News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Knight Foundation

January 05, 2010

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

“Who will cover city hall?” That’s a common (and valid) lament about the decline of the news business. If shrinking the void of local civic news is important to your news organization and local communities, there’s something you can do about it—even if you no longer have the resources to cover city hall the way you once did…

(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.” Read more articles in this series.) By Amy Gahran

Some free online tools and a little editorial savvy can go a long way. They can’t replace the value of full-time reporters covering local government—but they can help citizens understand what’s happening, what’s important, and what their options are. image

The great wall between government and citizens is made out of paper. Most important government information is packaged in the form of print documents—either on actual paper, or digital versions thereof. This is especially true for local governments.

The Knight Commission report made this recommendation:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records…”

Right now, the standard print-focused approach to government online publishing presents two major obstacles to citizen engagement:

  • Pretty hard to find. Governments almost always publish their documents online in the form of PDF files. If you’re lucky, these are generated from the word processing software in which they were written, so the text can be searched. However, often online government documents are scans of printouts so the content is not searchable. Most site search engines have trouble indexing PDF files, which means people searching a government site often miss the info they seek, even if it exists on the site. Even worse, files are often buried in confusing, complex navigation schemes—and it’s not unusual to see multiple versions of the same document. So: Digging for online government documents might be as frustrating as searching.
  • REALLY hard to read! Once you do find the government document you want, understanding what it means is a challenge. Bureaucratic language, unexplained acronyms, unclear references, and just plain awful writing quickly cause debilitating eye-glaze. Reporters are accustomed to decrypting bureaucratese—but most people outside of newsrooms, law offices, and government are flummoxed by it.

The reality is, governments are unlikely to significantly change anytime soon how they publish documents. This represents an opportunity for other players (especially news orgs) to both strengthen communities and benefit from community attention and goodwill by making key government documents easier to find and understand.

Free and low-cost online tools that allow the sharing and embedding of documents from within a web browser are the key to this strategy. Scribd and Docstoc are two of the most popular tools, but other options include Issuu, HubPages, and more.

These tools are the foundation of a new experiment by, a newly launched community news and information hub serving Oakland, California. (Disclosure: I am a senior editor on this site.)

On Jan. 4, Oakland Local founder Susan Mernit published the first in a series of “City Translator” articles. This story offered a plain-language “translation” of the agenda for an Oakland City Council meeting. This article included the original agenda document, which Mernit posted to and then embedded in the Oakland Local story.

Mernit started her article with a summary of which issues were likely to be “hot” at the meeting, plus a quick summary of the more ordinarily procedural matters to be covered. As her series evolves, she’ll experiment with varying format and level of detail, to see what works best for her community.

Embedding a shared document is as easy as embedding a YouTube video. The document services provide embed HTML code for each document uploaded. You simply copy that and past it into the HTML view of your content management system. Here’s an example of how an embedded document looks and works:

1 5 2010 Concurrent Meeting of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency City Council 10-01-05 Meeting Agenda  

Why embed a document? A plain-language summary and context is a good starting point for engagement, but it’s not enough. Embedding the document through a service like Scribd is so easy and visually appealing that there’s no reason not to do it. Especially since government documents are free to use, and since government web sites are notoriously convoluted and changeable. It’s a far better service to simply hand the correct document to your site’s visitors, without making them click anywhere.

Furthermore, allowing people to see the original document right in the browser (without having to download a file, launch a different program, or open a separate browser tab), is especially helpful for online visitors who are not tech-savvy—which is probably most visitors to mainstream news sites, especially local news.

News organizations regularly peruse many government documents, simply to keep abreast of what’s happening locally. Most of these documents never get covered. In fact, the only value the news org (and the community) get from this ongoing research process is when a traditional story gets written.

Through her City Translator approach, Mernit was able to quickly share with the community her assessment of the council meeting agenda—and thus get publishing mileage out of a task she would have done anyway (reading the agenda).

What if news orgs started running more items formatted similar to the City Translator? These would be low-overhead resource pieces, not conventional “stories.” They would be assessments of selected documents that best indicate the “pulse” of local government, with the actual documents embedded. They’d be teaching tools, explaining some nuances of how to find, understand, and use these documents for civic participation. They could also link to (or embed) related key documents as warranted, such as staff or committee reports, audit reports, case filings, etc.

