News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Community Building

April 02, 2010

New report examines public library’s growing role as online civic hub

In the past year, about a third of Americans age 14 and over (about 77 million people) accessed the internet at a public library. US libraries and librarians are assuming a fast-growing role as a lifeline that connects people to jobs, news, education, services, health information, friends and family—and also community/civic participation.

A new report in the US IMPACT series of studies, How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries, examines in detail how libraries are helping people meet a variety of online needs. It provides particularly intriguing insight into who’s using library internet to engage with community life, and how they’re doing it. Keeping up with the news is a big part of that picture…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking 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.” See all posts in this series.)

Who’s using library internet? According to the IMPACT study, one third of the 77 million library internet patrons “used library computers to learn about politics, news, and their community. Among these users, 81% reported keeping up with current events, 80% reported learning about candidates or issues, and 25% reported managing a club or nonprofit organization.”

What kinds of people are most likely to use library internet to participate in civic and community life?

  • Lower income. People who earn $66,000 or less for a family of four (three times the current US poverty line).
  • Ethnicity. Hispanics are most likely; then Native Americans, African Americans, and mixed-raced individuals. Whites are least likely.
  • Youth. Users aged 14-24 led the field.
  • Gender. Men were 20% more likely than women.
  • Education. People with at least some education beyond high school were most likely.

Findings on civic/community engagement: The IMPACT report defined online civic engagement as “individual and collective actions using online resources designed to identify and address issues of public concern, including efforts to work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” 

I was intrigued that this study characterized keeping up with the news as primarily an activity associated with civic/community life—not as simply “media consumption,” as it often is in other studies about online use. This could indicate something unique about the perspective of library internet users, or simply the assumptions of the organizations behind the survey. (It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More about the survey.)

The report also examined how people use library internet access to engage communities. One specific activity discussed was organizing and managing community groups. Many survey participants claimed this activity is important to them. About 4 million people learned about starting an online presence for a club or community organization at the library— and 35% of these people actually started a club or association. Specific activities included:

  • Scheduling or reporting on meetings.
  • Promoting activities or attracting new members.
  • Seeking grants or funding.

The report noted, “57% of library internet users who looked for funding (about 1.2 million people) indicated that they had applied for funding—and 68% who  applied (over 813,000 people) actually received funding. This is concrete evidence that libraries are providing necessary tools and monetary support for people to engage in community activity.”

ACTION STEP: GO TO THE LIBRARY. Earlier, this blog post series recommended that news organizations partner more with public libraries, since libraries are natural sites of media literacy. But the IMPACT report indicates that libraries are also an increasing hub for civic and community “literacy,” too.

Therefore, journalists and others involved in ventures that provide news, information, and connection about civic and community life should probably start hanging out at the local library. Get online there, and start to assess who uses your local library’s internet access—and why.

More importantly, volunteer at your local library to assist library internet users. Most libraries are eager to work with volunteers. Once you get start working with the library and its patrons, learning their priorities and needs from the inside, you can forge relationships and spot opportunities for partnership and collaboration between the library and your local news or information venue.

Library volunteering also could be a channel to reach people who are not only underserved by local media and internet access, but also who are especially likely to be community leaders in those populations. The report noted: “In society at large, typically only a small percentage of the total population are community leaders and enablers. The characteristics of library internet users who are more likely to engage in [starting or managing online communities] ...suggest that the library is providing a way for emergent leaders to help their community take care of itself—which could in turn provide a safety net for people who might otherwise lack support.”

ACTION STEP: FUNDING COLLABORATION. Recommendation 7 of the Knight Commission report says:

“Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.”

..Like all public institutions, libraries are facing a severe funding crisis. They’re also eligible for many types of grants and other funding sources beyond tax revenue. Look for opportunities where partnering with a local library in your program and on your grant applications would make sense. If it’s a good fit, both parties—and the community—could benefit.

However, be sensitive to the unique concerns of libraries. They face specific legal and political issues, and librarians also have their own strong culture. So before approaching a library with a funding partnership idea, start volunteering first to build relationships, credibility, and knowledge.

