‘Social Journalism’: News You Can Take to the Bottom Line

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The LJ World in Lawrence, Kan., has long been a fount of innovation in local digital journalism — especially in how to build and foster more and deeper community connections. Jane Stevens, the site’s director of media strategies, is herself a nonstop innovator. In 2010, she and her team launched LJ World’s WellCommons, a highly interactive site where “community and journalism work together to create a healthier Lawrence and Douglas County,” in the northeast corner of the Sunflower State between Topeka, the capital,  and Kansas City.  The urbanizing region (2010 population: 110,826) is shaped in large part by Lawrence being the home of “KU” the University of Kansas (enrollment: 29,462, of which 9.4% is international).

I caught up with Stevens recently to talk about the thinking behind WellCommons, and how the site works. (Full disclosure: Stevens is on the advisory board of Local America, the hyperlocal news project-in-development of which I’m editorial director.)

You call your new, free-standing LJ World sites, like WellCommons, “social journalism.” Would you define that?
We embedded social tools into our news site. Our community posts content into the site’s news stream through a public-facing admin. In other words, all they have to do is sign on with their real name and then click on “New Post” to post text, photos, graphics or videos to the site. They can “follow” other people on the site, start groups, join groups, and message each other within the site. They use the same tools our journos use to post content. Their content is integrated with our journos’ content.

WellCommons includes a combination of stories from the LJ World staff and community contributors. You’ve tinkered with the mix. Would you explain how?
At the beginning, as the community was getting used to the idea that this local health news site was open to them, and that they didn’t have to go through our health journo to get their information on the site, we had more staff content than community content. What surprised us was how many organizations had not yet embraced social media — most did not have a Facebook page or use Twitter. So, not only did they have to realize that they could post directly to our news site and how to use it as a social media platform for local health, but they also had to learn about how social media in general, including figuring out what their social media policy should be and how they could best use social media. And we helped them with that.

When we moved from WellCommons 1.0 to 2.0, with the advice of our community advisory group, we made the site easier to use, revamped the home page so that everyone’s content went into the same news stream, added a link to Marketplace listings of local businesses that provide health products and services, and made it so that we can send WellCommons content into the news stream of LJWorld.com , which serves as an aggregator of our niche sites. Our goal was to have at least 10 posts a day on the site, which research shows is an amount that grows traffic. We’d like about half the content to come from the community. We achieve, and often surpass, these goals two or three days a week now.

You ration anonymous comments. How is that working out? Does it cost you any engagement?
There’s a difference between how we handle posts and comments. We require people to use their real names to post content — text, photos, graphics and/or video. Those who want to leave comments on those posts are allowed three anonymous comments before we require their real names. As soon as someone leaves an anonymous comment, we contact that person and ask her or him to provide a real name. We remove abusive comments, or comments that ride the snarky-abusive line. As I mentioned in the previous question, we’ve had great response from the members of our health community who use the site to post content. Because of the comments restriction, we have a very different discussion on WellCommons than on LJWorld, whose commenters are mostly anonymous. On WellCommons, the discussion is much more civil and solution-oriented, which is what our health community told us they wanted.

“Members” who sign up with WellCommons have a wide latitude about what they can post. Any blowback?
As long as they post content that’s related to health as we widely define it through out supergroups, we’re okay with it. Out of hundreds of posts, we’ve had to remove only about five posts so far – one was from someone whose content was nonsensical, and another from someone who was posting reviews of research that was 20 years old.

Many WellCommons members work for advocacy groups. If those groups are promoting their own missions, does that create a conflict with your objective of making WellCommons a safe and trusted place for health-care information?
When they report on issues, journos provide a range of points of view as well as facts. WellCommons provides a wider range of points of view and more facts than can be obtained by one journo. The structure of the site provides a way for people to judge information  by refining the signal to noise ratio. They know something about the person who posted, as well as the group they posted from. For example, when Dave Johnson posts content about how Medicaid cuts will profoundly affect mental health services in Lawrence and Douglas County, you know that he’s posting from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center group and that he’s CEO of that organization, so you can safely say that Johnson knows about this stuff, and you know that he has a particular point of view. You also know that if Dave Johnson posts about local school gardens, and his profile page says nothing to indicate that he’s involved in local school gardens, you might want to check the Locavore group to find someone who has more expertise in that field.

Can members promote commercial products or services that promise to improve health?
Businesses pay to participate in WellCommons. If they do pay, they use the same tools and have the same access as anyone else. We believe that in any community such as health or sustainability, the business community’s information is as important as anyone else’s. In fact, when I started out in newspaper journalism and watched people reading the paper on the bus commute, it was pretty clear to me that the information in the ads was just as important to them as any story I wrote. Sometimes more important, especially when I would hear people discussing at length a department store sale, and skip over my story.

We make it clear that the products and services that businesses offer can’t be fake — e.g., if someone advertised bubblegum as a cure for cancer, we would remove that content. We also provide contextual information so that people can make better decisions. For example a new weight-loss business oriented itself around a contest with a monetary reward – people paid to join, received coaching and the person who lost the most weight won a portion of the pot. Some people in the community were worried that approach wasn’t healthy or sustainable. We did a story about weight-loss programs and which have been shown to be most successful. (And were surprised when a top U.S. researcher said that monetary rewards worked for some people, and weren’t a bad way to lose weight.)

What is WellCommons delivering to the community that’s new or improved about health information?
Here’s what one community member told us: “One solution Wellcommons provides is that it puts us in the driver’s seat. I used to send news releases to the paper, and they seldom resulted in stories. Now, we don’t have editors deciding what is newsworthy. We get to post our news, and then our community can decide if it is worth reading.” The community has more health information, and we journos aren’t the only ones who decide what’s “news”. With only one journo, it would be tough to get all the health information in. But the site can’t really run without the journo (preferrably two), and the community has told us that they wouldn’t want that. They want someone they can go to who can look into issues, such as a homeless family of seven living in a tiny motel room because they can’t afford housing, even though both parents work full time. Or why the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services closed its Lawrence office, which has an enormous case load, and left other smaller offices open. In addition, the whole conversation about health has changed, from one focusing on problems to one focusing on solutions. There’s more follow-up, more voices, more continuity. Not that we don’t report on problems – we still do. But they have more context, the community talks about and demands a solution, and because people regard WellCommons as their site, they have more ownership, and therefore more involvement.

How much does all this add up to what’s called “engagement” of the user? Any data here?
With WellCommons, I think we’re just learning what “engagement” is. We know that more people are coming to the site every week, as long as we provide content that’s useful to them and we keep engaging more organizations to provide content. We know that more organizations are interested in contributing content, especially when they see their peers do so, because we continue to receive requests.

We see links to WellCommons show up on the sites of organizations that provide health services and products. WellCommons is beginning to be mentioned in their annual reports. In other words, if WellCommons is useful, we’ll have an engaged community. When we add topic pages, a goals app, a jobs section, more resources, databases and a better calendar system, I think we’ll see even more engagement, because our community will be able to contribute content to all of those sections, too.

What are you doing in unique visitors, their frequency of visits and total page views?
Over the last month, we’ve seen 67,000 visits, 107,000 page views, and 36,000 uniques

What about your revenue? How many advertisers do you have? Are you profitable?
We have about a dozen advertisers so far, and are getting ready to do another push. We’re at $65,000 annualized revenues, which is about on track for our projections and how we’ve seen other digital-native sites growing. We believe that it’s possible to see annual revenues of $250,000, which will support two full-time reporters plus a share of editors, developers, database reporters, and staff that support a network of niche sites. It’s not profitable yet, but we’re modeling other networks that took the same approach and became profitable.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.