Inching Toward an Era-Appropriate New Local News Service

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By: Steve Outing

Yeah, times are tough for newspapers. Layoffs, declining circulation, ad revenues migrating to new forms of media, crushing debt load for some newspaper companies exacerbated by a lousy economy on top of a difficult media transformation process. Media-watch blog Romenesko is reading more like Newspaper Death Watch these days.

The industry still needs to find some new and effective business models. Most publishers aren’t yet clear on the path forward.

While it’s tempting to view newspapers from a glass-half-empty perspective, I’m trying to force my brain into a half-full viewpoint. Actually, I think that is possible, because some ideas and concepts are starting to come together that may point a positive way forward.

First, consider that we’ve gone through some failures and now have the benefit of having learned some important lessons from them. The newspaper industry has made a lot of mistakes since the dawn of the Internet age a decade and a half ago. Surely that gives us insight as we develop tomorrow’s news business models.

And now there are some interesting experiments under way that may hint at some solutions. I’m particularly intrigued by recent developments like beatblogging, communityreporting, contentgeo-tagging, and tapping into public social network conversations.

I don’t think I have “the answer” yet, but all this stuff has been percolating in my mind for a while, and I think I’m getting an idea of what a new kind of online news service can look like. So for this column, I’m going to attempt to map out what building a better local news service (which can have an accompanying print component) from the ground up will look like. It won’t look like a traditional newspaper company’s product, and I’m not sure that all newspaper companies will be willing to go this far to reinvent themselves.

But I think it’s time (well past it, actually) to consider some things that may seem a little radical.

Do local right

There are some challenges to doing a better job with local coverage, and drilling down to micro-local (sometimes called hyper-local or local-local) levels. On the one hand, most newspapers don’t have much of a future with carrying national and international news. The community or metro daily doesn’t bring much to the table by carrying wire stories that can be found at so many other credible sources. Gone are the days when news consumers looked to one outlet (the daily newspaper) for a summary of the world. Better national and international coverage is a mouse click away, and free. So, most newspaper publishers are pretty much forced to go with their strength and do a better job on local.

(The one hope I see for newspapers and national/international coverage — and I’m not talking about “national” newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post — is if they develop good personalized-news services, where news consumers are delivered an individuated news round-up, from hyper-local all the way to international news. That’s a convenience service to consumers, and newspapers may have a shot at providing non-local news in that realm.)

But there’s trouble with going deeper on local coverage. Most newspapers already do a good job with staff reporting of the most important and interesting local news. To dig down deeper is, for one thing, probably impossible using existing staff (which likely has been reduced in the last year or so). The obvious next step is to reach out to community members, local experts, students, teachers, community group leaders, retired journalists, etc. Yes, it’s the dreaded “citizen journalism” model.

One of the failures I alluded to above was Backfence.com, a hyper-local citizen journalism initiative. We know from its experience that relying too heavily on non-paid citizen contributors isn’t a winning strategy. (One key weakness: The content is often of low quality and boring, and dull just doesn’t fly in the hyper-competitive Web environment.) But what could work is more of a model that utilizes “beat blogging,” through which a professional journalist creates a network of community or niche experts to support his/her reporting and contribute content themselves. What this does is put some professional oversight and editing on top of a group of enthusiastic community members. In theory, at least, you get better content than in a citizen reporter free-for-all, which clearly doesn’t work.

An initiative that seems to point in a good direction is Examiner.com, from Denver-based Clarity Media Group (part of billionaire Phillip Anschutz’s empire). Each Examiner.com city site in the network features multiple “Examiners,” who are basically local experts — some journalists, some non-journalist topic experts — each covering a beat. Local Examiner.com city sites each have a bunch of these people, such as “Denver Broncos Examiner,” “Baltimore Politics Examiner,” “Seattle Crime Examiner,” etc.

I examined (pardon the pun) that initiative as part of a column in April. According to company executives, the idea is to recruit many Examiners, who are paid contractors and typically do the work part time. One example is the sole person who serves as the University of Colorado Examiner, who is a journalism student; CEO Michael Sherrod told me that he’d like that person to bring in additional Examiners covering various aspects of CU, so coverage would be deeper than simply having one person assigned to cover the whole campus. Compensation to those people might be based on page views.

Examiner.com doesn’t apply this model to geographic communities (with a very few exceptions); most Examiners cover local-interest niches (and there are a bunch of national Examiners whose content is shared across all the Examiner.com city sites). But let’s ponder how a local newspaper company could do something similar.

Expanding the local team

So, one way for a metro newspaper to cover its suburbs, for example, would be to assign an “Examiner”-like editor/reporter to each one. A Denver newspaper, for instance, might find a key person — a professional journalist — to cover Evergreen, a nearby mountain suburb. But instead of being the lone reporter covering the city (the traditional metro newspaper model for a far-flung suburb), this person would do as much community research and community building as traditional reporting. The suburban bureau reporter is transformed and performs these tasks:

— Original, conventional reporting of local stories, including multimedia presentation (audio, video reports).

