News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Community

November 11, 2009

Six trends in community journalism

American University and J-Lab produce a study about how the movement to create entrepreneurial community Web sites may changing the rules of engagement with news.

American University just completed a mini-study of women news consumers and women who have created news Web sites. The research, by Assistant Professor Maria Ivancin in partnership with J-Lab, offers an intriguing glimpse of changes under way as a new ecosystem of news forms online.

Ivancin described these findings (based on focus groups and interviews):

1. Community journalism is evolving as an exercise in participation, not merely observation. “It’s not just covering community, it’s actually being the community,” Ivancin said this week at J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs summit.

2. The traditional emphasis on objectivity is giving way to a focus on broader definitions of news and the inclusion of different voices. New media site founders often felt “objectivity really is not truthful. Top down objectivity you really don’t have an understanding of what’s happening in your community. They felt objectivity can come in a different way, from participation,” she said.

3. Building community rather than simply covering community is the impetus for launching community news sites. “It’s not just looking at what’s happening. It’s doing things to change that community, help that community.”

4. Community news sites rise to fill gaps in news coverage. “There is an unfulfilled need. Whether the local paper was not covering it, or no longer covered it….  The need can be geographic, the need can be audience based or interest based,” Ivancin said. One news site creator called it a need for “a community water cooler.”

5. New media entrepreneurs are motivated by a frustration with old media’s pace of innovation and change. “New media creators saw the changes as opportunities whereas they thought traditional media saw them as threats,” Ivancin. “The competition did not look kindly at these” news startups, including one outlet that r an editorial attaching the new site.

6. News site creators and consumers express excitement and regret over changes confronting established media. People said they “miss the pleasure of reading the newspaper,” and worry that the ability to select news will mean people don’t get the fuller picture provided in the newspaper, Ivancin said.  Also, it’s more difficult to to judge credibility. New media creators are concerned about losing investigative reporting. Benefits include speed and convenience, more voices and perspectives, selectivity and ability to get depth on topics of most interest, she said.

It will be interesting and important to see whether these trends hold true as traditional media outlets shrink and new experiments come onto the field. Certainly developments in community media are important to established news organizations. The start ups change the playing field of media in many communities and they may be harbingers of new attitudes and practices that traditional journalists and news outlets will want to adopt to stay relevant and fulfill the role of town forum.

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 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).


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.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

January 07, 2010

Five trends to track in 2010

The news industry will continue to struggle this year, but we should get some clarity about pay walls, the role of community news start ups, social media, metrics of engagement, and statehouse coverage

Confusion is likely to reign in the news industry for at least another year, but I think we may start to get some clarity on several fronts:

1. Charging for access to content. More news organizations are likely to take start charging for content and I hope those trials give us more clarity on what works and what doesn’t. We know from the Wall Street Journal that a publisher can charge for specialized content that is seen as having high financial value. It also seems likely that a few local news organizations may be able to charge. But there are a lot of If’s for that: If the content is consistently unique (i.e. no competition) and relevant (i.e. performs a service for users), if free boot-strap competition doesn’t enter the market, and if advertisers don’t balk at a reduction in eyeballs looking at their ads. I do not think Rupert Murdoch’s plans to put News Corp content behind a paywall and a search wall are likely to work. But I hope he tries it. Either failure or success produces more clarity for the rest of us.

2. Social media.
I hope more mainstream news organizations will move past merely using social networks to promote their content and tap into rich opportunities to engage users where they live, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, and to help users navigate local connections. I have consulted with a couple of major news organizations that are looking to take on a role as community aggregater or news hub, and I am eager to see their projects unfold this year. As well, Knight Foundation is funding J-Lab’s Networked Journalism Project, which partners five established news organizations with local and neighborhood news sites. Meanwhile, Gov 2.0 may pick up some of the slack in informing citizens left by newsroom cutbacks.

