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 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 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.)


Friend or Foe, the Dilemma of Friends.
Some of the biggest obstacles when you want to get things done are your friends. Youíre friends can be terrible when it comes to your success. Most often than not your friends are the people that say, ďhey letís go grab that beer, hey letís have a good time, hey letís take a trip, hey letís go do this or that.Ē

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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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