— Recruiting additional local news correspondents, who might range from professional journalists looking for a little freelance work, to amateur reporters with knowledge of a specific component of the community.

— Finding and cultivating local bloggers, and figuring out how to bring them into the local coverage circle. (Sometimes, this is nothing more than pulling in their RSS feeds; sometimes it’s creating a more formal relationship.)

— Finding and recruiting local topic experts and community or organization leaders to serve as regular sources who are routinely called on to contribute their knowledge in various ways.

— Overseeing this loose-knit and often-changing cadre of local correspondents, bloggers, and sources: assigning stories; approving ideas; seeking their help and/or expertise on a reporting project; educating non-journalists in order to improve their work.

What I’m suggesting is having a professional journalist at the heart of each subcommunity, who then recruits and manages a team of people who can go deep on covering the community. Ideally, these people are compensated, as the Examiner.com initiative does.

The difference between this beatblogging-like approach and olden days of newspapers hiring a bunch of low-paid “stringers” to cover the local-local stuff is that back then, most stringers were journalists, or aspired to be. The new version may include all sorts of people covering various beats within a small city or suburb, for example:

Individual schools: A principal, teacher, secretary, parent volunteer, or student.

Prominent companies: An employee, manager or executive, freelance business writer, retired journalist, union leader, or chamber of commerce staffer.

Government agencies: Community activist, freelance writer, retired journalist, scientist, agency employee or manager.

You get the idea.

Obviously, some types of contributors to local coverage will require more effort to manage and edit than others. (And I am suggesting editing and oversight; the idea is to create a quality overall report of a community.) Some will serve as strictly sources, while others will produce actual news coverage or write opinion pieces; some will blog about their expertise area.

New media guru Jeff Jarvis recently said this, which nicely sums up the approach above: “We need to figure out who the smart people are. It’s not just about creating content but also curating people.”

Next up: geo-tagging

Related to a smarter approach to local-local (which, by the way, is a strategy that’s feasible in this era of reporter layoffs) is geo-tagging content. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Because when you go deeper on local coverage using the model above, you start to get news and information that’s specific to neighborhoods — the kind of local-local stuff that no one cares about unless it affects them directly.

This is where we start to get into personalized or individuated news, which can be the topic of another separate column. Suffice it to say that with a push for deeper local-local news, the ability to push relevant information to individuals becomes critical. And you can only execute this strategy if you’re properly meta-tagging your content and including geographic markers.

I think there’s still an opportunity for newspapers to dominate here, with the help of technology vendors who are focusing on this area. For example, I use services like YourStreet and Outside.in to watch for news activity around my neighborhood. While their technology is pretty cool, the content just isn’t there where I live; I’m usually presented with maps with not much news on them.

What local newspapers need to do is utilize this sort of technology (and the companies above want to work with you) and beef up the content. Geo-tag all your staff and contributor content, of course, and then start assembling other local sources. For example, news coming out of a newsletter from the elementary school near my house could be grabbed from an RSS feed and included in the local newspaper service, geo-tagged so that it shows up in my personalized local news report because the newspaper knows where I live.

More and more content is being geo-tagged all the time, and newspapers can encourage community bloggers, organizations, and companies to jump on this bandwagon. Services like Everyblock.com are bringing public data into view by geo-tagging, so think beyond traditional notions of news, too; data, as Everyblock demonstrates, also is news.

Another area not to be overlooked is microblogging, especially Twitter, which is the leader right now. There now exist great ways to tap into and filter Twitter’s user posts. My favorite these days is Summize.com, which calls itself a conversational search engine. For example, Summize can show a list of Twitter posts with the name of my city, Boulder. That alone might make an interesting content addition to a local news Web site. (Reporters, take note: This is great for story tips. Increasingly, news breaks first on Twitter.)

Make the cultural shift

All of this points to the opportunity for newspapers to “get over themselves” and reach outward when it comes to acquiring and pointing to content from members of their communities. It’s bringing in more voices to add to that of professional reporters and columnists, including compensating some of those people. The successful newspaper of tomorrow is the glue that brings everything that’s happening in a community together, and that reaches out to include everyone’s voices. The “secret sauce” it must bring to the table is editorial oversight and filtering, to bring out from the local cacophony a high-quality, personalized summary of what’s going on in the community. I don’t believe that national Internet companies relying on algorithms can effectively do this; a human element must be a part.

The revenue model for this could fill another column, so I’ll leave that for another day. Suffice it to say for now that this reaching-outward strategy should open up new and better opportunities for local advertisers to reach target niches within newspapers’ communities. The advertising trend in these tough economic times is to find cheaper ways to reach targeted audiences. The strategy described in this column can offer that.

It’s become clear, to me at least, that this is the direction newspapers must head. Lots of smart people are working on elements of this overall strategy that newspaper publishers can start to implement and bring together.

There’s still much cultural resistance to this concept, so many newspapers may not get there. They’ll probably be the ones that eventually go out of business. But for the glass-half-full crowd, try this approach.

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