The point is to make the most of the resources you’ve got, plus free simple tools and tasks you’re already doing, in order to better bridge the gap of local civic coverage. This strategy is one option for continuing to cover city hall in some meaningful way and help citizens stay informed and involved. It won’t replace traditional news stories, but it’s far better than de facto abdication of routine civic coverage.

As with most things in online media, if you’re not sure whether this approach would serve your news org or community well: Experiment! Pick just a few key documents, perhaps related to especially contentious local issues, and see what works.

Just make sure you highlight this new content on your home page, section pages, and e-mail/social media alerts. Don’t make the mistake of many local governments and expect people to hunt for it. The more you position civic content as a service, rather than a product, the more likely it will support your goals.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

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.


January 12, 2010

Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations

Launching a civic-minded community news enterprise costs real money. Increasingly, community foundations are helping these projects get up and running by making grants and making connections. So if you’d like to start a community news project, it can pay (literally) to get to know local community foundations.

(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.” Read more articles in this series.)

Even more help is available for projects that would serve any of the 26 US cities where Knight-Ridder formerly operated newspapers. On Jan 7, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation unveiled a seven-year Community Foundation Initiative that will funnel $70 million through selected community foundations in the target cities. image

Knight Foundation VP of Communication Marc Fest explained, “The program’s goal is to support projects that promote informed engaged communities—and we’re pretty wide open about that. We try to have as few rules as possible for these programs to encourage innovation.”

Here are some tips for individuals (including journalists) and organizations (including news organizations) seeking community foundation support for local projects.

Recommendation 2 of the Knight Commission report was: “Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs.” The Knight Foundation sees community foundations as a key source of this support.

What are they? Community foundations are charities that focus on improving life in a geographic area. Typically, large donors make tax-exempt donations to fund their activities and grantmaking.

The Council on Foundations notes: “Community foundations go beyond simply making grants that advance charitable activities. They also identify current and emerging issues, channel resources to address their communities’ needs, and help their regions prepare for the future.”

Where are they? One starting point for finding local community foundations is the Council on Foundations’ community foundation locator. (Note: There may be additional community foundations beyond what’s listed there.)

ACTION STEP: Do any community foundations serve your community? Search at the local, county, and regional level. If you’re in one of the Knight Foundation’s target cities, check the Community Foundation Initiative page for links to specific foundations working with Knight to channel these grants. Fest said that information will be available in coming weeks.

Unique priorities. Each community foundation sets its own priorities and programs. For instance, the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, Colo., currently has funding programs focused on the arts, the environment, social justice, emergency housing for people with disabilities, and much more. Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley focuses on grants for education, healthcare, social services, and arts and humanities.

Although community foundations have existed for more a long time, their involvement in the local news landscape is a new trend—significantly spurred by the Knight Foundation’s efforts to enlist their support, such as the Community Information Challenge, launched in 2008.

It’s important to study the funding priorities and history of local community foundations before asking them to fund your project. Think creatively about what might make a good match. Roberta King, VP for public relations and marketing of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community Foundation, notes, “Community foundations are innovative in their funding. They tend to be good risk-takers.”

King added, “Not all community foundations are looking to fund journalism projects. But news and public engagement may fit in with their priorities. For instance, a community foundation focused heavily on the environment might be willing to fund a news-related project on that topic.”

ACTION STEP: Community foundations publish grant program guidelines or application procedures. These are generally available on their web sites, or by request. Once you have this information, read it over and pay close attention to deadlines. Usually there is an annual deadline for applications.

Plan for results. According to King, community foundations tend to focus strongly on community benefits. So it’s important to consider how, specifically, a project for community news, information, or engagement might benefit the community—and devise how you might measure those results.

ACTION STEP Check out previous grant winners—which of their efforts survived beyond the grant funding? How? This might give you an idea of locally viable revenue streams. Be willing to think unconventionally. The goal here is not to recreate the traditional news business model, but to offer a community service.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

January 13, 2010

Community foundations invest in news and information

The Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge grants $4.3 million to 24 more projects that are sponsored by local foundations. Here’s an overview of the projects.

