News Leadership 3.0

June 27, 2012

Colorado wildfire app can enhance coverage of any local emergency

By Amy Gahran

This week—when a major wildfire broke out near Colorado Springs, Colorado—two young programmers there quickly built an app to help people follow social media posts about the fire. They also posted the open-source code, allowing anyone with some basic coding skills to spin off their own version.

Here’s how, and why, community news sites can use this tool to augment coverage of any local emergency…

The Waldo Canyon Wildfire Tracker is an app that aggregates Twitter posts which include the hashtag #WaldoCanyonFire. It was built by Robbie Trencheny and Scott Seibold.

Trencheny, a developer for the fundraising app company Momentum, lives about five miles east of the blaze. I interviewed him for this story about the app, and gathered some additional insight from him on how community news sites might use it.

This app does more than just display tweets with the hashtag. It organizes photos attached to tweets into an attractive photo gallery up top. “People really like the photo gallery, we’re getting a lot of compliments on that,” said Trencheny.

The app also offers checkbox options to hide retweets (which can tame the sometimes overwhelming flow of posts), pause the automatic updating (so tweets don’t scroll by too fast), and turn off notifier sounds. And it provides links at the top to key resources for city residents.

Trencheny and Seibold were able to build this app in less than an hour, because they had access to a lot of pre-existing code and tools. But they haven’t had time to add some features. However, this app could be adapted and expanded to incorporate maps as well as posts from Instagram, Flickr, or any social media service that offers a public application programming interface. (Since Facebook is a closed network with no public API, it’s not possible to add Facebook updates to this app.)

Technically speaking, this isn’t a traditional app. Most people think of “apps” as software that you download and install on a mobile device or computer. But this is a “web app”—all functionality is delivered via a web browser. Users don’t need to download or install anything—they just need to point their browser to

This app is even fairly easy to use on smartphones—and Trencheny is working to make it even more mobile friendly. And since it’s a web app, it will work on any phone with a web browser and a data plan. Unlike traditional apps, for web apps you don’t have to create and maintain a separate code base for each mobile platform (Android, iOS, Windows Phone, etc.) That makes it easier and cheaper to deploy.

How can this app help a community, or a community news outlet?

This web app could prove useful or engaging to community members who may not be especially savvy about technology or social media access. As long as they know how to find a website using the web browser on their computer, phone or tablet, it provides them with access to a broader range of real-time information about an unfolding local emergency.

Trencheny observed that most people in Colorado Springs don’t seem to use social media much, aside from Facebook. “Many communities are kind of still back in the 1980s or 1990s as far as the internet and social media are concerned,” he said. “This app is a way for them to find out relevant stuff from Twitter or other services, whether or not they use those services themselves.

Ideally this app would complement the emergency news coverage and other information produced by local news outlets, bloggers, agencies, and officials—with opportunities to cross-promote news stories. For instance, a news site adapting this app for a local emergency might add a section to the layout that highlights links to its own recent news stories, or official bulletins.

What does it take to spin off your own version of this app?

Trencheny has uploaded the complete code base for this app to GitHub, a popular resource for programmers who build or adapt open source code. Anyone can download, customize, and redeploy this app at no charge.

You don’t need to be (or to hire) a highly skilled programmer with years of experience to adapt this web app.

“It’s all written in Javascript, and the front end is a blend of HTML and Javascript,” said Trencheny. “And you’d need to know a little bit about cascading stylesheets, too. As far as web development skills are concerned that’s very, very basic stuff. And to deploy the code base, you just need to change the API keys for Twitter or other services to your own, and change the search query, and that’s it.”

If you aren’t a coder, or don’t have a coder on your team, it might be a good idea to start building relationships with local coders. Earlier on KDMC, Trencheny offered some advice on how to build connections with programmers for community projects.

If you use this app, here are some tips:

  1. Promote the app on your site. Write a short post explaining what this app is, how people can access and use it, and which services and hashtags it draws information from. Explain how this complements traditional news coverage and official announcements—and caution people that information on this app is not necessarily verified or accurate. Then add a box or prominent link to this explainer from your home page as well as all story pages about the emergency.

  2. Promote the app via social media. Periodically mention the app in your posts to Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and other services—including Facebook, even though the app can’t aggregate Facebook posts. Ask your social media followers to share the link to your web app with their followers.

  3. Find—or start—the right hashtag(s) to follow. Trencheny mentioned that city government and emergency response agencies in Colorado Springs have been doing an excellent job of using social media in this emergency. Right after the fire broke out they declared an “official” hashtag (#WaldoCanyonFire), used it consistently, and encouraged others to use it.

