News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Local

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from InsideBayArea.com. Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).

ACTION STEPS

Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

December 29, 2009

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

The fast-growing Government 2.0 movement could create opportunities for news orgs to get more local news and engagement without necessarily having to write more traditional stories.

(This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Local governments are the source of much local news—yet often they do a notoriously poor job of communicating with community members and news organizations. This is starting to change as more governments become open to experimenting with new tools for sharing info and engaging community members. image

Monitoring and getting involved with these experiments can yield new opportunities to for local news. This content could be more engaging and less labor-intensive than traditional reporting.

The key to making this cooperation work is connecting with people in government who are eager and able to try new approaches to public transparency and engagement. The Government 2.0 (Gov2.0) movement is a great place to find allies for strengthening communities and local news.

Recommendation 4 in the Knight Commission Report is:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.”

The Knight report suggests some ways to approach this by strengthening and more fully implementing public information rules, open meeting rules, and open courtrooms. These are also passions of government employees and officials involved in Gov2.0.

Gov2.0 is a movement among government employees, as well as other interested people, to apply the strengths of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to all levels of government. The goal is to create systems for public transparency, participation, and collaboration. Although Gov2.0 first gained momentum among federal employees, it’s quickly spreading through many state and local governments.

In fact, in coming years local government may be where much of the Gov2.0 action is. Mark Drapeau, a leading Gov2.0 practitioner, recently listed “local governments as experiments” as the first of his top five Gov2.0 predictions for 2010-12. Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio agrees and notes:

“Indeed we have seen and will see the best from local authorities. Not because they are necessarily smarter or bolder, but because they are—by their nature—much closer to ‘real’ communities. The issues they deal with are local in nature and touch citizens more directly: parks, waste collection, traffic, environment, safety.”

ACTION STEPS: CONNECTING WITH GOV2.0 PEOPLE

1. Go where they are. The Gov2.0 community has some important gathering places online. Joining these communities, finding participants and projects near you, and getting involved in their conversations and events can help you find mutually beneficial opportunities to experiment.

GovLoop is your first stop to connect with the Government 2.0 crowd. This community includes people from all levels of government, so search it to find groups, blogs, and members from your region (or who are discussing larger issues that have strong local angles for you). To find local GovLoop members, try searching for your city and state in this format: Oakland, CA. Selectively friending local GovLoop members and asking about their current Government 2.0 projects or interests can be a good way to break the ice. This guide to searching GovLoop can help you find other useful info in GovLoop.

Also, GovFresh features the best of US Gov 2.0 news, TV, ideas, and live feeds of government social media activity.

2. Attend Gov2.0 events in person or online. CityCamp is a participant-organized “unconference” about practicing Gov 2.0 at the local level. It will be held Jan 23-24, 2010 in Chicago. Someone attending from a news org might volunteer to run a session on how local media can complement local Gov2.0 efforts. For discussion, this group has a forum/mailing list, in-progress agenda, Facebook Group, and GovLoop group. Also, on Twitter, you can follow @CityCamp or watch the hashtag #citycamp.

Similarly, Gov2.0 Expo 2010 will be held May 25-27 in Washington, DC. This is part of O’Reilly Media’s high-profile Gov2.0 Summit event series. This will probably have a heavy federal government focus, so it might be most appropriate for national or major metro daily news orgs to attend.

3. Build on existing efforts. Most people involved in Government 2.0 already have projects in mind or in progress: data or documents they’d like to improve access to, easier channels for public participation, etc. In general, it’s probably easiest to work with what they’re already doing, rather than invent projects from scratch.

Once you assess which Government 2.0 projects are already in the works in your region, consider opportunities where using your news site and/or social media presence as a platform could enhance these efforts—while also providing relevant newsworthy content, and building community loyalty to your brand.

Possible results. Cooperating on Gov2.0 projects might be as simple as selectively retweeting local government Twitter items, or periodically excerpting content from their Facebook fan page or group onto yours.