Earlier this week, Amy Gahran posted “Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations.” Knight Foundation just announced 24 new grants to that shed more light on the types of news and information projects Knight and local foundations think have value and may have legs. Knight and a local foundation provide matching funds for these projects. (Disclosure: I will work with some of these grantees as a consultant to Knight.)

Established news outfits in these communities might want to explore collaborations with these projects, perhaps giving wider distribution to some of their content.

The projects fall in three broad categories:

1. Professional journalism projects. These projects will employ journalists to produce professional news content. Several focus on state or regional issues such as statehouse coverage rather than on local communities. Examples: Connecticut’s, news service for the statehouse, Florida Independent (Sarasota area), Health News Florida (Southern Florida), a public interest news service covering the New Jersey statehouse), WyoFile, Write for Arkansas.

2. Citizen contributor projects. These projects will engage citizens in producing news and information. Most are local and/or target a specific group, such as youth or seniors as major contributors and users. Examples: Gables Home Page (Coral Gables, Florida), Neighborhood News bureaus in six Detroit neighborhoods, TheDuSu (Duluth, Minn. - Superior Wisc.), Beyond Bullets (New York City,  Digital Media Center in Akron, Ohio. Also, the Chicago Community Trust will use its grant to give minigrants to projects that strengthen the news and information ecoysystem in that city.

3. Civic engagement projects. These projects provide information and actively seek citizen engagement outside traditional news frames. Some are issue specific, such as environment, and some are specific to a place. Examples of environmental projects: GreenSpace in Southeast Michigan, Envision Bay Area in California, and the River Partnership in several states along the Mississippi River. Place based projects: Data visualization in Massachusetts; We the People forums in North Florida; an education awareness program for Latinos in Boulder, Colo.; a public forum partnership with NPR in Rhode Island; Be Counted Be Represented to encourage Latinos to respond to the 2010 Census in Los Angeles, as well as projects in Chautauqua County, NY; central Pennsylvania; South Woods County, Wisc.; and Alexandria, Virginia.

Here are fuller descriptions of the projects.

January 14, 2010

10 lessons from NPR’s digital transformation

Ellen Weiss, VP News at National Public Radio describes what she and her organization have learned about change in the past two years

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

National Public Radio is clearly an organization looking to make radical transformations as it moves from being a radio network to a multiplatform news provider.

What has NPR learned from trying to rethink its digital strategy? Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News offered ten lessons from two years in the change trenches that may be useful to other news organizations:

1. There is no end state. The transition will take a long time and no one anywhere has figured this all out. For the transition to happen, managers have to be part of the conversation.

2. Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle
and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality - away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

3. Communicate.Weiss held three Q&A sessions a month to help explain to staffers the plans and the process and to give staff a chance to ask questions.

4. Test and learn. Repeat.  Stop things that aren’t working. Realize that lots of people through the organization are going to do things differently and try new things in different ways. Don’t be afraid to reorganize the newsroom (NPR has done this - twice). Be strategic about every hire you have.

5. Do not play into Web versus radio competition.
(Or, to extend on Ellen’s thoughts, for other newsrooms, Web v. print, or web v. broadcast). Geography matters.  Seat people together. Bring digital and editorial staff together. Remind people they are delivering the audience, not one audience versus another audience.

6. Demonstrate your affection and enthusiasm for digital work. People will follow your lead, if you acknowledge the good work.

7. Make tough decisions about what you want to stop.
NPR stopped the Bryant Park Project, but started Planet Money. Planet Money, a big success, benefited from Weiss and others willingness to let the podcast/blog experiment and develop into what it is now.

8. Be transparent about metrics
and educate your staff. Counter the fear that work is going to be driven by getting the hottest number or different editorial standards.

9. Listen to people’s concerns
, don’t try to downplay them. Look for early adapters. Weiss won’t accept anyone not writing for web, but when it comes to social media, she trusts that buzz in the newsroom will build and grab people interested in it.

10. Have reasonable expectations
. You can’t do everything, pick a few things and try to do them well. Give people the support they need to do these things well.

Weiss and two other NPR executives, Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager for digital news, and Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor for news, shared some of their visions with the public radio group.