May 05, 2010

“Toxic Tour” wins SPJ award, shows creative ways to do great journalism

Where does great journalism come from? While established, mainstream news organizations continue to produce great work, the latest crop of SPJ Sigma Delta Chi award winners (announced May 3) included a surprise in the “online” category. The multimedia series Bay Area Toxic Tour: West Oakland was published by the nonprofit online news packager/distributor Newsdesk.org—and crowdfunded by through Spot.us.

How this series came together offers valuable lessons on how high-quality, hard-hitting, hard-to-do local journalism can still happen—despite a lack or resources, or despite that these stories often don’t quite fit comfortably within the traditional news model…

The reporting/editorial team for this project (which was published in several installments May-June 2009) included journalist Kwan Booth, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich, and editor Josh Wilson of Newsdesk.org.

The purpose of this coverage was to convey what life is like in a city neighborhood where heavy pollution is only one of many daunting daily challenges. This series focused on West Oakland, CA—a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood hemmed in by one of the nation’s busiest ports and two major freeways. High asthma rates and other health problems abound due to severe local air pollution.

Special journalistic challenges

“Usually, coverage of public health and the environment in poor urban neighborhoods comes and goes, it’s event-driven,” explained Spot.us founder David Cohn. “But these issues are part of people’s lives day to day, and they need to be covered outside the context of some kind of emergency.”

Booth, who has lived in West Oakland for years, noted that doing this kind of reporting is especially challenging. Often residents of poor, marginalized neighborhoods are often profoundly distrustful of media attention—so the detached, objective approach of traditional mainstream journalism can backfire.

“You have to be very clear about who you’re trying to serve with this kind of journalism—and make sure that you’re actually going to be helpful to the people who live in the community you’re covering. Don’t just exoticize them or put them on display.” said Booth. “I’d been reporting on West Oakland for five or six years—but usually for community organizations with direct ties to that community. Every member of the project team, we all had to be vetted by the community, to prove that we had their best interests at heart.”

Being useful to the community also means going the extra mile on distribution. Realizing that many of the people interviewed for the Toxic Tour have little or no internet access, Booth personally printed the stories that ran online, copied them, and distributed them in packets to key West Oakland residents who’d assisted with the reporting.

How this project evolved

According to Wilson, the Toxic Tour concept arose about a decade earlier, when he and reporter Virgil Porter both worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. “Virgil was bored, so we decided to drive around to take pictures of something interesting. I said, ‘Hey, what about the port?’ So we developed the idea of using journalism to provide a tour of polluted places.”

Wilson added, “The trouble is, it’s very hard to raise money for that kind of ongoing coverage through traditional grantseeking, and it’s hard to get more than an occasional story like that run at a mainstream news organization. We needed a mechanism like Spot.us to be able to connect with individual donors to make this happen.”

Booth and Komenich started work on the project during the fundraising campaign. Eventually about $1800 was raised through a Spot.us pitch and a couple of small fundraiser events, from over 70 donors (mostly individuals, but some organizations).

Spot.us founder David Cohn explained that this project came together differently from other stories pitched through his journalism crowdfunding service. “It was one of our first pitches proposed as a beat, not as a one-off story,” he said. “We kind of jumped out the window and then started making our parachute.”

Wilson elaborated, “The journalists were capable and committed. They started working on this right away, as fundraising was just getting started, without knowing exactly how much they’d get paid. They put out tremendous effort and nobly sacrificed on the pay scale to make this happen. The result is an amazing, rich multimedia series.” (The series includes photos, embedded audio, photo slideshows with audio, interviews, and in-depth reporting.)

Significance of this SPJ award.

SPJ’s coveted Sigma Delta Chi awards provide national recognition and credibility. Wilson hopes to parlay this attention to extend, expand, and fund the Toxic Tour vision.

“This isn’t just a series—it’s a template we hope to replicate,” said Wilson. He, Komenich, and Booth are already hatching plans to expand the Toxic Tour initially to other parts of the Bay Area, most likely starting with the Bayview-Hunters Point section of San Francisco, or Richmond or Pittsburg (cities north of Oakland on the East Bay).

Wilson plans to use Spot.us to help fund the continuing Toxic Tour in the Bay Area, and perhaps in and other Spot.us cities (Los Angeles and Seattle). He also believes the SPJ award will make it easier to convince grantmakers to fund this work at much greater levels.