3. Metrics.
Increased sophistication about social media may also prompt local news organizations to shift from worship at the Church of Search Engine Optimization, which brings eyeballs from around the globe, to fashioning themselves primarily as networks that engage and serve local users - the ones most of their advertisers really want to reach. Not to say SEO is a bad thing. But as a primary emphasis it seems to get in the way of doing the hard work of really connecting with local users. A shift will require a new way to measure connections with and relevance to users rather than relying primarily on counting unique visitors.

4. Local news startups.
The media landscape is dotted with neighborhood and community news sites. Some, like West Seattle Blog, are demonstrating that user loyalty and a focus on highly local advertising, add up to a modest business model. Others, like Oakland Local, demonstrate the power of community building, social media expertise and tech savvy. In 2010, we’ll get a clearer picture of the capacity and sustainability of these more sophisticated yet lean start ups.

5. Statehouse reporting.
This very significant victim of newsroom cutbacks—particularly sharp among large metros and state newspapers that have traditionally staffed state capitol bureaus—has not escaped the attention of foundations in several states and we’ll soon see more funding commitments. Texas Tribune is leading the way, with a professional staff and grants from Houston Endowment and the Knight Foundation. The just launched California Watch also has foundation support. Perhaps foundation funding is only a temporary solution but it will help keep statehouses honest for the time being.

What trends do you think we should be tracking this year? Please add your thoughts in the comments. Thank you.


February 03, 2012

Community engagement tips: Help people understand their phones and use them as media tools

By Amy Gahran

Community engagement can be a huge challenge for any media project. But for four years now, the Mobile Voices project in Los Angeles has helped immigrant and low-wage workers create stories about their lives and communities—thus empowering themselves and increasing their visibility in a society which often overlooks their many contributions.

Project coordinator Pedro Joel Espinosa explained how face-to-face interaction and consumer education, not just technology, make this project work…

Mobile Voices began as a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), an established Los Angeles nonprofit serving the local Latino community.

Community engagement is the foundation of this media project. That focus is reflected in the core processes for designing, building, and managing Mobile Voices: participatory design and popular education. These practices emphasize involving community members in key decisions at all levels of the project—and also going out to talk to people in the community where they are, in their language, and on their terms.

The vast majority of Mobile Voices content is in Spanish. It’s a blend of personal observations, community news, event promotion, and local organizing efforts. For example, Espinosa noted that one West L.A. day laborer regularly posts stories about his community, near his local day labor center.

“He’ll often post something like, ‘We just had an accident here, somebody hit a bicyclist, watch out!’ Mostly they’re taking the role as the citizen journalist and reporting what’s going on in their neighborhood, because CNN won’t come and report on them.”

There’s a lot of interesting technology behind Mobile Voices ( Community members can create their own blogs and post photos, videos, audio and text directly from their cell phones. Generally these are not smartphones, but rather the simpler, less costly feature phones commonly used in lower-income and immigrant communities.

Captioned photos, like this one, are the most popular type of content posted to the site. That’s because they can be sent via multimedia messaging service (MMS), which does not require contributors to have a data plan.

But even though technology makes Mobile Voices possible, community engagement is what makes it work.

“We wouldn’t have Mobile Voices if it wasn’t for the community of day laborers and household workers,” said Espinosa. “These people are deeply committed, they show up. We have several volunteers on our core team, people who come in for weekly meetings—despite how hard it is for them to make time, especially when they aren’t getting paid. That’s because they believe in the vision of Mobile Voices.”

Mobile Voices representatives—which include staff and volunteers from IDEPSCA and also community members and site contributors—also have visited local day labor centers and other community venues to explain the project, learn what kinds of stories community members would like to share or hear, and help people learn how to use their phones to get involved. They haven’t been doing many field visits in recent months due to tight funding, but Espinosa said that whenever they have done this, they see a sharp spike in new users to the site.

Espinosa offered these tips for conducting community field visits for training and engagement.

1. Bring tangibles, such as a computer and some cell phones. “Sometimes when I go to day labor centers and talk about the Mobile Voices platform, it sounds abstract. But when people see hands-on what they can do with something they already have, then we have greater involvement.