They stressed the importance of NPR being more than a destination site with multimedia like CNN or the Washington Post. NPR’s focus is on being a nimble site adapted to the new forms of the Internet that recognizes the advantages of audio, social media, niche sites/verticals and mobile platforms.

A big step for NPR has been to produce continuous news and information in what Kinsey Wilson called “real time” or the “price of information on the real clock not on programming time,” an effort which has taken 18 months of Knight training, retraining and hiring staff, and rethinking digital strategy. The goal is not to “match CNN” but to have NPR’s own sensibility and story selection to breaking news on internet time.

January 18, 2010

How journos, news orgs can support civic engagement (Series index)

From December 2009 through April 2010, the News Leadership 3.0 blog published a special series of guest posts by Amy Gahran on civic engagement. This series explores 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 2009 report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.”

Here are the articles in this series, in chronological order:

More to come in this series. Stay tuned!

January 19, 2010

Volunteering widget: Basic gateway to civic engagement

Engaged citizens rarely pop out of thin air. Often, volunteering is the “gateway drug” that gets them hooked on learning about, and working to enhance, their community.

If your news organization wants to encourage local civic engagement, but lacks substantial time or resources for this effort, then enabling local volunteering (not just covering it) can be a key step along this path. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to use “widgets” to deliver the strength of existing volunteering services on your news site.

(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.” Read more articles in this series.) is a popular nonprofit online clearinghouse for all kinds of volunteer opportunities, both in-person and online. Just enter into their search engine your location and/or the type of volunteering that interests you (such as “environment” or “seniors”) and you will get a list of current opportunities, with details and contact information.

You can incorporate the power of the VolunteerMatch database on your news site, for free. VolunteerMatch offers a SearchLite widget. This bit of HTML code allows you to place a special search box on your web site, so that people can search for local opportunities directly from your site.

Other widgets that support volunteering are available. For instance, (another clearinghouse) offers several. Also, the Volunteering in America widget from the federal Corporation for Community and Government Service presents and analyzes “the latest Census Bureau data on volunteer trends and demographics for all 50 states and more than 125 cities.” You can find many other volunteering widgets by searching Widgetbox.

Strategic positioning of volunteering widgets. Where you display a volunteering widget can help make the connection between volunteering and civic engagement. On web pages where you cover local civic news (such as school board meetings or city council meetings), experiment with placing a volunteering widget in the sidebar, or in a box positioned mid-story. It’s easy to treat it as a kind of public service ad, since widget code often comes in (or can be customized to fit) standard online ad dimensions.

Positioning a volunteering widget alongside your explicitly civic content (not just near stories about local volunteer efforts) implies the “you can take action” connection.

Use the widget information Some widgets provide reporting for the sites where they are embedded. If your widget tells you what kinds of volunteering opportunities people are searching for on your site, that might spur particularly attractive coverage.

...It’d be great if local governments would create matching services for local civic engagement opportunities. I haven’t seen this yet, but I can envision a VolunteerMatch-like widget where people could search for opportunities to help with (or join) a local school board, or city council, or planning committee. That might be a perfect fit for a civic-minded news site.

January 21, 2010

Don’t “over Twitter” and other social media tips for news organizations

Media strategist Steve Safran says news organizations must straddle two worlds - the traditional one of producing news and the new one as a player on social networks. Here are his tips for success.

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

Steve Safran, a media strategist at Media Reinvent, offered key take-home lessons for news organizations looking to improve their online presence:

1. The Twitter Effect.

Safran advised public radio stations not to get bogged down in numbers of Twitter followers. He highlighted Boston public radio station WBUR, which has 4,300 or so followers. But, Safran pointed out, Twitterers have “spheres of influence.”
The average twitter user, according to Safran, has 126 followers. WBUR has 4,385 followers, but if all of them retweet, that means another 552,510 people may pay attention to WBUR. In a magic world, if all those people retweeted WBUR, you could get 69 million WBUR mentions. “Small beginnings are OK,” he said.
Safran’s number one tip for Twitterers: don’t over tweet. Keep it short, and don’t over promote.
“Audiences want their information as micro as possible,” Safran said. “You are using other people’s mobile text money, so make it worth their money.”

