Newspapers: Community, priorities and platforms

I’ve been having a cracking conversation via blogs, Facebook and Twitter about how newspapers can rethink what they cover and, in doing so, cover more of the lived experience in their communities. When I said ‘cover more’, some journalists felt as if I was adding another bale of straw to their already breaking backs.

Andrea Gillhoolley, the community engagement team leader and reporter for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News said this to me on Twitter:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point. I understand that. I was with the BBC for eight years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts. I was with The Guardian three and a half years, and half of the time I was there, there were cuts, and deep ones.

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

John Robinson started this conversation when he challenged newspapers to break out of their traditional paradigm. In that post, he asked:

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?

And he added:

What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?

John was talking changing the mix of coverage to increase relevance, not simply doing more, an idea which really resonated with me.

For years, I have been talking about how journalism competes in the attention economy. In an age when content, information and entertainment are not scarce, people’s time and attention is the scarce resource. Newspapers aren’t just competing against other newspapers, magazines or TV and radio outlets that produce news. Newspapers in particular, and journalism in general, are competing against every other thing that can capture people’s disposable time and attention. That’s the competitive challenge, and it is daunting when one considers that we join this fight with smaller staffs and fewer resources.

Creating a community platform

Journalism can win in this hyper-competitive fight for people’s attention, and we’re starting to see digitally-savvy media organisations succeed such as PolicyMic and Buzzfeed (my jetlagged brain originally wrote Buzzworthy – the merger of Buzzfeed and Upworthy). It’s a new mix of internet memes, content and commentary. Newspapers have always been a package of hard news, lifestyle and comment, something that is much clearer outside of the US (where I’m from) than inside, where a particular model of non-partisan media, an anodyne AP-style with little voice, has come to rule.

For local media, I don’t really see the option to become partisan like the British press or US cable news. Local media became non-partisan in the US because it was the only way economically to appeal to a wide enough cross-section of the community with a single publication. I also don’t see local newsmedia becoming regional versions of Buzzfeed. However, I do see the opportunity to become the voice for the community.

Steve Yelvington, a friend and someone I look up as a true journalism pioneer, has been speaking about a “new kind of people’s journalism” for more a decade. In a post last year, he expanded on what he meant, specifically saying that “people’s journalism isn’t ‘citizen journalism’”. He said:

We can apply traditional definitions of “newsworthy” and “journalism” if we like, but there’s really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people’s interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. … Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it’s failed. [This people’s journalism is] not a replacement. It’s a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

The key is focusing on the “new opportunities for adding value”. I still believe that there is an opportunity for local newsmedia to become community platforms. This goes far beyond simply monitoring social media and using it as voxpops (man-on-the-street quotes) for stories.

Steve’s thinking led to Bluffton Today, “a blog-centered community website”, which is still going seven years after launch. In 2007, Steve was interviewed by IFRA about the project, and it is worth reading in full, and this is the thinking behind the project:

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it’s a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print’s advantages in browsability and discovery. The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet’s advantages in human interaction and immediacy. These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real “secret sauce” is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover. Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

It is a community platform in which professional news staff play a slightly different role by amplifying the real interests and passions of the community, things that people “groove on”, as Dan Conover said in a comment on John’s original post.

How does a community platform scale?

The challenges for many larger media companies is how to use their scale effectively against an army of digital insurgents that don’t share incumbents’ cost base. I think that local media face a slightly different challenge, even if they are part of a larger group. Yes, they can draw on the group’s resources for regional coverage, but that regional coverage will most likely be done reasonably well by other media than a local newspaper. The real place to add value is local content and conversations that no one else is providing.

This gets us back to the original issue I touched on: How do you scale local content with greatly reduced staff?

This is where the community platform is key, and the concept of a local platform is different in 2013 than when Bluffton Today launched in 2007 in part because most local audiences are probably already interacting online on a social network. Here are just some ideas on how to create an economically viable, scalable community platform. 

• Sharing photos

Steve and his group, Morris, were smart. They created a local photo sharing service, Spotted, which you can see on Bluffton Today. In 2007, Steve told me that at some of the newspaper sites for Morris, up to 40 percent of traffic was to local photo galleries.

The best photos can be highlighted not only online but also in the newspaper. People still like to see their words and their pictures in print. 

What shocks me is that many newspapers developed the ability for their audiences to share photos only to abandon these efforts. My guess is that they feel the efforts cannot compete with Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, but I’ll wager that there was a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Communities take effort, and this is especially true these days with so many social media services competing for people’s online attention. 

• A true community forum

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” playwright Arthur Miller said in 1961. Journalism has always been about more than simply providing information, and for me, the greatest opportunities remain for newspapers both national and local in becoming a platform for real conversations. I mean much, much more than comments on the bottom of articles or staff produced columns. ‘Community’ on most news sites is an entirely passive, technology-focused effort that manages to suck the social out of social media. 

USAToday has long had head-to-head pieces on major issues. There should be much more of this on local issues. 

Josh Stearns, with the Freepress project, has also  contributed to this blog conversation. His concern is that as news media struggle for survival that they will only focus on affluent audiences that premium advertisers want to reach. He referred to a 2006 talk that “editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. ‘Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?’” This is even more important today as inequality is on the rise in many countries across Europe and North America. 

However, it comes back to the same question as above about resourcing. How do weakened news organisations cover a wider range of society? Again, a community platform strategy can help with this, providing a place for groups and people to provide perspectives that might not be covered. This is not an effortless or resource-free strategy – a mistaken assumption made by many media organisations – but a platform strategy is about multiplying your resources through outreach. 

• Engage super-users

When I was on the launch team of the BBC’s World Have Your Say, one of my strategies was to engage our most passionate users. At conferences, I often give the example of a listener that I simply referred to as “Steve from Utah”. I asked him to test an audio commenting technology that we wanted to use. He not only tested it, but without me even asking, he recorded a promo for the new service. If you engage your most passionate members of your audience, you’ll be amazed at what they’ll do. 

Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how Swedish Radio has been engaging its super-users:

In addition to four people within a dedicated social media team, local super-users generate ideas and inspire teams at the various radio stations. The super-users are themselves organised by a Facebook group, and have annual masterclasses.

These active social media strategies go far beyond passive comments on articles, which don’t attract much engagement on many local newspapers anyway. These are active strategies that require active outreach, and if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would lead these efforts. 

To me, redirecting some of the scarce resources remaining to these strategies would be a much more strategic use of staff time and effort. I believe that it would deliver a newspaper and digital services more in touch and more engaged with the communities it serves, and that for me is a good place to start rebuilding local journalism. 

 

 

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