2. Send volunteers from the community being served. “When people hear about our site from someone who looks and talks like them, maybe even someone they know personally or through friends or family, they’re more likely to pay attention and give it a try.”

3. Help people understand their wireless plans. Wireless plans, especially inexpensive no-contract plans, often have strict limits and fees for overages or access to certain features. Typically the wording of these plans is convoluted, making it hard to tell exactly what you’d get charged for. Consequently, people in low-income communities often hesitate to use their phones as tools because they’re wary of getting surprised by extra charges on their phone bill.

“We educate people about their phones, as a consumer protection service, whether or not they end up using Mobile Voices,” said Espinosa. “We tell them to bring us a bill, or tell us which carrier and plan they’re on. Then we can look up the details and explain to them in plain language what they can or can’t do without getting hit with extra fees. A lot of times consumers don’t really understand what they’ve signed up for.”

“We need to be mindful of the data plans that they have or don’t have. We don’t want to be teaching a day laborer to send multimedia messages, and then he gets a charged extra for that. Especially when you’re earning very little money, those charges can be a big problem, and they would just scare people away from using our platform.”

4. Teach people how to use their phone as a tool. After educating people about what they can do, affordably, with their phone, Mobile Voices volunteers demonstrate how to send a photo to the site (via multimedia messaging, or MMS), call in to record an audio message, send a text message, and more.

They also show community members how to log in to the site via the web and use online tools there to edit, enhance or expand upon the content they posted by phone. IDEPSCA headquarters has computers that community members can come in and use, and many local libraries, schools and businesses also provide free or low-cost internet access.

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.

March 13, 2012

Mobile skills: New gateway drug to community engagement

By Amy Gahran

This year, smartphones are beginning to comprise the majority of U.S. mobile handsets in use. So mobile skills are becoming crucial for anyone who wants to stay informed and connected, or to access jobs or services. The catch is, it’s often not easy for consumers to learn how to use mobile devices well.

Partnerships between public libraries, community news/information projects, and other community stakeholders could play a key role in helping to bridge the mobile skills gap—while engaging communities in the process…

Digital media is the channel of choice for most new community news and information projects, mainly because it’s cheaper and easier to create a digital presence than a print or broadcast product. Most of these projects focus on websites intended to be viewed on a computer. But in the next couple of years, mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and whatever comes next) are expected to become the most common way that people access the internet in the U.S.

Recently the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation held a conference exploring the future of libraries in the digital world. Watching Knight’s collection of video interviews with eight public library directors who attended this conference, I was struck by how often the themes of an education mission, digital literacy, and getting out into the community were mentioned—yet mobile technology was not mentioned by any of the library directors.

In fact, only James Crawford, the engineering director for the Google Books project, mentioned mobile technology in his interview from that conference: “Tablets and mobile devices allow libraries to extend their services out into the community,” he observed.

For more than a decade, public libraries and schools have been key community resources for free access to the internet via computers. And for many people this access has been a lifeline for access to jobs, education, information, connection with friends and family, and more.

Libraries are now extending this digital literacy mission to take computer skills training beyond the library and into the community—by holding training sessions at community centers, assisted living or senior centers, and elsewhere, often in cooperation with other community organizations and institutions. But this approach requires buying computers, arranging for mobile access to wifi, transporting all that gear around, and getting it set up and running.

That costs a lot of money, requires finagling with setting up wifi networks, and it overlooks a key opportunity: Teaching community members how to make the best use of the mobile devices many of them already have in their hands—and which many people consider indispensable to daily life.

Mobile skills don’t necessarily replace computer skills, at least not yet. But imparting good mobile skills has the engagement advantage of helping people realize greater immediate benefits from the devices and connectivity they already own—and that they carry everywhere they go. They won’t have to buy a computer, get broadband at home, or make a trip to a library or community center in order to put their newfound mobile skills to good use—or to improve their lives and communities in the process.

