News Leadership 3.0

November 03, 2009

Western Citizen: News site seeks to connect and engage

This bootstrapped site in the Rocky Mountains wants to bring more citizens into discussions about politics, environment, health and economic issues

Here’s an ambitious formula for a new kind of news site: “Combine investigative reporting with online tools to empower citizens to discover their own opportunities for direct action and to publicly deliberate on finding solutions to community problems.”

That’s Wendy Norris talking about her just-launched Western Citizen news site that will cover culture, politics, the environment, health care and economic issues across the Rocky Mountain States.

Her motivation: She just got tired of watching television broadcasts or reading newspaper stories that didn’t give her any way to take action on issues she cared about. “I would watch on TV and all I could do was throw a sock at the television set. They never said what else I could do. I want to bridge that gap.”

Norris agenda is simple:
- Tell the truth
- Promote action, context and relevancy
- Demand transparency

Norris sees a role for her site in the Rockies, where many of the issues she’s covering interconnect across the states and many solutions come from interstate discussions and compacts at state and local levels that play out well below the radar of the average citizen. Norris wants to give more citizens access to that information via the Web and, down the road, mobile.

“In the West, the land mass is so enormous. It’s hard to get people together.” Norris also hopes to develop tools that enable citizens to interact around information and engage in debate in more meaningful ways than throwing a sock at the TV.

Right now, the site features a news feed aggregating stories from around the region (Norris notes that many dailies and weeklies in the Rockies do not have Web sites, only PDF e-editions) and a blog by Norris highlighting important stories. She has incorporated Apture into the site to offer users context and “help them explore the breadth of an issue.”

She’s working on a hybrid business model: News gathering will be non-profit and she will seek grants and donations to pay for beats. She’ll form a separate business to create applications for citizen engagement and find other commercial revenue. In addition to offering news content, she hopes to develop resources to teach citizens how to blog, crowdsource and otherwise make their voices heard.

She is bootstrapping her site and has spent only a few hundred dollars incorporating her business and building the (she did her own coding) while supporting herself with freelance assignments for national publications.

I met Norris in May, Norris when she was a fellow at Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, funded by the Knight Foundation. Now, as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, I’m eager to see how she develops the civic engagement aspects of her site.

Norris’ wasn’t the only site that launched Tuesday. There’s a lot to like about the just-launched non-profit Texas Tribune news Web site, which also has Knight Foundation support. I suggest you check out the site and this post on Nieman Journalism Lab for an overview.

I want to focus on one feature, TribWire, which you will find on the right hand column of the home page. This is an aggregation feed of important stories from other publications and sources, selected by the staff of the Tribune. If you don’t have a feature like this on your news site, you are missing a chance to provide a great service to readers and help establish your site as a place to get all the important news on your franchise topics.




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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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