    But in other communities and other emergencies, people may start by using several different hashtags, or none at all. Aggregate into your feed the most relevant hashtags—and as your community starts to gravitate toward one or a few most popular ones, weed out the less prevalent ones from the stream of updates. Also, use the most prevalent hashtag(s) consistently in your own social media posts. And remember: all you have to do to start a hashtag is to start using it.

  4. Add the hashtag as needed in retweets. Many people, especially social media newcomers, don’t understand what hashtags are or how to use them well, and so omit them from relevant updates. When you see this happening on, say Twitter, repost or retweet items you’d like to include in your app using the appropriate hashtag.

    Aside from getting more great content into your app, this technique indicates that you support their efforts, which can encourage those social media users to post more about the emergency at hand. It also can subtly educate them about how to use the correct hashtag.

  5. Get a domain name—fast. When you deploy this app on your web host, you’ll want to make it easy for people to find it and recommend it. Especially for local emergencies, a lot of this will happen by word of mouth and over local radio. But right out of the box, the URL for your version of this web app will probably be long and ugly. It helps to quickly register an easy-to-remember and easy-to-spell domain name, and apply it to the app.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

June 21, 2012

Non-traditional providers bring quality and dimension to community news

As more and more non-traditional actors take the stage in providing news and information in local communities, it’s valuable to get past the either-or journalist-vs-citj argument and look at who actually creates value. A new report for The Chicago Community Trust offers significant evidence that information providers outside mainstream media have much to offer.

The Chicago Community Trust‘s Local Reporting Awards project provided 31 small grants last year to “produce a burst of impactful, relevant coverage of, by and for” low income communities on the south and west sides of the city. Award winners included a mix of traditional and non-traditional information providers, journalists and non-journalists. Topic ranged from race and class to tax and health care policy to cyberbullying and other youth issues.

The evaluation by Janet Coats of Coats2Coats, found that journalistic quality was high across the board.

“We were blown away by the quality of the work,” Coats said in her report. “Across the board, the sourcing in this work is strong. There is an appropriate blend of the institutional and the grassroots in the sources the award winners used. We saw very little “he said/she said’’ structure in the coverage; sources are used to speak from their areas of experience and expertise, without a false confrontational construct. We also were pleased by the number of sources the award recipients used in their work. Even in professional reporting, it is all too common to see single- or two-source stories.”

Some credit goes to The Chicago Reporter and the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, which greatly improved editorial quality and distribution of the work, the report said. Still, it’s interesting that the efforts of the non-traditional sources were so highly rated.

Significantly, Coats found, the stories also were highly relevant and featured diverse voices and nuanced perspectives. “The magic of having deep knowledge of the communities do so much of the work is that they showed a great range of issues, people and concerns that make up daily life in these neighborhoods,” the report said. “These stories touched on poverty, yes, but also on environmental issues, cyberbullying among young people of color, class divides within the African-American community. These are not subjects traditionally covered within these neighborhoods by mainstream news organizations.”

The Chicago effort suggests that partnerships of professionals and non-traditional information providers hold promise for local community news. Traditional news organizations have long failed to consistently bring diverse voices and perspectives onto their pages or websites. Now, new tools and best practices enable more people to tell their stories. As Vivian Vahlberg, who manages the Trust’s Community News Matters initiative said: “If we want to stimulate a rich tapestry of work that reflects the diversity of the community we need to look beyond people with journalism experience and seek out other kinds of people with other kinds of relevant experience - and then help them with the journalism part and with distribution.”

The Chicago Community Trust is a two-time winner of the Knight Community Information Challenge. The Trust has focused its work on studying and strengthening the city’s emerging local news ecosystem.

(Double disclosure: I am on the advisory committee of The Chicago Community Trust’s Chicago News Matters initiative and I reviewed and rated applications for Local Reporting Awards. Janet Coats is a colleague of mine at Block by Block and has been on the faculty of Knight Digital Media Center’s leadership program.)

From the report, here are summaries of some of the stories produced:

- The Windy City Media Group produced AIDS @ 30, a 10-month series that provided an “exhaustive examination of the history of AIDS in Chicago, how attitudes, treatment and programs have evolved and what is happening now. The stories included a wide range of voices and topics—young and old, scientific, historical perspective and impact on family and relationships.”