“I think award will give our existing coverage a longer shelf life, as well as raise the profile of this coverage with potential funders. They’ll see we succeeded in producing great content and having an impact,” said Wilson. “But even on Spot.us, I think that if potential individual donors for an expanded Toxic Tour see that it won a major journalism award, that will make it more appealing for them to donate to the followup.”

Booth emphasized that, especially when you’re courting multiple funding sources, it’s important to clarify the needs of the community. What kind of reporting would help community members improve their neighborhood and their lives?

“It was great that we had so many Spot.us donors, we couldn’t have done this without them. But most of those donors probably do not live in West Oakland. We had to make sure that this story was very useful to people from West Oakland, while also meeting donor expectations. I think the work we’ve produced so far will probably help us gain community trust going forward.”

Asked whether he thought the Toxic Tour award indicated anything about SPJ’s evolving mindset about where good journalism can come from, Booth replied: “I’m not sure how much that evolution is voluntary or out of necessity. I think that as new members keep coming in, SPJ may finally be starting to get past reflexive fears about advocacy and new media.”

Reporters and others who are interested in helping with the Toxic Tour beyond the Bay Area are encouraged to contact Josh Wilson at Newsdesk.org.


(Disclosure: I made a small donation to the Toxic Tour pitch on Spot.us. I also work with Kwan Booth on Oakland Local.) Spot.Us is a winner of the Knight News Challenge of the Knight Foundation, which also funds KDMC.

October 21, 2010

First-ever mobile hackathon for news, engagement

If going web-first means “fighting the last war” (as TBD.com’s Steve Buttry says), then who will build the innovative mobile tools we’ll need to push journalism, news, and community engagement forward in the coming decades?

Several of these mobile pioneers gathered in Chicago on Oct. 9-10 for the first-ever Independent Media Mobile Hackathon. In 29 hours, a group of more than 50 journalists and programmers built six prototype mobile apps that combined news, interactivity, fun, and community-building…

By Amy Gahran

“The point of this event was to do a collaborative experiment, not just talk,” said Tracy Van Slyke, director of The Media Consortium, which co-organized the mobile hackathon with Hacks & Hackers.

“We wanted to go beyond creating a mobile app for your news organization,” she continued. “But one of our barriers has been: How do we start jumping in on mobile? Different communities have different needs and capacity levels, especially when it comes to mobile. It made sense to bring together journalists and programmers, because these groups don’t really know how to find each other.”

At the start of the hackathon, 12 ideas were pitched. These were boiled down to six project concepts, each of which got worked on by a small team of journalists and programmers. BigDoor Media (a Seattle company that powers game mechanics for mobile applications) provided the teams with its toolset for increasing user engagement and loyalty via points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and other popular techniques.

On Sunday, the grand prize went to a mobile app called RiotStartr—which enables users to organize their own events, track attendance via an GPS-powered mashup, and report on what happened. This team walked away with $1000 and Xbox 360 gaming consoles.

“There was some pushback on the name, ‘RiotStartr,’ but the judges liked it. It’s catchy,” said Van Slyke.

The RiotStartr team describes this service: “A participant (‘riot starter’) can plan an event, then push it out to those in their social networks on Twitter, Facebook, and via other contacts. Those who want to join can just say ‘I’m in!’ Then, up to two hours before the event, GPS-enabled devices allow for real-time tracking of other ‘rioters,’ which can help reporters better estimate crowd size. Rioters can see each other converging on a location for the event. A reward system encourages rioters to invite more rioters and make the event bigger. Eventually, the app will allow for rioters to ‘report’ on the event by integrating tweets tagged with an event ID and ‘reporters’ will also earn badges.”

The hackathon runners-up were:

  • zin.gr: “Sound bites for sound arguments.” This mobile-friendly tool provides on-the-spot one-line rebuttals to misinformation. “All zin.grs are sourced by reporting and news content. In addition, the zin.gr community would be able to vote ‘zings’ up and down, comment on their quality, and earn rewards for participation.”
  • BeatBox. Developed with help from students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, this SMS text messaging-based “switchboard” enables people to easily report public safety issues in their communities. “Community members can text public safety issues to a neighborhood moderator, who can then forward valid reports to the rest of the community—and local beat reporters.”