Or imagine a local government decides to set up a site like Manor Labs where community members can submit ideas, rate them, and be rewarded for innovation. A local news organization might run a regular feature highlighting the best-rated submissions—thus increasing participation by reaching more of the community, and spurring constructive local discussion. A more automated approach might be to embed on the news site a widget that provides some of the civic site’s functionality.

You’ll only really start to see the possibilities for collaborating with more open, engaged, online-savvy governments once you start talking with the Gov2.0 community. These are creative, friendly people, eager to engage. And in many cases, the prospect of cooperation with or support from local media could tip Gov2.0 projects from ideas into reality.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

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 OaklandLocal.com, 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 Scribd.com 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.

Previously:

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.

Previously:

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 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.)

VolunteerMatch.org 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 VolunteerMatch.org opportunities directly from your site.

Other widgets that support volunteering are available. For instance, DoSomething.org (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.

March 21, 2010

Community Information Challenge Boot Camp: Liveblog, video stream

This week, the Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg is hosting a boot camp for local news and information projects funded via Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. Representatives of several place-based foundations will be learning and brainstorming on how to launch and run local projects under this initiative.

KDMC will be liveblogging this event today through March 25. Here’s the liveblog, and also information on our live video stream of some bootcamp events…

WATCH LIVE VIDEO STREAM

We’ll live stream most of the conference. That includes these segments, and much of the rest of the program (times are Pacific):

Monday, March 22

For participants who cannot download/use MS Word or Xcel spreadsheet documents, they are available on Google docs. But PLEASE FIRST watch this short video tutorial to learn how to make your own copy of these documents, so other people have clean originals to work from.

Tuesday, March 23

Wednesday, March 24

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.

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.

December 14, 2011

Where do people get local business info? Pew report, plus 10 ideas for publishers

The holiday shopping season is generally a revenue-booster for ad-supported news venues—but new Pew research indicates that more people are turning to the internet than newspapers when seeking info about local businesses.

How might this insight help local news publishers update their revenue strategies for the coming year?...

By Amy Gahran

Where people get information about restaurants and other local businesses is a just-published report compiled by Pew’s Project on Excellence in Journalism and the Internet and American Life Project, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A few highlights from the Pew report:

Local restaurants, bars, and clubs. 55% of U.S. adults say they get news and information about local dining and nightlife—and just over half (51%) go online to get this information. In contrast, a total of 31% turn to printed newspapers (26%) and news sites (5%) for this info—even though news venues tend to publish local event calendars, dining/nightlife guides, and annual local “best of” ratings.

“Specialty websites” (probably such as Yelp, although the report does not name any specific sites) are a more popular source of local dining and nightlife info: 38% of adults use them. Furthermore, 23% rely on word of mouth, 8% turn to on local TV, and only 3% use social networking services.

Other local businesses. According to Pew, 60% of adults say they get news and information about local businesses besides restaurants and bars. Here the internet is still the most popular resource, but not quite as popular (47%). Specialty sites (again, think Yelp) are less popular here, cited as a resource by just 16% of adults. And social media is used by only 1%.

For the local general business sector, newspapers are the next most popular resource—29% of people look to printed copies for this info, but only 2% turn to news websites. Word of mouth: 22%. Local TV: 8%. Local radio: 5%.

Demographics. The Pew report contains charts showing the demographics of people who seek each type of local business information. In general, these consumers tend to be wealthier and more upscale.

But there are some differences between the sectors. Pew notes: “The 55% of adults who get information about restaurants, bars, and clubs are more likely to be women, young adults, urban, and technology adopters. The 60% of adults who get information about other local businesses are also more likely to be tech users.”

Local news “junkies” are especially likely to want info about local businesses. According to Pew: “Heavy local news junkies are considerably more likely than others to get material about local restaurants. ...When it comes to restaurant information, 71% of those who used at least six platforms monthly got news and information about local restaurants—compared with 34% of those who relied on just one or two sources.”

