Digital Publishing

Lenfest Local Lab Joins the Philadelphia Inquirer Product Team

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On the day I’m sitting down to write this column, the center story on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer (where I work) is a long enterprise piece exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for struggling workers across the region fighting for stronger work protections.

But in The Hook, a newsletter that goes out to residents in Philadelphia’s Fishtown section, the top story is that a local bagel shop in the neighborhood is reopening.

As regional news organizations struggle to cover large and diverse areas with fewer resources, hyperlocal news is getting lost in the shuffle. The Inquirer can still devote significant resources to covering City Hall, but it’s harder to provide comprehensive neighborhood coverage in South Philly, or keep readers up to date about what’s moving into the vacant lot on the corner.

That’s where The Hook comes in. It’s one of several experiments currently being managed by the Lenfest Lab at the Inquirer, a six-person team that recently joined the paper’s product department after being formed by the Lenfest Institute. Its broad mission is to accelerate innovation on the local news level to help organizations reach a sustainable digital future, which they do by publicly publishing all their research and results.

“We’re just trying to learn and explore places that newsrooms typically don’t have either the bandwidth or the collaborative tissue set up to explore together,” said Sarah Schmalbach, the Lab’s product director. “And then ultimately share how readers and users react to these new formats, or how it fits into the broader context of what’s happening in journalism.”

The Hook, which is supported by the Google News Initiative, is an interesting one. On the face of it, it’s just another newsletter—hardly something new or innovative to tout in 2021. But lift up the hood and take a peek underneath, and there are several things that make it a fascinating case study in ways to connect to local readers.

First of all, news about local home sales are partially automated, pulled directly from public data sources. They've also pulled in some information about inspection violations, local voting data, and 311 requests. Part of the experiment is to see if this type of automation has an impact on engagement, since the average newsletter is labor- intensive.

News stories are also aggregated from a handful of vetted sources, meaning the newsletter can lean hard on relevance and collaborate with other neighborhood publications or stakeholders. That’s something that tends to be more difficult and complicated for a local news website, where choices about aggregation are more difficult than simply providing a link.

The eye on collaboration is a feature and not a bug, according to Kelly Brennan, who runs the newsletter.

“We were able to sponsor a neighborhood cleanup and pay for some of the resources there, and it just opened up a lot of connection between the newsletter and a community organization,” Brennan said. “It gets at this idea of how important collaboration is on any project that anyone wants to do on a neighborhood level.”

While the experiment is ongoing, the Lab plans to launch another newsletter for two underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia—West Kensington and Fairhill. Fortunately, the Lab now has an eight-step playbook (available on the Lenfest Institute’s website) to follow, which starts with in-person surveys of local residents to determine content and ends with choosing which day and time to send out the first edition.

One thing the team already knows is that the upcoming newsletters will feature a large portion of Spanish language content, thanks to discussions with collaborators and demographic information based on local zip codes unearthed as part of their market research.

“If we’re operating in a neighborhood where there is a significant presence of Spanish speakers, it’d be important for us to be able to offer content in Spanish as well,” said special products editor Ana Méndez, who was born and raised in Panama, where she built El Tabulario, the first accessible public data repository for local journalists in the country. 

Schmalbach said as an organization begins to experiment, the insights build on one another. So, it wouldn’t make much sense for an outlet to experiment with video, then jump to comments before moving on to social media. That strategy is apparent when looking at the Lab’s choice of projects, which all shared the same thread of serving the needs of readers at a neighborhood level.

One early experiment was an app that sent local news story notifications when people walked by a location that had been featured in a story. Another, called Philly Eats, is a local restaurant app utilizing the Inquirer’s food reviews and dining guides, searchable by cuisine, price, and neighborhood.

During the 2018 election, the Lab partnered with the Inquirer to roll out politics coverage via text message, based around an idea suggested by reporter Jonathan Lai about making it easier for busy people to vote and focus on the local issues and races relevant to them.

The experiment ran for about three weeks, and featured Lai sending a text message a day breaking down a single issue relevant to voters. In some cases, Lai was joined by colleagues, who broke down key issues based on their beats and areas of expertise.

According to the Lab’s research, 41 percent of readers who signed up for the service responded to the texts, and in some cases asked questions that ended up being answered by Inquirer reporting. The readers were also more engaged with the Inquirer’s online coverage than other mobile visitors, and 77 percent said they felt more informed about how to vote due to the texts.

“It’s simple, accessible, quick, and pretty cheap to produce,” Schmalbach said. “It just takes time because you need to think about how to write and make text messages interactive.”

Schmalbach doesn’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict which direction newsrooms will be moving towards in the next few years. In fact, her team doesn’t want to tell anyone at the Inquirer what to do—they just want to show what is possible if you stop for a second and listen.

“Fundamentally, we want to be hearing directly from readers and not from ourselves about what people need,” Schmalbach said. “How do we listen to more different people in the future?” 

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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