Other mobile prototypes from this event included iBreakNews, “a hands-on tool for citizen journalists to break and share news using augmented reality”; and I Can Has Newz?, which merges news photography and the language of the popular site LOLcats to engage users in the news cycle via parody (á la The Daily Show).

All code developed at the mobile hackathon has been open sourced.

According to Van Slyke, the value of the hackathon approach is that it’s a fast way to create tools that you can experiment with and grow. “You don’t hire a bunch of developers to spend six months trying to develop the perfect mobile offering in isolation,” she said.

There’s a lot of creativity and energy at hackathons, spurred by friendly competition. It helps to have really good judges, and prizes—but the prizes don’t have to be big or expensive to be valuable. In addition to the cash prized for this mobile hackathon, other prizes included XKCD comic books and O’Reilly technical books.

Sponsor participation was key to this event, which was co-sponsored by the Knight News Challenge, the Chicago Instructional Telecommunications Foundation, BigDoor Media, O’Reilly Media, and the Illinois Technology Association.

Van Slyke strongly urges news organizations to sponsor mobile hackthon events in their communities. “This is a great way to build relationships. Your people will get the best kind of experience working closely and intensely with programmers. It’s creatively stimulating. Best of all, there’s no room for dithering. You have to knuckle down and build something.”

In addition to sponsorship, another big way news organizations can help is to offer space, internet access, and refreshments. “You need enough room where teams can work, really good wifi, and people need to be able to stay there overnight. Some of the best work happens in the wee hours. Provide meals, soft drinks, and snacks.”

November 03, 2010

Election coverage: Quick newsroom action today could boost community engagement

Everyone wants to know how yesterday’s midterm elections turned out, so today is a peak time for the news business. Right now, most daily news organizations are probably seeing much higher-than-usual traffic to their web sites—as well as above-average audiences for print and broadcast news.

...All about a topic that is fundamentally about civic and community engagement. Imagine that.

Robert Niles wrote today in Online Journalism Review that community engagement is the key to local news venues winning back audiences and advertisers. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest how news orgs might capitalize on today’s peak traffic…

By Amy Gahran

Elections tend to pique public interest, but in the long term citizens care mainly about issues that affect them directly. Therefore, persistent topic pages focused on community impacts are a better “hook” to foster broader community interest and engagement than traditional election news stories which fall of the radar quickly. (It also doesn’t hurt that topic pages yield significant search engine visibility benefits, too.)

So, today you should create some topic pages that highlight likely long-term local community impacts of today’s election results.

If your content management system allows you to easily designate topic pages (and it should!) then today you should set up web pages intended to track over time how the races or issues decided in this election will affect the communities you cover.

For instance, here in California, the defeat of Proposition 23 means that many locals are hoping for more local jobs and other economic benefits related to green energy and clean technology. Therefore, a Bay Area news org might do well to set up a “green economy watch” topic page today, and there list stories about Prop 23 and other related election news.

Don’t go crazy—just pick 3-5 obvious long-term, hot-button issues that probably will be significantly swayed by the latest election results. Funding for education, public safety, and the environment are likely suspects. Then, designate someone responsible for updating these page over the next six months (an hour or two a week to post fresh links).

Keep these topic pages simple: just a quick overview stating the topic and perhaps asking leading questions, followed by links to coverage and other items in reverse chronological order. (This tutorial intended for local bloggers works equally well for news orgs.)

Engagement generally improves when you demonstrate that you’re listening as well as talking. Therefore, your election-impact topic pages also should republish especially thoughtful or relevant community views. You should gather these views not just from comments submitted to your news site, but also from public posts to Twitter, discourse on your news org’s Facebook presence, or from the public Facebook pages or sites/blogs of other key local players.

Aim to showcase a diversity of views (political, geographic, economic, ethnic, etc.) which are expressed with civility and good-spirited humor. Don’t neglect to respond directly to these community members to show them how you’ve showcased their remarks. Such recognition encourages everyone to make better contributions to the public conversation. It also increases link-sharing to your topic pages.

Make sure your topic pages are mobile-friendly, especially for feature phone users. Skip the fancy graphics and complex navigation. Get right to the point, in a page that loads fast and displays well on a very small screen over low bandwidth.