Consequently, mobile skills training might be a powerful “gateway drug” for community engagement. Especially if it’s focused on using web-enabled phones to meet pressing real needs, rather than more abstract learning.

For instance, many consumers don’t know how much about how to use the web or e-mail on their smartphone or tablet—or even on a feature phone, since many feature phones are capable of web and e-mail access. Yet the mobile web and e-mail can be key tools to access to news, information, jobs, social media, and more.

So a mobile training session geared toward, say, using your cell phone to find a job might include teaching:

  • How to use e-mail on your phone. (Employers and interactive systems must have a way to contact you.)
  • How to bookmark some key mobile-friendly job and networking sites on your phone. (, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Guidance on setting up your profile and resumé on these services. (This may need to be done on a computer, but generally you can at least handle the basics via a mobile web browser, and finish later on a computer.)
  • Tips on searching for and responding to job listings from your phone.

Note that all of these job-search skills also have other uses. If you know how to use e-mail on your phone, a world of digital interaction and connection becomes open to you—as well as the ability to subscribe to e-mail alerts and newsletters (perhaps from a community news or information providers, or your local library or school).

And if you know how to bookmark mobile-friendly job sites in your mobile browser, you can bookmark any mobile web site—such as a blog run by a local community organization, or a health information resource.

And if you learn how to fill out a mobile form to create a user account on a job site, you learn a basic skill for interacting with any digital service—such as social media, or subscribing to alerts from your local government.

And if you learn how to search a jobs site from your phone, you’ve learned the basic concept of doing any kind of web-based search on your phone.

And if you learn how the computer-based web and mobile web (or mobile apps) can complement each other, what their respective strengths and weaknesses are, you provide a motivation for people who might only have a cell phone to also get a tablet or computer, so they can have expanded access.

Positioning training to align with the community’s priorities is key to demonstrating its relevance and increasing its appeal. Consider which approach might be more effective to get the attention of community members: a generic class in computer skills (especially when many people might not have their own computer or broadband internet), vs. how to use your phone to find a job.

Once people get started with digital interaction and media, on any device, they’re likely to keep using it and build upon that base of knowledge—and to teach others what they’ve learned.

Community news and information outlets, libraries, schools and other key players with a mission to serve their communities should consider adding mobile skills training to their outreach efforts. One resource advantage of this approach is that you probably won’t have to buy as much equipment, or mess around with network access so much. However, you will have to invest in learning the basics of a few different kinds of mobile operating systems, and learn about the various kinds of e-mail service and basic data plans that wireless carriers offer.

Aside from mobile skills training, community members probably will also want help understanding what they can and can’t do with their phone without incurring extra fees. Asking people to bring a current cell phone bill into the library or other public venue, so you can see the kind of plan they’re on and look up details online, can help people gain confidence to do more with the phones they already have.

As low-cost Android tablets (such as the Kindle Fire) increase in popularity, it may make sense to also offer training in using the web browser and apps on these mobile devices, since they can do much more than just let people buy and read books. With a larger screen size than mobile phones, these devices can also be a great way to showcase community news and information resources intended for the computer-based web.

For any mobile training, a printed list of free public wifi hotspots in your community and their hours of availability can help people with wifi-enabled devices (but limited or no carrier data plans) find the access points most convenient to them. This can be especially valuable as many libraries are having to curtail operating hours and close branches due to funding challenges; and many nonprofits and community news outlets aren’t able to sustain multiple physical locations.

Finally, making sure your own digital presence is mobile friendly and accessible through a variety of mobile channels (mobile web, e-mail, and social media are the basics—although text messaging interaction and mobile apps might make sense in some cases) is another important way to build on the initial engagement of training. This is how you can help the people your train stay connected with your organization and mission.

What it means to be digitally literate is changing fast. Training is a powerful type of engagement, but it must keep pace with the times and make full use of available resources. Once you have the attention of your community, where they are, at any time, you have even more opportunity to help them improve their lives and enhance their individual and collective opportunities. Perhaps even more important, right now, than training them how to use a computer mouse.