2. Media 1.0 vs. Media 2.0

News organizations are in a funny spot. They are original content providers and they must play in social media.
Media 1.0 is: one way, mass media, top/down, a closed network,  (e.g. not sharing APIs, no comments on a site), hierarchical, passive, macromedia, and bundled.
Media 2.0 is: interactive, direct, bottom-up, open network, collaborative, active, micromedia, and self- bundling.
News organizations shouldn’t get rid of media 1.0 - that’s what audience come to them for - but they do need to change. Safran offered the word “simulpath” - how to keep changes occurring while things are already in progress.
He suggested:
* Unbundle content for consumption anywhere
* Build interactive applications into brand extension platforms
* Make content available for mobile distribution
* Create widgets to provide content on other Web sites in the market
* Own RSS and offer many feeds
* Launch a branded RSS reader

3. Connecting outside the news organization

News organizations, thanks to the world of Media 2.0, aren’t in their own mass media world anymore. Instead, they are part of a larger information ecosystem. And they are also part of a local community.
Safran stressed the importance of a news organization becoming a local information hub as well as an aggregator for content by users.
He suggested news organizations organize local bloggers and the local Web, build and maintain a database of local Web sites, help users create participatory content, and build standalone, niche web sites.
Niche channels are key, as Safran pointed out. “Blogs are the single best search engine optimized content out there.”
His final suggestion for news organizations was to “aggregate, aggregate, aggregate.”

4. Building hits and attracting users

“You don’t want to be best radio web site - you want to be best multimedia outlet,” Safran told public radio executives.
What does that mean for news organizations? It means giving audiences news as it happens in new and novel ways - especially in times of breaking news. Consider new blogs, mashups, and simply blowing up home pages, as CBS8 did with the California Wildfires a couple of years ago. 
And news orgs shouldn’t be afraid to be the gathering place for competing information sites, such as adding feeds from the LA Fire Department.
The web also means writing differently. Search engine optimization, according to Safran, isn’t a magical science. It’s just using easily googled words over and over again so that your site comes up first - if you’re writing about a local fire, include the name, place and site of the fire so anyone searching for information will stumble upon it.
“Keywords are marketing,” Safran said.
He offered some key suggestions:
* Write literal headlines
* Think: How would my friends search this?
* Link out like crazy: Start with two links per story
* Keep updating as the story changes
* Use lots of RSS feeds
Safran reminded public radio leaders most traffic comes from search or aggregators, not from using the home page as a destination. So news outlets are really competing to be the RSS feed of choice.

January 26, 2010

Future of Media Project: FCC Wants Your Views by March 8

It looks like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, and its 2009 report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” attracted close attention from the Federal Communications Commission—which is great, since one of the goals of the Knight report was to influence US media policy. On Jan. 21, the FCC announced its own remarkably similar initiative, the Future of Media Project.

This project seeks to “review the state of traditional sources of news and journalism, and new models for providing information to consumers and communities… The goal: to help ensure that all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their families, communities, and democracy.”

To start, the FCC has a lengthy list of questions concerning the role and future of media. Journalists, news organizations, and anyone with an interest in access to news and info for their community should take some time to peruse and respond promptly to this list. DEADLINE: The official comment period ends March 8.

Here’s what’s going on and how to get involved…

(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.” Read all posts in this series.”)

Here is FCC’s Jan. 21 public notice about this project. This document contains 42 questions on which FCC is seeking public comment, as well as procedures for officially submitting comments. FCC Future of Media Questions

It’s pretty long and complex, but it’s worth reading. For example, here is question no. 1:

“What are the information needs of citizens and communities?  Do citizens and communities have all the information they want and need?  How has the situation changed during the past few years?  In what ways has the situation improved?  Gotten worse?  Consider these categories:

  • media platforms (e.g., broadcast, cable, satellite, print, Internet, mobile, gaming);
  • media formats (e.g.,  video, audio, print, email, short message formats);
  • geographic focus (e.g., international, national, state, regional, local, neighborhood, personal);
  • media affiliation (e.g., independent, affiliated with an advocacy organization or movement, academic, governmental);
  • organization type (e.g., commercial media, non-profits, public broadcasting, cultural/educational institutions);
  • types of journalism (e.g., breaking news, investigative, analysis, commentary, beat reporting, objective reporting, advocacy, specialized, general interest, citizen generated, collaborative); and
  • topics (e.g., politics, crime, schools, health, disasters, national news, foreign news, children’s programming).”

