Strengthening communities and strengthening journalism

When I started as the executive editor of two Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I said that my strategy was about building a community platform, and I think that Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, a mobile, Millennially-focused news site in Philadelphia, has explained why he and I are bullish on this kind of strategy. The former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media and former executive editor of explained the thinking behind Billy Penn in an interview with StreetFight:

From our conversations with younger news consumers, it’s clear to me that there’s a hearty appetite for a news operation that uses traditional reporting as a springboard to strengthen communities. Not one that necessarily promotes a particular agenda, but one that connects people who are interested in similar topics or issues and tries to drive solutions to those problems rather than just stopping at reporting.

My experience has been that it is not just Millennials who are hungry for engagement, community and solutions. Yes, our communities want traditional reporting, but they want us to go beyond simply pointing out problems. They are also looking for us to help them identify and evaluate solutions. It is not a paternalistic strategy that aims to tell our communities what to do, but works to engage them in a process to help bring more people together to address issues.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. At one of my papers, we recently tackled the growing local drug problem with a solutions-oriented series. A story about a local nurse who ended up abusing drugs has been shared on Facebook 476 times, which is huge for us. The series had such an impact that we had people emailing us, asking to be put in touch with the community groups taking part in our series so they could ask to help. A local radio station owner is collaborating with us to address the problem. We touched a nerve, and the community responded. And they want more from us than simple reporting. As Jim says, our readers want us to help provide a springboard for solutions.

Another issue that we are facing in the communities that we cover in northeastern Wisconsin is the so-called skills gap. Our employers have more job openings than qualified workers. In Sheboygan County Wisconsin, we have 4.0 percent unemployment (September 2014), which is within spitting distance of the 3.6 percent it was in October 2006 before the recession. The local economic development corporation recently had a campaign to try to lure young people visiting home for Thanksgiving back to the area, complete with a list of entry-level positions with starting salaries above $30,000. Our employers are concerned about the coming demographic cliff as Baby Boomers retire. One local employer told me that over the next five years, they could lose up to 35 percent of their workforce to retirement. So employers are supporting internships and apprenticeships as well as training for their workers to get the workers they need.

Traditionally, we would have written a few stories, possibly a week-long series, to address this issue. But this is a huge problem, so we’ve dedicated nine months to a major campaign. And we’re looking to do non-traditional things such as crowd-fund scholarships and hold jobs fairs. Our local businesses, including major multi-national companies headquartered here, have embraced our months-long workforce development campaign called State of Opportunity. We’re working to let people in our communities know about incredible job opportunities, and we’re thinking about ways to reach beyond the state.

As Jim says, we don’t have a political agenda, we simply want to help our communities help themselves. This is exciting stuff. It’s not your father’s local newspaper, but rather something new, exciting and vital.