Last spring the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic and its sister TV station, KPNX, went hyperlocal in an audacious way. The metro region’s two major “legacy” media embarked on a plan to grow editorial contributors from the community — the affluent, well-educated and rapidly populating East Valley, including the city of Scottsdale. The choice of the East Valley was deliberate — it is the heart of Phoenix’s $290 million “Digital Marketing Region.”
Publishers everywhere talk about how they want to “engage” the community. It’s not just altruism. It’s heeding what digital research guru Gordon Borrell said at a recent webinar: “Advertisers aren’t buying eyeballs anymore — they’re buying specific audiences.” Many of those specific audiences, the Republic and KPNX have decided, reside in the East Valley. To connect with them, the Republic and KPNX have not only created scads of digital pages for 17 East Valley communities that cover everything from business to pets to arts and culture, but opened those pages extra wide to the people who live and work there. For what it’s worth, there are 1.3 million sets of eyeballs in the East Valley.
So how is this experiment going two seasons later? To find out, I put some questions to John Triplett, who, as content partnership editor at the Republic, is trying to dismantle the barriers that newspapers — whether they’re print or digital — often erect, sometimes unwittingly, between themselves and the communities they say it’s their mission to serve.
“We get everything from cat pictures to long-form journalism,” Triplett said. Especially cat pictures. And dog pictures from the local animal shelters, with cutlines — provided by shelter activist contributors — like: “I’m Lily. All I need is someone willing to take a chance on me.”
But for every handful of images of imploring dogs, there’s a chance there will be an article like this one from high school teacher Christine Porter Marsh, detailing the continual bureaucratic demands she and her colleagues have to meet, including doing non-teaching chores like “keep[ing] out web pages up-to-date, and this is then linked to our evaluation, which is linked to our pay and ‘seniority.’ What that means is this: on any given day, any person can check and see what we did in class that day.”
Or like this one by North Gilbert contributor Matt Lewis about “the excruciating process” of short-sales, told through the predicament of Anna Bell, a Methodist pastor who, after moving to the East Valley community of Coolidge, Ariz., from Tucson to serve a new congregation, was left with a $300-a-month payment from the underwater value of her old home. The article details how Bell’s mortgage was held by a bank nowhere near Arizona, but in Minnesota, so “she can’t even air her grievances face-to-face.”
This is not a fast-growth thing. It’s blocking and tackling to get it to grow. — John Triplett
But then it’s back to the cute cat or abandoned dog photos, or press releases, or “Why does cutting onions make you cry” — which occurs not only in the East Valley, I believe, but in 10,000 other communities in the 50 states.
Triplett says he and other Republic and KPNX staff continually meet with local citizenry to build on those missing relationships between the news industry and the community, and maybe turn the spigot on contributions from Tempe, Superstition, Ahwatukee, Queen Creek or 13 other communities in the East Valley. “We meet with 10 or 12 people in one area, and it doesn’t happen. But we go to another area, and they start publishing.”
To encourage that publishing, the Republic and KPNX showcase contributors by giving them their own pages. Contributors don’t have to go through any editorial gates. All they have to do is hit the SEND button on their computer.
From a look at the traffic numbers, the Republic-KPNX experiment is doing okay at just short of the six-month mark. Triplett says unique visitors are in the low 30,000s monthly, or a little less than 2,000 per community. He says advertising, so far, is “doing fine,” but all I saw on each of the pages of even sites for major communities like Shea Corridor in Scottsdale was one or maybe two 150 x 150-pixel squares. That won’t even cover the electricity bill on the servers to where the community contributions flow. (DataSphere, the Seattle-based digital middleman, provides cold-calling ad sales from its Tempe offices, as it does for community websites operated by 11 other Gannett TV stations and many others.)
Triplett is an indefatigable optimist about this experiment in journalism from and by the community in the East Valley. “This is not a fast-growth thing,” he said. “It’s blocking and tackling to get it to grow.” Then, after a pause: “The biggest thing about this is how much we’re learning. We just have to keep listening.”
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.