Jane Stevens: The ‘Revolution’ of Social Media and Local News

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We know that news is being transformed by social media — the Facebook or Twitter effect, for short — but do we really understand that what’s happening, especially at the local level, can be, and maybe should be, a revolution?

I borrow that potent description from journalist Jane Stevens, who, after advocating just such a revolution in journalism for more than a decade, got a chance to walk the walk when she became digital director of the Lawrence (Kans.) Journal World in 2009. At the LJW, Stevens led the development of WellCommons, a “health solutions” vertical that upends many of the old but no longer reliable ways that local journalism has been practiced.  She left the LJW in September.

WellCommons recently won an EPPY award from Editor & Publisher for innovations that have been turned into best practices, and so I recently caught up with Stevens  — who prefers to call herself a “journo”  — to talk about social media and its reverberating impact on local.

When you call WellCommons a “revolution,” do you really mean that?
“We bulldozed the barriers between community and journalists,” as I wrote in an article about the EPPY award for the Knight Digital Media Center. “We tore down the wall between the newsroom and advertising. We jettisoned the old print advertising model. Reporters changed how they did their work. The role of journalism changed. We established a solution-oriented environment. Remember that phrase from the Clinton campaign? ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ Well, in the case of the wrenching transition that journalism’s going through…’It’s the basic structure, stupid!’

Including content management systems?
Yes, local news won’t take off until CMS’s integrate social media and journalism. That means allowing community members to post content (text, photos, video, graphics) directly into the same news stream that journos post into, letting community members add group pages to the site, and providing a way for them to follow and message each other within the site. This is in addition to the limited menu  most news sites offer community contributors –comments on articles and postings to event calendars.

What did you do on the content side that’s revolutionary?
Anyone in the community can post content directly into the WellCommons news stream. People have to use their real names. There’s no editing by WellCommons staff, no moderation prior to publishing.  “…it puts us in the driver’s seat,” one contributor who runs an advocacy site told us. “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.” Second, the site is built around groups rather than blogs because groups solve communities’ problems. Third, we involve the community. We have an advisory group of 25 to 30 people whose suggestions figured heavily in how the site looks and functions. The group continues to meet and provide great advice. It’s their site. Fourth, we integrated all parts of the newspaper organization. Reporters, editors, advertising reps, marketing executives, technology developers and social media managers met weekly and communicated daily. We shared information about what we were doing and what events were coming up that we could work on together. The reporter gave the ad rep business leads, the marketing exec gave the reporter story leads. We cheered the ad reps for each business they signed up.

What’s revolutionary on the business – the advertising – side?
We introduced a new ad model. There are banner ads, but that’s not where the site derives most of its revenue. Most comes from sponsorship. Potentially, a good chunk can come from businesses that provide health products and services, many of which would never consider advertising in print or in the LJ World. Since they’re a vital part of the local health community (so says our community), businesses can set up their own group pages; they pay to do so. They participate just like the rest of the community. The content they post to their group pages shows up in the news stream.

WellCommons is a vertical.  What about the general run of news?  Can the “revolution” you describe apply there too?  For example, what might a community site do with social media about a local school that was under achieving for the third year in a row?
Actually, our plan to restructure local news addressed this. We envisioned a group of niche news sites – local verticals. These niche news sites included the existing KUSports.com, Lawrence.com (our entertainment site), WellCommons.com, SunflowerHorizons.com (a sustainability site launched in April 2011), and the others would have been education, outdoor recreation, and local economy (business). We based our choices on whether there was enough revenue to support these niche sites. LJWorld.com would aggregate content from the sites and cover breaking news. So your example of an underachieving local school would be covered in the education site and would appear on LJ World also.

In the 10 stories you cite in your article, the three “best” ones – in my opinion – were all staff-produced: Kansas overall health ranking drops; Kansas Medicaid makeover part of a nationwide trend; Kansas ranks last in making progress on children’s health insurance. Do you get “best” articles from your community contributors?
Health news isn’t just the “best” stories. It’s in Chris Anderson’s “long tail” that WellCommons succeeds so well, which the community has told us time and time again is so important.  It turns out that there are some people in the community that would identify the “best” story as the most useful to them at that moment. In the case of a mom who’s really worried about how to tell her 10-year-old daughter about the birds and the bees, she’d be more interested in the public health department’s upcoming family-based sexual education classes for girls than the latest Medicare news.

But when you invite advocacy groups to contribute, aren’t they going to go into “messaging” mode, where one measure of success is how many press releases you get published?
We found that the local advocacy groups are not interested in generating pounds of information – they are interested in engaging their communities. They wanted to avoid providing drivel, and asked us for advice on what information would be most useful. When they started seeing people attending the events that few had attended previously, or they received a lot of feedback, they knew they were doing it most effectively.

What happens to in-depth, heavy-hitting articles – who does those?
The staff of WellCommons can produce those. But the solution to improving health is not found in one heavy-hitting article, but in dozens, if not hundreds of small community group actions.  The structure of WellCommons is well suited to facilitate that. For example, in the category of improving the availability of local food, school lunches and educating kids about local food, the local community foundation funded a school garden at a middle school. We invited the kids and their mentor to post their progress on a group page. They posted photos, marked their progress. They sold their produce to the community and, in the fall, the cafeteria used the food in their school lunches. They built a community that was so interested and enthusiastic about what they were doing that it inspired every school in the district to start their own community garden.


In a Q & A with Street Fight in July, I asked Stevens for ad revenue numbers from WellCommons. She said then: “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.” I asked Edwin Rothrock, director of strategic initiatives at the World Co., the parent corporation that owns LJW, for an update on advertising revenues from WellCommons. His answer: We’re still trending in that direction.”

Did he agree that WellCommons was “revolutionary”? “It’s revolutionary – you could say that.  But ‘revolutionary’ can have different meanings. No one has demonstrated they’ve found the silver bullet for the future of news.  But whatever happens will be socially enabled.”

The revolution, one way or another, will go on.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, 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.