...Yes, that whole thing really is just the first question. They’re not all so long, but the question list is compelling, and I’m very glad a key federal media policy agency is giving this topic a serious look.

I’m also glad to see that while the FCC initiative is examining media aimed at geographically defined communities and regions, it does not seem to focus exclusively on geography. There are many kinds of communities, defined by ethnicity, language, income, class, religion, age, interest, sexual/relationship orientation, and other characteristics. All of these community types matter—and it was perhaps a significant shortcoming that the Knight Commission report examined info needs solely for geographic communities.


FCC has launched a Future of Media Project blog, run by William Freedman (Associate Bureau Chief, FCC Media Bureau). Having a blog that’s open to comment on a policy issue under consideration is a significant step forward for a high-profile federal agency.

Freedman has created a series of blog posts, all of which solicit public comment on the giant FCC question list. Apparently comments to this blog will be considered officially submitted comments. They will become part of the record, and will be considered in relevant FCC rulemakings, decisions, and actions.

Here are the blog posts:

You can leave public comments on these blog posts. It’s a good idea to address specific questions here by number, in order—and also to include in your blog post your name, affiliation, and some contact information.

If your comments are lengthy, or if you also wish to submit supporting documentation, it’s recommended that you submit comments via the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Or you can submit them by mail. Instructions for these options are at the end of the public notice document above. (Reference GN Docket No. 10-25)


The Future of Media project also is gathering information about local media landscapes. You can describe Media in Your Community. It’s pretty free-form, so response types vary.

If you respond to this—and I recommend it—it’ll probably be helpful to list as many different types of community news and info sources as possible. Don’t just list your local newspapers, magazines, and TV/radio stations. Consider relevant community sites, blogs, social media groups, e-mail lists, newsletters (print or pdf), bulletin boards, services like Craigslist, or other info sources. Include links to examples.

And if the “community” that matters most to you is not defined just by geography, say so—and describe what factors do define your core community.

Also, describe what each type of community media in your list contributes to your community. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of usefulness, timeliness, relevance, community-building, and civic engagement?

I realize this sounds like a lot of work. It is. The FCC is asking for a lot here, on a tight deadline—but it’s potentially a huge opportunity.

It’s important that the FCC hear not just from large media corporations in this effort, but from people who create, value, and use all kinds of community media. The comments to the FCC Future of Media Project can become a valuable foundation to influence all sorts of US media policymaking in coming years.

January 28, 2010

Promising online news organizations - The hunt is on

Part of my work as an Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow is identifying promising online news organizations, learning from their experience and seeing if RJI can help them flourish. Here’s my list so far. Please help me out by suggesting additions in the comments.

(Update: I have added site to the list, based on suggestions from commenters and others. See the updated list here. Thank you.)
I have a list of hundreds of the news sites (from the Knight Community News Network‘s database and other sources). With help from Missouri School of Journalism grad student Adam Maksl, I’m looking at sites and measuring them against criteria that indicate they are primarily a news site that is updated regularly, are accessible and transparent to readers, and are working on a viable business model. We’re also looking at how these sites use social media and other interactivity to engage their users.

What we’re finding is that many of the sites on various lists are defunct or fairly inactive, which is similar to the findings of annual studies by Esther Thorson and other researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism. But we’re also finding sites that seem to be making a modest go of news and possibly the news business. We want to highlight them.
What follows is our list of promising sites. So far. We’ll be adding to it in the coming weeks, and as we write more about a particular site, we’ll link to it from here. Please feel free to add your thoughts here. Also please tell us about sites you think we should explore. It doesn’t matter whether these sites are for-profit, not-for-profit or even corporate as long as they are willing to share what they’re learning.

Most of the information is gleaned from a review of the site. If we’ve missed something or gotten the wrong impression, please let us know in the comments or e-mail me at michele dot mclellan at yahoo dot com.

Please help us with our list. We need your contributions. If you operate one of the sites, please feel free to add relevant information in comments here.

