News Leadership 3.0

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about 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

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from InsideBayArea.com. Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).

ACTION STEPS

Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Comments

I agree with your analysis of the gaping hole in civic coverage, and agree that civic topic pages are a great idea.

I suspect the economics of paying journalists to write the content are way off.

See for example the story of BackFence.com, which was merely running local wikis. They got the content for free, and even then they were running on very, very tight margins and eventually folded. The founder later <a href=“http://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/recovering_journalist/2007/07/backfence-lesso.html”>wrote<a>:

“Keep costs down. To become a successful business, hyperlocal citizensí media efforts have to be lightweight and lean. ... More than likely, the costs (and revenue) need to be spread among many sites to create a successful business model. The Backfence formula averaged about one staffer per community site, and in retrospect, that probably was too rich.”

Now of course BackFence may have had other problems (and it did.) But if we take this story at face value, it suggests that you’d have to be making several times as much as they were on a very similar product in order to pay pro journalists to write it.


Thanks, Jonathan

Not sure I’m understanding you here. First of all, as far as I recall Backfence was not “merely running local wikis.” They were trying to be more of a community platform, with community members contributing hyperlocal content.

What I’m talking about here very different from the Backfence model.

I’m talking about adapting a proven news search optimization strategy (topic pages) to help news orgs get more mileage (and, hopefully, revenue) out of the local civic coverage they’re already doing, while also creating an easily findable and usable civic resource for the community.

I also suggested that this approach be templated and automated as much as possible, to make the civic topic pages easy to set up, populate, and maintain.

One thing I didn’t clarify is that probably one person, part time, could be responsible for keeping many civic topic pages updated. The important point is to make sure each page has someone responsible for its updating—but that “someone” could be the same person for many pages. Updating also could be a task that bridges editorial and administrative work, so there might be a larger pool of staff to choose from when designating this responsibility.

Seems like comparing my idea to Backfence is apples and oranges. Maybe you could clarify what I’m missing in your argument?

- Amy Gahran


good article to me. i support your viewpoint.


First of all I want to say that your idea is well worth developing! It’s not my intention to discourage this sort of experiment. But I think the sustainability question needs to be thought through.

Perhaps BackFence really was in a different category—though I feel very much that it’s in the same hyperlocal space, and even cheaper to execute than your idea. More generally I’d like to know how you feel your idea compares to existing hyperlocal efforts like EveryBlock and WikiCity.

Yes, the NYT etc. have topic pages. But they also have a global audience. This means the work that goes into a single page is (potentially) paid for by traffic from all over the world. The local audience is simply much smaller, yet the work to produce each page is similar.

Now, I could be convinced that local CPMs will be higher because local advertisers are interested in a targeted audience. But I’d want to see the numbers. How many topic pages, how many per day can one person write, how many views do you expect to get on each page, what’s your expected CPM?

This assumes a classic display ad business model, of course. If you have another business model in mind, please share!

Maybe the numbers work out if you hire students to update the pages on a part time basis, I don’t know. And given that local wikis sometimes work (see the Davis, CA wiki for an example) is there some reason you are choosing not to do that?

I agree completely with your journalistic sense but I don’t see a detailed economic argument here. In short, how will this be sustainable?


With all due respect to the brave entrepreneurs who attempted the backfence.com experiment—the site failed for more than just financial reasons. The content was inconsistent and generally weak. I suggest that one interpretation is that readers want quality content, quality content isn’t cheap, and advertisers still don’t value online media. It’s a three-way Catch-22. Better content won’t necessarily result in higher traffic or ad revenues, true. But mediocre content absolutely won’t work.


I think that with internet media there is a generalized exasperation in people…basically I sense that many people are “over-saturated” with news…thus the reason so many newspapers around the country are struggling.  Perhaps the low hanging fruit of very local information just may work, but the trick is going to be to get it to stick.


> And advertisers still donít value online media.

Meaning what? That advertisers should pay more out of the goodness of their hearts?

If you have a strategy for increasing the price of online advertising, I would like to hear it. Otherwise, this is just denialism and won’t help us figure out how to sustain quality journalism.

I suspect that online advertising is much cheaper than paper ads simply because of the huge supply, essentially every web site in the world vs. a handful of newspapers. And with cost per click payment models and fine tracking of conversion rates for the first time ever, advertisers now know exactly what their ROI is.

All of which leads me to believe that online ad rates will simply never rise significantly. At least not generic, demographic based rates. If you can deliver a targeted audience that’s ready to buy, then the advertisers will pay more. Which is why I am asking if anyone knows much about local site CPMs. IIRC Jeff Jarvis assumes $12 CPM in his “new business models for news” spreadsheets. (see http://newsinnovation.com/)

So, Amy—have you run the numbers? How many articles, what rate of pay for staff writers, how long to produce each article —that gives the initial investment. Then how much time per week to keep the whole thing up to date, expected number of page views, and the expected CPM—that tells you if it’s going to be sustainable in the long run.

I really *do* like the idea of local topic pages. We really need them. But if I were going to bet on this, I’d say that a local wiki overseen by absolutely the minimal amount of work by a staff journalist is more likely to be a viable way create this project. Anyway it’s an appealing idea: if you’re creating a community site, give it to the community.


Jonathan, the numbers will be specific to each news outlet. But the business logic works like this:

IF: Local advertising is a key revenue source for your news organization (or IF you’d like to attract more local ads, or raise your local ad rates)...

THEN: Organizing your site to attract more local search traffic based on the kind of content you’re already creating (NOT assigning/writing new articles) might help your local ad business by allowing you do demonstrate increased local appeal.

Advertisers go where the eyeballs they want are. If they want more local eyeballs, this idea might allow you to either sell more local ads or increase your local ad rates.

EXPERIMENT! If you’re not sure whether this would work for your news venue, it’s possible to try a very small-scale, low-overhead experiment of this strategy to start. Based on the results of that, you can decide whether it’s worth rolling out on a larger scale.

Many news organizations are already creating topic pages to draw more search traffic, and more traffic supports ad rates. I’m merely suggesting a way to shift that proven strategy in potentially beneficial ways for news orgs and communities.

That’s the beauty of online media: It’s easy to do small, cheap experiments. It’s impossible to know in advance whether any strategy will work well.

A fear of experimentation—even on a small scale—has led to stagnation at too many news organizations.

- Amy Gahran


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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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