Rebuilding journalism through building a community platform


Last year, as my job search started to lead back to newspapers and back to community journalism, I started to think about the challenge and how I might meet it. When I wrote that blog post, I got a bit of pushback on Twitter about how stretched local newsrooms are. I knew that then, and now, I live that challenge. I wrote then:

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.

Newspapers need to fight for new audiences and new revenue, and they must do that without new resources. As I said in my blog post last year:

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.

When I landed in my new job as executive editor of two newspapers in Wisconsin, I had to prioritise what I would do, and to be honest, I didn’t think I would really be able to start my community platform strategy for months, possibly not until the autumn. But then my communities surprised me. Many people I met said they wanted more from the newspaper. I was honest with them and told them that they wanted the same thing I wanted, a vibrant newspaper. To achieve that, I told them I would need their help, and I was concrete on how they could help.

Since I started marrying social media and journalism way back in 2000, I have continually been surprised by how people and communities engage when you give them a specific thing to do. My communities have really responded, especially the schools.

As a new editor and very much new to my communities, I have made a point to meet leaders in my communities. As I met school leaders, they were very enthusiastic about the partnership that I wanted to create with them. I wanted to give students an opportunity to be heard in the newspaper, and I also wanted to give school leaders the opportunity to take their message directly to readers beyond a quote in a story. Yes, our reporters would report and write stories to put these contributions from students, teachers and school leaders in context, but we also had room to give people in our communities space to share their expertise and opinions.

I have to admit that the stars really aligned on this project. The head of a charter school in Sheboygan suggested that we do something about technology in education, due to a switchover from iPads to Chromebooks at high schools. My reporters were already working on a number of stories about new technology initiatives in local schools, and I had already arranged to visit some high school journalism and creative writing classes. This came together much faster than I had anticipated.

Across both of the newspapers, school administrators, college presidents, teachers, college faculty and students have contributed some 30 articles. What the students have written has exceeded all of my expectations – articulate, passionate and authentic. For instance, the social media editor of the high school news site at Sheboygan North wrote about how she tried to give up social media for Lent. We had another article in which students voiced their opinions about having their mobile phones seized by teachers. From the local charter high school, we had two passionate pieces arguing the pros and cons of technology in education.

More than that, my education reporters uncovered leads for future stories during the process, and I’m working hard to free up time for them to manage these partnerships directly.

This has been such a positive start that we’re now exploring other ways that we can partner with the community. Sheboygan is a real foodie city, with lots of local food traditions plus some stunning high end restaurants in downtown Sheboygan and at the resorts in Kohler. We’ll be launching a digital food hub with a blog and video series in the summer. We are also looking to launch a Community Champions discussion series in which we will give passionate advocates of our communities space to discuss how we help them achieve their full potential.

As I said when I started, I wanted our newspapers to be at the centre of the conversations in our communities, and with the momentum building around our community platform, we’re well on our way.