We’ve created some categories for organizing the sites, with the caveat that most sites don’t fit one rigid definition. But we’ve attempted to define dominant traits or practices and acknowledge up front that the categories may not reflect nuances. (Thanks to Susan Mernit and Lisa Williams for wise feedback on the categories.)

1. NEW TRADITIONALS - These sites are dominated by original content produced by professional journalists. While the newsroom staff may be smaller than in a traditional newspaper newsroom, these sites tend to have more journalists on staff than community or micro local sites.  Many are embracing digital connectivity with their users, but traditional journalism is their bread and butter. Most of these sites are powered with grant funding and are searching for a viable revenue model, perhaps one that mixes grants, donations, sponsorships, syndication and advertising. Among others, the Knight Foundation is putting significant money into many of these sites.

* New Haven Independent is a professionally-staffed local news site in Connecticut, edited by Paul Bass and sponsored by the not-for-profit Online Journalism Project. Topics: Neighborhoods, government, politics, criminal justice, schools, business. Revenue: Foundation grants, advertising, donations. About New Haven Independent. Bonus points: With grant funding, recently spun off a sister site, the Valley Independent Sentinel (About), also professionally staffed, which serves five towns in Connecticut’s Naugautuck Valley.
* Gotham Gazette is a New York City site operated by the Citizens Union Foundation. Topics: City and state policy and politics. Revenue:  Donations, advertising, foundation grants. Bonus points: Uses interactive games to engage users in solving civic problems. About Gotham Gazette.

* St. Louis Beacon was founded by and is staffed by professional journalists, including editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel. Topics: Revenue: Grants, donations, memberships. Bonus points: Member of the Public Insight Network, which solicits citizen perspectives and experiences to inform journalism. About St. Louis Beacon

* The Tyee is a Vancouver, B.C. news site that uses professional journalists and seeks to publish stories that mainstream news sources ignore. The editor is David Beers. Topics: Government and public affairs, environment, justice system.  Revenue: Advertising, donations. About The Tyee.

* Voice of San Diego, with a high-energy look and a carefully crafted mission, is a model for online city journalism done right. Topics: Politics, education, neighborhoods, public safety, housing, economy and quality of life. Revenue: Grants, donations, memberships, advertising. Bonus points: Investigative reporting. About Voice of San Diego.

To be added: MinnPost, Texas Tribune, Seattle PI, California Watch, Wyo.file
Newcomers in 2010: Florida Independent, Connecticut News Project

2. COMMUNITY - These sites often rely on professional journalists but they tend to be bootstrappers who also focus on community building—actively seeking user feedback and content, writing in a conversational tone, and fostering civic engagement with practices such as voting, calls to action, and partnerships with local organizations and activists.

* Oakland Local is a community news site founded by Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit in Oakland, Calif. About. Topics: Environment, food, development, identity, arts & education. Revenue: Start up grant, advertising in the works. Bonus points: Savvy combination of community partnerships and strategic use of social media create community buzz. About Oakland Local.

* Open Media Boston reports local news with a small professional staff supplemented by citizen journalists. Topics: Local news, arts and living, tech, opinion. Revenue: Advertising, donations, foundation grants. Bonus points: Uses social media tools to solicit content submissions from readers. About Open Media Boston.

* Twin Cities Daily Planet is a rich community news site in Minneapolis-St. Paul founded by journalist Jeremy Iggers. Topics: Neighborhoods and communities, work & economy, politics & policy, arts & lifestyle, immigrants and immigration. Revenue: Donations, advertising, sponsorships, foundation grants. Bonus points: Aggregates dozens of community sites, including ethnic media. About Twin Cities Daily Planet.

To be added: Gables Home Page.

- Sometimes called “hyper local,” these sites provide highly granular news of a defined neighborhood or town. They may have a tiny staff—one or two people plus interns or citizen contributors—supported by highly local advertising.

* BaristaNet, run by veteran journalists Debbie Galant and Liz George, covers three towns in northern New Jersey. Topics: Locals news and events. Revenue: Local advertising, including classifieds.  Bonus Points: The site has formed some partnerships with other local organizations, including creating an online local parenting guide (Barista Kids) with a local children’s organization. About BaristaNet.