- Amandil Cuzan produced a video documentary on turnaround efforts at a Chicago High School. The documentary “successfully tracks the issues facing not just the school but the community it serves. The documentary tracks the history of the school and it evolution, as its demographics and those of the community changed over time. This is no puff piece, and Cuzan faced some pressure from the school when it became clear that he would take on the tough questions about whether this school can be turned around.”

- Austin Talks, a website operated by Columbia College’s journalism program, produced investigative reports on tax-increment financing in the Austin neighborhood. “Tax-increment financing is one of those topics that can cause the eyes to glaze - important, but not accessible. The AustinTalks work focuses on smart use of data to help bridge that gap, revealing how this program had done virtually nothing to assist the Austin community.”

- Working with young people, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, documented neighborhood education challenges. “The power of this work is that it was done by young people and done very well. The stories and photos capture the frustrations and fears of undocumented youth, teens who are living and attending school here but face an uncertain future because of their immigration status.”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.   

June 19, 2012

Time for a better breed of local/mobile ad network for community sites

By Amy Gahran

Theoretically, community publishers and local advertisers have much to gain from the rise of mobile advertising. But so far there’s a huge practical obstacle: the way the mobile ad market works isn’t very friendly to the little guys. Yet.

Small sites each scrambling to sell their own digital ads will probably never solve this revenue conundrum. But perhaps a new kind of mobile ad network—one that’s self-serve for small local advertisers and that pays off better for small local publishers who collaborate—could crack this market efficiently…

Selling ads is a perpetual challenge for community publishers. It takes a lot of work to sell a few small ads to local businesses and organization for relatively little money.

My Oakland Local cofounder Susan Mernit recently observed that community news sites can offer advertisers a significant advantage: relevance, which drives audience. But: “The bad news: it’s economically brutal. What newspapers have that the hyperlocals don’t is infrastructure and scale. ...A lot of the great money is in regional and co-op ad buys, which most hyperlocal sites are not set up to handle.”

Recently I’ve been researching mobile advertising and ad networks, ever since I read GigaOm’s excellent April 2012 report, The Promise of Hyperlocal Opportunities for Publishers and Developers (subscription required).

I see a gap in the market that could be bridged in a way to support community publishers and local advertises. Here are the pieces of this problem:

1. Local publishers have little/no ad salesforce. Most community publishers have a sales staff of one or two people, if that. That limits how many local advertisers they can contact and educate, and how many deals they can execute. It would be nice if more ads came to them—perhaps through a truly local-friendly mobile ad network.

2. Local advertisers lack knowledge, creative. Most potential local advertisers still don’t understand the value of online advertising on local sites. They also generally aren’t aware of how mobile media is booming and revolutionizing the way people discover local information.

Furthermore, the ads most local advertisers have created for print media generally don’t work well in a digital context, especially mobile media. It can be a big deal to expect them to generate new creative specifically for mobile—they don’t have the time, expertise, or inclination.

3. Most mobile ads stink, especially on the small screen of a cell phone. Tablets are great at displaying larger ads similar to what you’d see in print media, and even rich media ads with video or interactivity. But mobile is fast becoming the most common way people access the internet—and most of that is happening on smartphones, not tablets.

Most mobile ad networks serve banner or other display ads to appropriately sized slots in mobile websites and apps, where users hopefully will click on them if they’re interested enough. That’s a really big “if,” since a small banner ad on a small screen rarely conveys enough info to warrant a click.

Also, astonishingly, many mobile ads don’t link to mobile-friendly landing pages. This frustrates mobile users, and it’s part of why mobile display ads usually have abysmal clickthrough rates—which leaves most advertisers dissatisfied.

4. Mobile ad networks aren’t self-serve enough, yet. While more mobile ad networks are serving geotargeted ads from small and medium-sized local businesses, they generally don’t offer self-serve tools that help smaller advertisers create their own mobile ads. If you already have mobile ad creative ready to upload, fine—but that’s not the case for the vast majority of local advertisers.

5. Mobile ads and mobile landing pages are created separately. Mobile users want to do stuff, right away—not just passively absorb info. They typically want the kind of actionable information that’s found on mobile-friendly landing pages: clickable phone numbers, a map showing the location, business hours, a basic description of what the advertiser offers, current specials, etc.

There are several services (like and MoBistro) that make it easy and inexpensive for a small business to create mobile landing pages which can serve as the destination for mobile ads. But I haven’t yet seen one that also generates standard-size mobile display ads based on the content of a landing page.