Include sharing tools on your topic pages—and on all your election news. Encourage people to e-mail, text, share or like on Facebook, and tweet your news. This helps foster a sense of shared ownership or responsibility for the story and for the issue. Also, provide an option for people to sign up to get e-mail alerts (daily or weekly) with fresh updates to a particular topic page.

If your content management system does NOT make it easy to create topic pages, then knuckle down and manually hack a few pages together. Then, when you upgrade your CMS to make topic page generation easy—and that’ll be very soon, right?—you’ll already be ahead of this game. (Next week I’ll be covering a third-party tool called Scribble Live which can streamline integrating real-time and ongoing coverage from many sources into pages on your site.)

Create short redirect URLs for these pages that are easily transmitted via print and broadcast. If you don’t have your own URL shortener, use Bit.ly so you can track clickthrough and estimate secondary sharing. You want it to be as easy as possible for people to find your topic pages. Mention these topic pages and their short URLs alongside your related print and broadcast coverage.

Finally, promote your election-related topic pages prominently on your site today, and especially in the coming week. Do this on your home page, on your elections section head page, and in a house ad throughout your site at a minimum. Also, make sure that every story that you add to your topic page receives a prominent link (at or near the top, if possible) back to the topic page.

If community engagement is a priority for your news org (something the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy strongly recommends), you can find more ideas for accomplishing this goal in my KDMC series on building civic and community engagement.

March 04, 2011

Turning local news into a service business

Increasingly, it looks like relying too heavily on advertising isn’t such a good long-term prospect for established daily local news organizations. So what’s next?

It’s always been easier and more lucrative for news organizations to sell services (primarily advertising) than content. Some new research from Pew, and the new Community Information Toolkit from the Knight Foundation, might point the way to new types of services that news organizations might help create and sell. But this would require a radical rethinking of what the local news business means…

By Amy Gahran

In his Feb. 27 post, The Publisher’s Dilemma, media consultant Frédéric Filloux offered a sobering analysis of the revenue prospects for online and print advertising for the Washington Post—and he pointed to the general challenge of running an ad-based daily print business in the digital age. Toward the end, he noted:

“As the failure of advertising-based models sinks in, the paid-for model is gaining traction. It is not likely to work on the web but it is finding its way on mobile devices where payment is (slightly) more natural and easier to implement.”

The question is, what kind of news would mobile users pay for? Paywalls have been an almost-total failure for general-interest news, especially at the local level. And while the jury’s still out on paid news apps for smartphones and tablets, or subscription-based offerings such as News Corp’s iPad-only The Daily, I’m skeptical of their revenue potential.

Meanwhile, newer ventures have taken a different approach to providing local news and context: rather than paying journalists to report and write news stories, they automatically collect and present geographically relevant local public data (example: Everyblock), or they aggregate local headlines, blog posts, and social media updates (examples: Outside.in and Fwix).

Today, a ReadWriteWeb post is pretty down on tech-based local info services—calling them “lightweight” and “uninspired.” I think that’s a matter of taste. Also, compared to mainstream news venues, the far shorter history of tech-based local ventures is amply peppered with premature obituaries.

But against this backdrop, this week in Miami, at its Media Learning Seminar, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the first draft of the Knight Commission’s Community Information Toolkit.

This document outlines how community members can assess the quality and availability of local information, build an information scorecard against which they can benchmark progress, and create an action plan to improve local information and civic engagement. This process seems to have more in common with how services like Everyblock work than with how news organizations have traditionally functioned—although it isn’t quite like either.

Also this week, the Pew Internet Project debuted a new report, How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems. Here are a few of the report’s findings that should interest news organizations:

  • Print and broadcast news organizations still get the highest marks for being people’s most important source of local information.
  • “Those who are avid news consumers are more likely than others to be civically active.”
  • “Broadband users and library patrons are more likely than others to feel good about their ability to gather information to meet their needs. Those who have found helpful government information online feel better than others about their own ability to make their communities better.”
  • “Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life. That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens.”


