (WPO)—as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper—have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon.”

The online discussion tends to play out as a saga of good (new, online) vs. old (bad, print). The online folks, with some justification, usually say it’s better that online be separate lest it be co-opted by conservative print culture.

I’m not sure the structure of the newsroom(s) is as important as the leadership and how it demonstrates what it values. When I lead a newsroom training and change initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation, we found that leadership communication was the most important factor in creating capacity for change. If top news executives really value online, they can do more to show it by:

1. Assigning all of the news gathering staff to report to an online editor with clout. The news gatherers might also fulfill assignments for the print newspaper, but their organizational allegiance would be to Web first.

2. Assuring that one of the top two newsroom executives comes out of online. The number 2 person, if not the top editor, would be an online expert and evangelist.  Sorry to have to say this, but most newsrooms are held back because their leaders - not matter how pro Web - come out of decades of print journalism. That’s the default.

3. Openly reward the online staff and print staff who make significant strides online. Even if pay raises aren’t possible, consistent praise and shows of approval will help.

4. Restructure the print production desk. Push down the number of people you need to produce the print newspaper until it hurts. More on that idea here.

How have you changed your newsroom or your attitude to promote online first? Please post tips and ideas in the comments.

November 19, 2009

Publish2: Capturing the power of the link

News organizations use this free aggregation service to deliver more links and information to their users

I’ve been remiss in not writing sooner about Publish2, a free service that enables journalists and news organizations to pull together, organize and publish links to interesting material. I’ve been playing with Publish2 for a couple of weeks and thought about it only for my own use in bookmarking articles for future reference or to share with colleagues. But Publish2 has produced summaries of how news organizations are using Publish2, so a little light bulb went off and I want to share the glow.

The Publish2 list includes The Washington Post’s Daily Read of investigative reporting from around the Web, Dallas Morning News’s Dollar Wise feature that offers links to information how to save money, Knoxville News Sentinel pulling together links on breaking stories. The News Hour on PBS used Publish2 to collect and publish reaction when President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ryan Sholin, director of news innovation at Publish2, says 10,000 journalist users have registered at the site and the organizations using it are a mix of newspapers, hyperlocal neighborhood news sites and blogs, TV, radio, alt weeklies, and international users.

The New York Times, Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Spokane Spokesman Review, and the Washington Post have been active users recently. “We see a ton of use on blogs, section pages, and individual topic pages, like elections, or swine flu,” Sholin said. The Des Moines Register builds topic pages for hometown heroes like Shawn Johnson.

In Washington state, Sholin noted, six news organizations have formed a collaborative Northwest Newsgroup to share links to regional news and deliver it with widgets on their sites. “It’s pretty amazing what they’ve been able to put together across newsrooms and even different parent companies,” said Sholin, who was a Knight News Challenge winner for a different project.
News organizations do not need a developer to get started with Publish2, he said. “If you can copy and paste a chunk of code into an article or section page template in your CMS, you have everything you need.”

I asked Ryan how he liked working for a start up after leaving a traditional news organization (Gatehouse). “It’s a lot of fun. If we have a great idea on a Monday, we build it by Wednesday and launch it by Friday.  That’s just a bit faster than a large media company can move, so it’s been great to work in an agile environment.”

He said Publish2 welcomes suggestions and other feedback. “Everything we do is by-journalists/for-journalists, so we love the feedback and input we get from news organizations. Most of the features in the Publish2 system are there because a journalist said ‘...wouldn’t it be cool if…’ “

“We see the collaborative curation of news as a trend that we’re out in front of, and it’s great to see news organizations using Publish2 as a newswire for the Web,” Sholin said.

It’s also great to see more news organizations discovering the power of linking and aggregation to provide users with a richer experience and to enable those who want to go deeper and wider on a story to quickly access more material.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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