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

May 22, 2012

10-step mobile strategy for community publishers

By Amy Gahran

Last weekend [email protected] held an invitation-only workshop on mobile strategy for community and ethnic media at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. The attendees included many top editorial, business, and digital managers for large and small publishers in the NYC metro area.

At this workshop I suggested 10 steps these publishers could take to start developing a viable, revenue-producing mobile strategy right now, even with modest resources. Here’s the plan…

1. Start using your phone for everything. Many people in the news business aren’t yet fully accomplished at using their own phones as everyday tools to access media, services, and interaction. Without this personal experience, it’s hard to recognize mobile opportunities and develop well-targeted mobile offerings.

So stretch beyond your comfort zone. For a few days or a week, try relying solely on your phone for media, news, information, entertainment, social media, services (like banking, shopping or getting directions) and interaction (texting, instant messaging, photo messages, e-mail, etc.). See how much you can do—and learn what you don’t already know.

2. Make your website mobile-friendly. For most cell phone users, a full website loaded in a small phone browser is a big hassle. If you’re standing on the street or sitting on a crowded bus, too much pinching, zooming, and scrolling are serious obstacles.

So create a fast-loading, simplified version of your site that automatically displays for cell phone visitors. Read Luke Wroblewski’s book Mobile First for advice on what works well with mobile web and app design and usability.

Your mobile-friendly site should be the core of your mobile strategy, since inbound links to any page of your site should load on any device, and most of what you do via mobile channels will ultimately drive traffic to your website.

Integrate mobile-friendly advertising into your mobile web layout. Ads displayed on your mobile site should link to mobile-optimized sites or landing pages. Educate your advertisers, offer analytics, and help the advertiser create ads and link destinations that will work well for your mobile audience.

Make sure your have a mobile-friendly website even if you offer one or more apps for smartphone platforms. The web is not a walled garden—it doesn’t require mobile users to download, install, and remember to launch anything. It’s inherently cross-platform. And many news venue-specific apps don’t automatically launch when a the user clicks a link to one of your stories received via, say, text or e-mail. You want your inbound links to always, always work.

Most likely for now you’ll have to implement “auto detection” code on your web servers to serve mobile users your mobile-friendly page layout. But if you’re starting from scratch with a new site, or when you do a complete overhaul of your current site,  incorporating responsive web design principles is a more elegant and robust solution that could simplify your future needs and increase your mobile options.

Some third-party services like MoFuse will repackage your content in a mobile-optimized template for a monthly fee, and run their own network ads in a revenue-sharing arrangement. That’s also a viable initial strategy, but probably not your most lucrative long-range plan.

3. Start experimenting with Tumblr. This free social blogging platform is highly popular—but more importantly it’s directly accessible via the web and extremely mobile-friendly. Tumblr can be your mobile sandbox and much more.

If at this point it’s beyond your means to implement a mobile theme with auto-detection for your main website, then you can use Tumblr to build a mobile-friendly web presence which complements your main site. For instance, you can post to your Tumblr blog “teasers” which promote and link to your most important or compelling content—then promote links to those Tumblr teasers via social media. The vast majority of people who use social media access it regularly on a mobile device, so you probably already have a large mobile audience in social media.

Tumblr is also a great venue to highlight individual photos, videos, or other multimedia that you’ve published. And it’s a great place to engage people with tidbits from your “cutting room floor,” or to share content created by your community.

And even if you already have mobile-friendly website, you can set up special Tumblr blogs for special projects or campaigns, including crowdsourcing.

4. Consider mobile users in your editorial style. Mobile users often are accessing content a few moments at a time, so they need context. Work to emphasize context and action in your content. One contextual editorial strategy is to begin each story with 2-3 short bullet-point highlights at top of each story, instead of a traditional “deck” and before a traditional story-style lede.

Include action-oriented links wherever possible, which allow mobile users to do useful things like register for an event. Also, where appropriate include full street addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers in your content—these become actionable (clickable) links on mobile devices.