In addition, Pew noted: “Many of the local leaders who attended community workshops for this research initiative argued there was another variable that mattered in understanding the effectiveness of local information systems. That variable related to the flow of information—to citizens’ capacities to search for, aggregate, process, and act on information that is relevant to their needs. The community leaders reported that it was often the case that their stakeholders were not aware of the most useful information in the community and not certain how to act effectively on the information they did have. They also noted there were times when local governments were not effectively communicating to residents what information was available.”

To me, that sounds like a market opportunity—especially if you have a strong brand in a community.

All of this got me thinking: News organizations often are the major trusted brand for community information, and in many cities the local governments and agencies are not doing a stellar job of making local information available and useful (what we call in Oakland, CA, for instance: “Government 0.0”). So maybe there might be room for local news organizations to focus less on stories and ads, and more on making information useful, relevant, findable, and actionable through services for the mobile devices almost everyone has in their hands right now.

These services could be delivered on the freemium model—basic info for everyone, and more specialized premium services targeted at people who are especially engaged on local issues. The goal would be to help people understand what they need to do to help their communities. This is a natural fit for mobile media, which people approach with a generally active mindset.

Would this model support a newsroom of hundreds in big office buildings, as in the golden days of the daily news business? Certainly not. But if you weren’t paying for daily (or any) print or broadcast production, that could make better economic sense—and better serve communities. And if people came to see these trusted brands as active, useful partners in their efforts to improve thei communities (rather than detached observers), then they might be willing to pay for these services.

This requires a radical change of mindset. Honestly, I don’t think most news organizations could manage that. But some might.

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

February 10, 2012

From news publisher to convener: Making the shift to build community in Iowa

By Amy Gahran

A regional economic development initiative in Iowa has captured the imagination of Chuck Peters, longtime head of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Getting directly involved meant facing a quandary: How could a news organization consistently support this initiative without becoming a crusader for it? The answer: become a convener of the public discussion…

A stretch of East-Central Iowa (around Iowa City and Cedar Rapids) has long been home to a unique convergence of business, technology, higher education, science, and the arts. All these forces recently banded together under the Iowa’s Creative Corridor initiative to work to enhance the region’s collective competitiveness.

Chuck Peters, president and CEO of The Gazette Co. (which publishes the daily Cedar Rapids Gazette and runs the local ABC TV affiliate station KCRG), decided to get his company involved. For about two decades he’d been discussing “systems thinking” and community development with Les Garner, former president of Cornell College and current president of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. And he’d also been working with John Lohman of the local Corridor Business Journal.

“Then we had that big flood here. Everybody was focused on cleaning up their own mess. John and I said we seemed to be the primary ones who cared about future of the region as a region. So we decided to join forces and try to promote the region.”

So the two media companies began a quasi-formal relationship with the Corridor Business Alliance, and formed Corridor2020—highlighting the alliance of 13 local economic development groups. Peters and Lohman began attending meetings and providing some money and in-kind support for the alliance’s efforts. Peters also summarized a major report advising the region on branding and development opportunities, and wrote an internal guidance document for Source Media Group (the trade name for the combined news and sales operations of the Gazette and KCRG). Lohman wrote an FAQ about the ICC initiative.

...Those are a lot of dense, weighty documents flying around, mostly talking about how to brand the region. But branding is no trivial matter.

“I’ve spent most of the last week explaining to people, if you think of branding as meaning a logo and advertising, that won’t help us much,” said Peters. “In the big picture, we actually need to develop regional capabilities for being collaborative and innovative. We can’t accomplish that without a shared vision of what that means.”

Defining what role a news company could or should play in moving the ICC initiative forward was a challenge. “How could we actively work to foster regional collaboration and innovation? As opposed to what we had been doing, which was to be a coconspirator in a culture of passivity,” said Peters.

“We had to change some basic things about the way we do our work. We’ve always been distanced observers lobbing articles into the community, often framing issues as contention of horserace. That just discourages people from engaging.”

The Gazette Co. decided to become a convener of public discussion around topics related to regional collaboration and development. This means planning and participating in public forums and other events, and producing new kinds of content.

“The news industry is so locked into the format of articles and video clips, but those are such incredibly ineffective tools when you’re trying to help a community understand an issue and come to consensus,” he said.

The newspaper and TV station are beginning to experiment with techniques used by the Khan Academy, such as using mindmaps as a way to illuminate connections between various issues and perspectives—and also to probe not just what people in the region want, but why they want it.

