News Leadership 3.0

January 26, 2009

Citizen news sites: Friend or foe?

As citizen-run news organizations work to fill gaps in local coverage, established news organizations can approach them as potential partners rather than rivals

In “The New Metros,” Jane Stevens offers a scenario for how news will be covered as multi-faceted local newspaper organizations diminish or close. It’s unpleasant reading for any metro newsroom.

But I recommend Stevens’ post nonetheless because hers and other emerging scenarios suggest opportunities that traditional news organizations would do well to recognize early on.

Oh, and “early on” is already well under way in many U.S. cities.

Stevens believes metro coverage will atomize - I love her phrase “nichification on steroids”—as newspaper organizations either draw back from extensive local coverage or close their doors and their Web sites entirely. Stevens is a fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

Here’s her take:

A large metro area comprises several communities, each made up of several neighborhoods. These communities may be municipalities within a county—or perhaps a part of a city represented on the city council. A small—two- to four-person—news organization covers each community in a collaborative, serial method, 24/7, along the lines of WestSeattleBlog.com. At first, these news organizations are financially supported by advertising from the local businesses who couldn’t afford the high ante to get into the metro news organizations’ publications.

Those community-based operations can cover their local schools, roads, health, events, etc., extraordinarily well, and will bring the community’s voices to bear on local public policy. But they won’t have the resources and depth to cover regional issues, such as education, transportation, the environment or growth. Issues in those areas are usually resolved at a regional or state public policy level. In a metropolitan area, these topic-based news organizations might be supported by those who sell products and services related to that topic. I’m going to try it here in Columbia, MO, with a local health site.

How will people find information across this new news universe? Stevens:

The daily conversation and the community’s collaborations will be embedded in a contextual Web shell of information that the community uses—databases, backgrounders, wikis, aggregations of local blogs, forums, and—yes—news and information from those in the community who sell products and services. These sites will be the go-to place, the starting point, for most of the people in the community.

But these enterprises won’t operate as the metros have in the past—standalone operations in competition with every other news organization. They’ll be part of a network in which they can exchange information and help each other cover stories (check out an early start to this approach in Washington State where reporters used Twitter and Publish2 to share the best information about a regional storm) horizontally, across the communities, as well as vertically, with the organizations that focus on regional topics. That network can also be used to distribute information from people in a community who want to sell products and services across several communities.

In cities that have long been dominated by metros, scenarios such as this one feel inevitable. I don’t quite share Stevens grim vision of decline of traditionals to a metro Web site that suddenly vanishes overnight or is “so pared down that only tatters remain: entertainment, some sports and a small continuous news desk operation.”

Still, metros are contracting and citizens, including journalists who have left newsroom jobs, value news and will find other ways to find it and distribute it it. Stevens cites Westseattleblog.com in a town where one of two major newspapers, the Post-Intelligencer, is on the block and the verge of folding or going entirely online and the other, The Seattle Times, struggles to find financial footing as well.

Seattle is not alone, of course. That begs a question established news organizations need to answer about community start ups: Friend or foe?

An initial response may be concern, even frustration as community organizations tread on the turf that established organizations believe is theirs. That would be the “foe” response.

I suggest this alternative response to that community upstart: Ask, “Can we network?” That would be the “friend” answer, the one that recognizes a traditional news organization can no longer do it all and welcomes help.

And what would friendship look like? That’s a story for partnerships that emerge. But as traditional news organizations survey the horizon and identify community efforts with valuable information to share, here are a few places to start:

1. Get to know them. Find out their mission and their plans. Agree to keep in touch.

2. Train them. Share what you know about community journalism so that together you enhance the quality of reporting available to your citizens. This need not be time consuming; think about a brown bag lunch once a week or every two weeks.

3. Link to them and assess their credibility for your users (and theirs!). Let your own beat reporters who blog include relevant community site links in their reports. Recommend the good stories. Truth-squad the bad. Add context and explanation.

4. Let their work help you decide what you do best. Established news organizations that survive can embody the broad journalistic goals and expertise in ways more focused citizen sites may not be able too. Investigative reporting is one example. If the education reporter who took your buyout is doing a good regular report on her new blog on the doings of the local school board, why not link to her and use the lone education on your staff to investigate school spending or explore larger issues in that are relevant?

In the emerging news network, there will be a hub that aggregates the news and information the community needs to function. There will be a place where people go for information that reflects traditional values and helps them understand the dizzying information on the Web. That can be the traditional news organization. Or not.