Also: “72% of those who used at least six [local news/info] platforms monthly got news and information about [other] local businesses, compared with 39% of those who relied on just one or two sources.”

This kind of data could be a reason for local businesses to advertise in local news venues, compared to search advertising or other marketing.

Mobile has become a leading way for people to get local news and info. This could have profound implications for local advertising.

Pew noted that 47% of U.S. adults get local news and information on their cell phones. “These mobile consumers, who were younger and more upscale in terms of their household income and educational levels, were even more likely than others to get material about local restaurants: 62% of mobile local news consumers got information [about local bars and restaurants], compared with 48% of others.”

Also: “65% of mobile local news consumers got information about other local businesses, compared with 55% of others.”

LESSONS AND IDEAS FOR NEWS VENUES

1. Make local business information easy to find, especially to search for, on your website, in your mobile offerings (mobile site as well as apps) and through your print or broadcast offerings. The staggeringly low number of people who currently turn to news sites for local business information indicates that this info either isn’t there, or it can’t be easily or reliably accessed.

2. Search-friendly repurposing. If you publish a local business directory, “best of” ratings, or an event calendar that lists venues, explore ways to surface this information in general searches of your site. Ideally, each listing could become a basic mobile-friendly landing page. This could be a simple database, and it might be seeded by scraping data from regular search engine queries for local business info. (An upsell service might allow business owners to update or expand their own listings, at will.)

3. Realize who your competition is: paid search ads. SearchEngineLand reported on a recent study which found that paid search drives $6 in local sales for every $1 in online sales. News publishers will have to work hard to demonstrate that their ads can compete with—or at least complement—that performance. So…

4. Create links between your content, ads, and local business info. This could be a key advantage of news publishers, and it should be multidirectional. If you maintain a database of local businesses and events, you might be able to automatically augment each listing with links to stories and upcoming events which mention that business, as well as current ads that business may be running in your site or paper. Then you may be able to adapt your content management system to link stories and ads back to your database listings, making it easier for people to get more info, context, and targeted exposure to advertising.

5. Sell USEFUL local mobile advertising units. Position mobile ads as an actionable information service that adds value, rather than just space to display a banner. Recently SearchEngineLand published a good guide mobile marketing guide for local businesses, as well as an overview of social-local-mobile marketing, and a guide to small business advertising planning for 2012. Read these, and consider how your venue could fit into this picture—from the local advertiser’s perspective.

6. Geocode local business info and ads with latitude/longitude and street address data. This can support “search nearby” functionality, which you can add to your main site search engine, and possibly even support via GPS in mobile devices.

7. Support user bookmarking, sharing, ratings, and comments/tips of local business info on your site. These features can either be a matter of personalization for registered users (visible only to individual users), or a source of additional public content or context for your site. For bookmarking, an option to forward a business name, address, and phone number to your cell phone via SMS text message might be especially useful—especially for the majority of mobile users who still use feature phones.

8. Monitor search requests for local info on your site, and user activity (such as bookmarking, sharing, link clickthroughs, click-to call phone numbers), to spot opportunities to fill in information gaps or meet emerging local market needs. This can be used as feedback to advertisers, or as selling points for prospective advertisers or upsells.

9. Regularly publicize in your print or broadcast channels all the options you offer for finding local business information, and explain how people can use them—and benefit from them. Consider this an ongoing marketing/education effort, and dedicate space and time to it. Don’t just expect people to find these services on their own.

10. If you cannot feasibly build or maintain your own database of local businesses, and connect that to your content management system and ad delivery tool, then consider partnering with (or at least linking to) relevant local business listings in places like Yelp, Google+ brand pages, public Facebook pages, and Bing.

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.

Page 1 of 2 pages  1 2 >

ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

More Leadership at KDMC:
Leadership Seminars | Annual Leadership Reports

Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute

Research

@michelemclellan on Twitter

Recent Entries

Categories

Archives

Feed

Blogroll

Tag Cloud