And if possible, adapt your content management system to allow you to geocode your content by specifying latitude/longitude coordinates. The major search engines weight this in providing search results to mobile users, so geocoding will increase your mobile search visibility.

5. Use social media for community engagement. Again, this is where you probably already have a considerable mobile audience. Make sure when you post links to Twitter, Facebook, etc., the destination of those links are mobile-friendly whenever possible. Not sure? Look up the link first on your phone to check.

Use social media on your phone when out and about as a radar screen for a large part of your community, and to share engaging observations and photos from around town. If you use popular mobile-only services like Instagram, or geo-social services like Foursquare, make sure you connect them to your other social media accounts so you can selectively cross-post easily as warranted.

Video links are hugely popular on social media. So if you post video, set up a branded YouTube channel and post your video there—then link to your YouTube videos from social media. YouTube is probably the most mobile-friendly video sharing service online, and it’s owned by Google. Posting your video on YouTube makes it both very findable and very mobile friendly.

6. Conduct periodic mobile market research. Mobile changes fast, and each community has unique preferences. Knowing what’s currently popular in your community regarding mobile devices, cost considerations, and other preferences will steer your decisions for further mobile offerings.

I’ve created a simple mobile market research survey. This can be conducted in person (you’ll want to see how people use their phones) every 6-12 months. Even a couple dozen responses from typical community members can provide actionable guidance.

Also, the mobile user experience is only as good as the quality of local wireless service. If a locally popular carrier’s service suddenly degrades (which can happen), your mobile offerings might perform poorly. So periodically check’s maps for your community to understand current coverage conditions. Is there poor or spotty data coverage? Then take it easy on the video! Or if large numbers of your users sign up for 4G service and local coverage is good, consider richer mobile media offerings.

7. Offer text alerts and polls. SMS text messaging is a huge overlooked opportunity, but it’s valuable because it’s ubiquitous: it works on almost any mobile phone. Text alerts are obviously useful to share breaking news, event reminders, and even offer interactive services like polling.

Your text offerings can be either general or special-purpose. Just make sure users know exactly what to expect from each service. It’s best to only send 1-2 messages per week or less, and never spam people! Users must opt-in to each service individually, and they must be able to unsubscribe immediately simply by replying “stop.”

You must use a common shortcode to offer any text-message services. That’s not free, but using a shared shortcode from a vendor like TextMarks can cut your costs substantially compared to leasing a dedicated shortcode. That’s a good way to start.

Text alerts can include links, so make sure you’re using these links to drive traffic to specific mobile-friendly story pages (not to your home page) or to mobile-friendly advertiser landing pages.

8. Experiment with apps. After you have a mobile-friendly web presence, you’re considering mobile users in your editorial style and social media activities, and you’re offering some text messaging options, that’s the time to consider investing resources in apps intended to run on specific mobile platforms like Android or the iPhone.

The easiest way to get started with apps is to use a service that simply repackages your existing content within an app, “shovelware” style. Uppsite is one service that will create apps for you on all major platforms, and run network ads. That might be a good first step to experiment, get some data about your mobile users, and earn a little revenue.

However, in the big picture, content shovelware does not make a compelling app. Only 25% of apps get opened more than nine times. So if you intend to invest resources in developing an app, it’s better to look for opportunities to offer services, not just content, through apps.

Your mobile apps can be project-specific, such as presenting a data visualization, supporting a crowdsourcing effort, or providing special updates or context on a crucial community issue.

Usually when people say “mobile apps” they mean “native” apps which are software deployed for a specific mobile platform. But with the advent of better mobile browsers and more advanced web technology, it’s now possible to deliver a great deal of app-like functionality via the web. The advantage of “web apps” is that the user doesn’t need to download or run any software. One example of a mobile-friendly web app is ProPublica’s Dialysis Facility Tracker.

Developing platform-specific native apps cost more, so only build an app when it’s truly warranted: to use special device capabilities (like the camera or accelerometer) or if you have a very good revenue case. In particular, many publishers are lured by iPad apps because they look pretty and appear to return to publishers the control over users they thought they once had. But iPad apps have proven to be a dubious investment for news or content publishers.