What’s your vision of the role of the traditional news organization in the emerging network of news sites? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

(Thanks to @jayrosen_nyu on twitter for link to Stevens post.)

(Disclosure: I am an adviser to the Knight Information Challenge but I do not speak for the Knight project and I offer these views independent of that role.)

August 07, 2008

Upwardly, outwardly mobile

Poynter’s Biz Blog features
a mobile news startup in Dallas

Rick Edmunds has a good overview of the Pegasus News, a new mobile service in Dallas-Fort Worth. Take a look at it here. At a glance, it seems to have a lot going for it: simplicity, phone-centric information including restaurants, events, movie times and bar happy hours. Users can add content as well. Check out Your Neighborhood and The Daily You.
With the growing popularity of mobile media, Pegasus seems like one model for news organizations who want to own mobile in their local markets. What’s your mobile strategy?

August 06, 2008

Let’s get local

Former newspaper manager
offers formula for improving
local news coverage

Joe H. Bullard, a former managing editor of The Denver Post, wants to see more local news in the Denver newspapers. Here’s his formula from “Getting local coverage in gear.

“I’d fire a third of the editors and convert another third of them to being reporters and give them a laptop. I’d send all my reporters home with a laptop. I would tell each of them his beat is now a circle with a radius of 12 blocks and the center of the circle is his house. I want to know everything that happens within those 12 blocks.

“I don’t want to see you in the newsroom, unless your editor or I summon you. I will count bylines. If you don’t submit at least one story a day, I will be unhappy. If you go a week without a byline, you will be fired. I will expect you to know how to use a digital camera and I expect you to submit at least one picture a day from your circle.

“Because all the reporters and editors are college graduates and have been making a good living for a good number of years, they all live in upscale portions of the metro area, which will limit the news that gets reported. This is a good thing because it would give me the opportunity to hire blue-collar reporters that care about what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“They would be much more concerned about why their Johnny can’t read and why his classroom has 39 kids, one teacher and no aide. Or why their street never gets swept, nor the snow removed. In short, we would start reporting news that is relevant to my readers.

“What do I do with all this news? Put it on my web site as a zone section.”

Is this an organizing principle for the future? Is your newsroom already doing something like this? Please share your experiences in comments.

(Thanks to Ryan Sholin for the pointer.)

 

July 08, 2008

Star-Telegram sports online

Fort Worth’s high school site
attracts users and revenue

Successful online ventures identify and tap into community passions. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has created a megasite for high school sports and is riding a wave of popularly and building revenue. I asked Ellen Alfano, Deputy Executive Editor/Vice President for Online at the Star-Telegram about the site, www.dfwvarsity.com, and the result is this guest post:

By Ellen Alfano

High school football is more than a tradition in Texas - it is an integral part of our culture. The Star-Telegram devotes a lot of resources and space to Friday night football. So three years ago, the Sports department and IS department began working on a super web site that would connect us to those readers who are fanatical about “Friday Night Lights.”

We created a home page for every high school team that we cover - nearly 100 - and have continued to improve the functionality as well as the number of high school sports that are part of the site. The site includes team photos, results, statistics, schedules, recruiting updates, player information, message boards and score alerts, as well as blogs and interactive pages for uploading user generated photos and videos. We have expanded the concept to include girls and boys basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball.

The staff that produces the content for dfwVarsity is a small army of sports staffers, correspondents and employees from different areas of the newspaper. This is the same group that covers games for the newspaper, only they file for the Web site after each quarter of a game and immediately after the game is over. The only additional people we have devoted to this project are programmers. There were a few missteps along the way, most of them involving the programming.  We are currently working on the third version of the software and we have a web developer from IS working with a newsroom web developer to finish the newest version.

Anyone who is considering a site like this needs to have a project leader who understands sports and agate as well as web development. Developers who worked on the site but didn’t understand sports left us with a table structure that was not flexible enough to allow us to adapt it to additional sports.

The one area that has never been an issue is the popularity of dfwVarsity.com. The site had more than 3 millon page views last year. It has also been a revenue-producer from the beginning. We began with a sponsor who paid $12,000. This year we will produce almost $200,000 in revenue.

Last year’s dfwvarsity site, including the videos, brought in $5,000 a month in revenue. The video was not specifically targeted. We quickly realized that was too low. This year, the main sponsorship was sold to Chevrolet for $10,000 a month for 10 months

One feature of the site is a weekly video program during the football season that just won an Emmy. More about that program later this week.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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