“It’s amazing to have these conversations with our community,” said Peters. “Like if we’re discussing education: Someone will say ‘we must have great schools.’ OK, why? What do we want great schools to do for us? Unfold the potential of each child. Again, why? Is it because it’s morally correct, or because we want to have a kick-ass competitive economy? Well, we want both—but now that we’re clear on why we want great schools, that makes it easier to think creatively about how to achieve that goal.”

The thinking of Peters and others involved in the ICC initiative was spurred in part by Collaborate: Leading Regional Innovation Clusters, a 2010 report by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. While this report says little about the role of media organizations in regional development, there is a clear business motive for media companies to get involved. The report observes that “broadcast and media markets rely on a regional marketplace.”

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.

February 28, 2012

Philadelphia: Neil Budde takes helm of emerging local journalism network

By Amy Gahran

After a year-long search, Temple University has hired Neil Budde to lead the Philadelphia-area news and information collaborative funded by the William Penn Foundation. As the founding CEO, Budde says his job is to “create a unified vision” for this network…

Most recently, Budde was executive vice president at ePals (a K-12 social learning network) and president of DailyMe (a startup for personalized news and information). Previously, Budde was editor-in-chief of Yahoo News, as well as founding editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Online (WSJ.com).

“What interests me about this opportunity is that there is a rich ecosystem of folks doing lots of different forms of journalism and local information in the Greater Philadelphia Area,” said Budde. “In addition to the mainstream media, there are many organizations covering special topics—sites like Plan Philly, Technically Philly, and more. I think we can pull together some of those efforts into a more cohesive network, and support them with technology, ad sales, and business operations to help make them more financially viable.”

In addition to fostering the emerging vibrant media ecosystem, Budde hopes that the network will encourage new voices to participate: “People who may want to do something like what those other sites are doing, but don’t know how to get started or don’t have any infrastructure or support.”

One of the initial obstacles for this effort is its name. So far, it’s been called the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network (PPIIN)—which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

“I know, I know,” said Budde. “I’m working on it. I have a document on my computer where I’m collecting ideas, and I’m bouncing them off a few people. I’ve had some good responses to a few. I want make sure the name fits the shared vision that we’re moving toward fairly quickly for what this network will be.”

On a more practical level, Budde is working on setting up the network as a nonprofit corporation. “One of challenges is the way we’re currently operating, under the Temple University School of Communications and Theater, that makes it harder for us to hire people. Breaking the network off as a separate 501(c)(3) corporation will allow us to bring people on board.”

Creating the separate nonprofit entity also will help the network diversify its revenue sources. “We’re getting great support from the William Penn Foundation, but our intent is to find other backers and supporters. Philly has a lot of opportunities in that regard,” said Budde.

The collaborative journalism network is emerging at an especially troubled time for the city’s mainstream media landscape.

The Philadelphia Media Network (which operates the city’s two daily papers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, as well as Philly.com) may be sold for the fourth time in six years. There are allegations that the newspaper’s management has been muzzling reporters from covering the negotiations.

NPR reports that the group of investors currently seeking to buy PMN includes “two of the region’s most connected Democrats: former mayor, governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell and New Jersey political boss George Norcross III. Both men and their associates have been subjects of intense reporting by the papers. Other investors include a major developer and a leading owner of Philadelphia’s National Hockey League team, the Flyers.”

Budde is watching these developments closely. “Certainly, one opportunity for our network is to emulate a model like ProPublica to collaborate with existing mainstream media outlets for certain kinds of coverage. But whether we can or will do that depends on the people involved,” he said. “I know several people at PMN and I’d love to work on them, but it’ll take time for them to sort out their future. In the long run, this may open additional wallets for local coverage—who knows?”

To gather ideas and context, Budde is talking to other local news and information projects from around the country, many of which are supported by community foundations. “Every community is unique, and what works in one place may not work in another, but there’s a big base of experience out there we can learn from,” he said.

Budde is actively soliciting ideas and context about how to help a local news and information ecosystem thrive. He invites people to contact him by e-mail or on Twitter (@neilbudde) to engage him on these topics.

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. (Monster.com, 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.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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