9. Sell mobile landing pages or microsites, not just banner ads. Position access to your mobile audience as a premium service that can deliver more value to advertisers more value.

Use mobile landing page tools such as or MoBistro to create compelling, actionable mobile microsites for your advertisers—for longer-term, bigger contracts than simply displaying a tiny banner that would likely perform poorly. You can get great analytics from these microsites, and adjust them on the fly to improve performance.

The key is that your ad sales staff must really know how to sell this service, build a basic microsite, and keep it updated with current advertiser info.

Once you have some advertiser microsites, you can promote links them not just via ad banners, but via your other mobile or social media offerings

10. Mobile doesn’t stand alone. Always promote and explain your mobile offerings in your print/broadcast venues, house ads and at events.

Prepare printed, online, and sometimes video tutorials explaining each offering: what is is, what value it offers to whom, how to use it. Create versions for community members and advertisers or partners.

And in general, train your community in how their phones can be useful tools. Recommend to your useful reporting tools for local issues like SeeClickFix, citizen journalism apps like MePorter, transit info services like NextBus and more.

The more you can encourage your community to get more info and value from their phones, the more they will value your mobile offerings.

More resources from the KDMC/CUNY community mobile media workshop.


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.

July 11, 2012

How RJI’s mobile news research could expand to benefit community news

By Amy Gahran

This summer, Roger Fidler of the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute has been releasing the results of his detailed research into how people are using mobile devices to access news.

This is an excellent resource for major national and metro news organizations. Here are a few thoughts on how this kind of research might be extended to also benefit community and niche news outlets—an important emerging part of the digital news landscape…

From January through March, RJI staff interviewed more than 1,000 people contacted via randomly selected phone numbers. More than half were cell phone numbers. The results were published in three parts:

This was an appreciable undertaking, and the results are useful, especially to large news outlets. But to benefit smaller community news outlets, more examination of nuance would be helpful. If this research project is to be continued or extended, RJI might consider adding questions to explore three vital topics:

1. Distinguish between national/metro vs. community/local news. According to RJI’s survey, 63% of mobile device owners use these devices to “keep up with the news”—and these people spend an average of five hours per week doing this.

However, RJI apparently did not distinguish between national, global, state, and metro area news vs. community or hyperlocal news. Asking specifically about how people use mobile devices to access community news might be revealing.

This could complement the excellent September 2011 Pew Internet report, How People Learn About Their Local Community. It included a section on the role of mobile devices and social networks, which noted that 25% of all adults said they use mobile devices to get news about their local community.

2. Ask about text alerts. A simple text message is more like “lean media” than “rich media.” RJI’s research focused on mobile media devices—a key characteristic of which was that they “are designed primarily for consuming and interacting with mixed-media content.”

This definition left feature phones and texting out of the picture. But according to comScore’s latest estimate, over half of U.S. mobile handsets in use still are feature phones.

Aside from the fact that feature phones remain popular in many communities (particularly for low-income households and seniors), and that many models now come with web browsers, virtually every mobile phone can send and receive text messages. And aside from voice calls, texting is the most popular thing that mobile users in all demographics do with their phones—even on smartphones.

Opt-in text alerts can be a powerful tool to drive mobile users to mobile news—mixed, rich, or otherwise. And they can be particularly useful for community news publishers.

3. Ask about sharing or posting photos or video. People use their phones (even feature phones) to take and share photos or videos of what they see around them. This is an inherently local activity, usually with far greater relevance to local publishers and communities than mass media news outlets.

RJI’s survey inquired about “creating and managing content” which they defined as “creating, editing or managing non-work or education-related content such as documents, photos, videos, music.” This is valuable, but within that large category it’s photos and videos which are most likely to have specific news value or community relevance. Understanding more about mobile users’ propensity to create or enhance news coverage, as well as consume news, would benefit all news outlets—but probably especially community news publishers.

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.


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

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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