6. Community publishers can’t easily join forces to create a local or regional mobile ad market. Right now, community news sites compete against each other—as well as traditional news outlets—for local advertisers. Community publishers can individually sign up to carry ads from mobile ad networks, but I haven’t yet seen a way for sites from a given area to form a local publisher group within a mobile ad network to jointly display ads targeted at a particular city, metro area, or other region.

If they could organize such groups within an existing mobile ad network with robust delivery and analytics capability, smaller publishers might become palatable for regional or other large ad buys—thus meeting the business need Mernit identified. This might help them attract more high-dollar ads from regional or national brands, as well as smaller local advertisers.


What if a mobile ad network decided to take full advantage of the long tail of both sides of the local advertising business: site/app owners and local advertisers. They could:

  • Offer easy web-based self-serve tools that let non-tech-savvy advertisers create mobile landing pages as well as standard-size mobile ads based on the content from those landing pages, with tracking and analytics for both kinds of assets. Pay a low monthly or annual fee to host the landing page (say $10/month), and you get the ad creative for free.

  • Offer programs that let local publishers join forces. Make it easy for community sites in a certain region (or serving communities defined by demographic factors such as ethnicity or country of origin) to self-organize into collective markets that offers high regional relevance. Promote these collectives to major brand advertisers seeking regional or co-op ad buys.

  • Enlist and reward publishers as educators/sales reps for the mobile ad network. Many national mobile marketing services already offer productive and lucrative reseller programs, through which local marketers educate advertisers about mobile marketing and get them signed up and set up to use the service, for a cut of the revenue. Community publishers already are talking to, and educating, local advertisers—but what they generally lack is an easy-to-use infrastructure to create, place, and target mobile ads that come from their community. This approach could help them realize more benefit from the efforts of their sales staff.

Together, this combination of tools and programs might more effectively serve communities—both by supporting community news and information, but also by supporting the local economy and local business ecosystem. And major brands could increase the relevance they offer to communities in order to get a better return from their advertising investment.

Also, community publishers would directly benefit from collaboration, rather than wasting energy competing against each other, and against major mainstream or legacy news brands. United we stand, divided we fall—or strength in numbers. Choose your preferred cliché of empowerment.

The question is: will a visionary mobile ad network with a mobile focus (maybe xAd, or others) decide to jump on this opportunity before too many of the best community publishers burn out? As Mernit noted, this business is economically brutal, and some vibrant community-based news startups have already folded under the strain.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.      

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

June 12, 2012

Text alerts for community media: Tips for getting started

Text message alerts are a potentially powerful, effective way to keep your community engaged with your news and information wherever they are—and regardless of what kind of phone they have or whether they have a data plan. But there are plenty of ways to do text alerts wrong. Here are some tips for getting started safely and smart…

By Amy Gahran

Aside from voice calls, text messaging (also called simple messaging service, or SMS) is the most popular thing people do with their cell phones. It’s also the most ubiquitous mobile communication channel—SMS works on virtually every cell phone, from the cheapest and most basic feature phone to the fanciest smartphone.

You can use text alerts to deliver short messages with breaking news, top headlines with links to stories, special topic updates, event or deadline reminders, and more. You can also use them to drive traffic to your website, or to your print edition, or even to carry paid advertisements.

1. Subscribe to other local text alerts first. Get a sense for what kinds of news, info, or alerts people in your community might be getting. For instance, local daily papers and TV or radio news shows often offer text alerts, as do many local governments, police departments, school districts, sports teams, and more.

Get to know the kind of content they provide, and get a feel for what seems useful. Also look for opportunities: what kind of local news or info isn’t yet offered by text alert?

Follow the links included in these text alerts, to ads as well as to stories or online information—do they go to mobile-friendly web pages? Are phone numbers or addresses ever included? (These are clickable on many phones.) See if they stick to what they promised in terms of content and frequency. Do they honor standard “stop” requests to unsubscribe?

2. Select a reputable SMS service with shared shortcodes. You will have to spend a little money to do text alerts right. Wireless carriers charge money to deliver text alerts to phones. Also, anti-spam laws govern require that a common shortcode (a special 5- or 6-digit phone number) be used to send any text messages which are not strictly person-to-person communication.

The easiest and most cost effective way to reliably and cost effectively transmit your alerts and adhere to legal requirements is to use a shared shortcode service. These companies lease shortcodes (which cost at least $500/month) and use software to divide their use—and cost—among several users. They also provide web-based software that allows you to manage subscribers, compose and schedule alerts. Textmarks is an inexpensive and easy-to-use SMS service, but there are many others. For a small list of subscribers, your text alert service can cost as little as $20/month.