* The Batavian: Digital news pioneer Howard Owens started this New York news blog for Gatehouse Media, then took it with him when he left the company. Topics: Local news. Revenue: Advertising, sponsorships. Bonus points: Another demonstration that there is a revenue model in local advertising. About The Batavian.

* The Loop is a micro local news site founded and operated by television journalist Polly Kriesman, a multiple Emmy winner. It serves Larchmont and five other communities near New York City. Topics: Local news and events. Revenue: Advertising. Bonus points: News with good-natured attitude. About The Loop.

* The Rapidian is neighborhood citizen news site in Grand Rapids, Mich., operated by the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. Topics: Neighborhood news. Revenue: Foundation grants, including Knight Foundation. Bonus points: Active use of social media, mapping local events and news. About The Rapidian.
* West Seattle Blog is operated by Tracy Record and Patrick Sand. Topics: Local news, crime, traffic, events. Revenue: Advertising. Bonus points: Demonstrating that highly local advertising can anchor a modest business model. About West Seattle Blog.

To be added: Seattle’s Capitol Hill and My Ballard blogs.

- These are highly local, low cost sites created with a regional or national template, often by a corporation. In taking the temperature of the news ecosystem, it is important to note that corporations are interested in micro local news and the local advertising they may draw. What do they know that established news organizations don’t?

To be added: Patch, YourHub, Metblogs

5. NICHE - To be added: Health News Florida, Bargain Babe

- These sites focus on a limited number of specific topics—restaurants and entertainment or health and medical news, or they aim to engage very specific communities such as young people or seniors.
* Seattle/Local Health Guide was founded by MD/journalist Michael McCarthy. Topics: Health news from the Seattle and the Puget Sound region and information about services available in the area. Revenue: Advertising in the works. Bonus points: A flu vaccine locator widget. About.

* BeyondRobson covers mostly arts and entertainment in Vancouver. Revenue: Advertising. Bonus points: Part of a small network of sites published by, a media company that focuses on hyperlocal reporting in several Canadian communities. About BeyondRobson.

* Duke City Fix is an Albuquerque, New Mexico community Web site that is managed by volunteers.  Topics: Neighborhoods, restaurants and music. Revenue: Ads by Google. Bonus points: Active commenting community. About Duke City Fix.

* Irish Philadelphia focuses on local news and culture for Philly’s Irish-American community. It is run by two Philly journalists, Jeff Meade and Denise Foley, who themselves have Irish roots. Topics: Music, dance, art, food, genealogy, sports, travel. Revenue: Advertising. About Irish Philadelphia.

To be added: The DuSu.

7. MINI SITES - These sites typically are run by one or two people. They tend to be idiosyncratic in the selection of stories they cover and not highly aggressive in finding revenue. While we recognize their value in the news ecosystem, we do not plan to study them in depth. But we will list examples we come across.
* Coconut Grove Grapevine. is a low-key local blog site for Coconut Grove, Florida by Editor/Publisher Tom Falco. Topics: Civic events, weather, business specials. Revenue: Advertising.

* Frederick Maryland Online is another low key local blog. Topics: Local events. Revenue: Advertising. About FMO.
* Lakeland Local is a microlocal blog in Florida run by Chuck Welch. Topics: Local news, crime, events. Revenue: Not apparent from site. About Lakeland Local.

* Boise Guardian is a local watchdog blog in Boise, Idaho, that mixes news and opinion; the editor is David R. Frazier. Topics: Local politics and policy. Revenue: Donations. About Boise Guardian.

* Northfield Citizens Online is a citizen-run local news site in Minnesota. Topics: Civic issues, local events, weather. Revenue: Seeking sponsorships. About Northfield Citizens Online.

* SkokieNet in Illinois is operated by the Skokie public library and invites users to contribute stories, photos and calendar listings. Topics: A wide range of local news and events. Revenue: Not clear beyond public library support.

8. AGGREGATORS - These sites curate links and headlines from other sources. While curation provides a valuable service, our study is focused on sites that originate news.

(This list is cross posted at Reynolds Journalism Institute.)

What do you think of our list? What sites should we add? Please add your feedback in the comments below!

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

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