Avoid services that offer to deliver your text alerts for free—these rely on technologies that are often blocked by wireless carriers. You want to be sure your subscribers receive your alerts—and that their requests to cancel are promptly and automatically handled. (Before you buy, test this important feature by subscribing to alerts from another publisher or marketer using the same SMS vendor, and then send the message “Stop.” You should receive no further messages from the service.)

3. Don’t overload your subscribers. People hate getting too many text messages, especially from news outlets or other organizations rather than individuals. So decide up front what your upper limit for text messages will be: Just 1-2 per week, or 5-10 over the course of a typical month, is reasonable.

4. Establish relevance first. Mobile users prize relevance above all else. So consider what kind of timely, brief alerts might be most valued by your community—and it probably isn’t the top headlines from your print paper or website.

For your first text alert offering, consider sending out occasional text alerts while important community news is breaking, before you write up and publish a news story—or even if you don’t end up publishing a related story.

For instance, you could start by posting text alerts of important breaking local news or events: major police actions or fires, major local government decisions, announcements of important community business openings or closings, severe weather alerts, timely reminders of festivals or sporting events, and more. Focus on whatever key time-sensitive news you already routinely follow (via police scanner, by attending meetings, etc.), so you’ll be able to pretty consistently catch the most vital community news right away.

Later, after you’ve gotten your feet wet with offering occasional text alerts of mobile news and events, you can branch out to offering other types of text alerts, such as your top story of the week or special weekly alerts on an important community issue. You’ll need to maintain each text alert service as a separate opt-in list—never subscribe people to new text alerts without their permission. But occasional alerts of breaking community news is most likely to get people interested enough to try your text alerts in the first place.

5. Provide only direct, mobile-friendly links in your text alerts. If you do link to your online news stories from text alerts, link directly to the mobile-friendly version of the story webpage—not to your homepage, or to a section page. (Making your site mobile friendly is the first item in my 10-step mobile strategy for community publishers.) And definitely don’t provide links that try to load the full version of your site which is meant to be viewed on a computer. That will slow down and frustrate many mobile users.

Similarly, if you include advertiser links in your text alerts, make sure they lead to mobile-friendly landing pages. (If your advertisers don’t have mobile-optimized landing pages, you can easily build and sell them as a service using tools like

I recommend using the free link shortening service to create all links that you’ll include in text alerts. This will allow you to track clickthroughs on these links, so you can assess which kinds of links are most popular with your text alert subscribers.

6. Don’t run off-target, irrelevant network ads. Many mobile ad networks will pay you to append short text ads with a link to your text alerts. That’s tempting, but those ads often say cheesy, generic things like “Got psoriasis?” This is irrelevant to community and most of your text alert subscribers, and hence undermines the key value of text alerts: relevance. Plus, they just look clueless.

Community publishers should probably avoid most ad networks for text alerts—they’re just too general, intended for a mass audience.

But you can—and should—eventually integrate local ads into your text alerts. Once you have a mobile-friendly website, you can start selling mobile-friendly ads from local advertisers (or larger institutions or brands that want to reach your community) which appear on the website. Again, that’s covered in my 10-point mobile strategy.

Once you have, say, five or more advertisers on your mobile site, you can start including occasional links to those advertisers, in rotation, in some (but not all) of your text alerts.

7. Support and promote your text alerts in print and online. Write up short, basic information about the text alerts you provide and why they’re valuable to your community. Create a mobile-friendly webpage with this pitch, as well as clear instructions for subscribing and unsubscribing. Print up postcards and fliers with this information, to distribute in community locations.

Also include this information in an article or recurring house ad in your print edition (if you have one), and link to it prominently from the main navigation on your website. And if you use social media or publish an e-mail newsletter, occasionally promote and link to your text alerts from there. (Social media and e-mail are hugely popular with mobile users.)

8. Keep the big picture in mind. Think of your print and web presence, social media efforts, and text alerts as an ecosystem. Your text alerts can drive traffic to your website or print edition (or advertisers), and also help your community recognize a whole new level of value from your news venue. Your print and web editions and social media posts (as well as supporting materials like postcards) in turn can drive text alert subscriptions.

Text alerts meet a need for quick heads-up awareness, whenever and wherever needed in your community. Your main news platforms provide more in-depth coverage, and social media provides engagement and more frequent updates. Understanding this interplay can help you hone your community coverage strategy and also use mobile to support your business model.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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

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