For Growing Hyperlocals, Investing in Better Tech May Beat Staffing Up

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[Ed. Note: Tom Grubisich was recently laid low with the uncommon central nervous system disease Guillain Barre Syndrome, which is why he’s been absent from the Street Fight lineup for the past two months. We’re so glad that he’s mended and resuming his column this week.]

You’re a hyperlocal news publisher who has just come off a pretty good year. The clicks through your digital screen door are steadily increasing, you’re getting more than a trickle of ad squares, and you didn’t have to borrow against your credit card once in the past six months to pay bills — a first. But you know in your entrepreneurial bones it’s time to take your two-year-old enterprise to that “next level.”

So what should you do? Maybe give yourself a break from 60-hour weeks and invest in your first full-time reporter? Maybe not. Maybe the better choice would be to focus on technology that exploits social media. Fast-improving digital technology can lead to better content, more engaged users and open the way to new advertisers, including sponsors. Technology is also less expensive than staff.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook have become de rigeur for most publishers, but they’re not enough to get to the next level. In order to really interact with your community, you have to tear down the walls of your newsroom, and recreate that newsroom outside, among the people and places you cover. This isn’t as radical as it sounds if you’re dedicated to building a closer bond of trust with your contributors.

Invite readers not just to comment on articles you publish but write their own articles on topics that keep animating your community week after week.

Take food choices on the menu at your local schools – a controversial topic that is often a hot-button local news issues. The conventional way to approach this topic is quote the school system’s nutritionist and reel off some sample menus featuring more vegetables and fruits. That’s okay, for starters. But it ignores the people who matter the most — the students who have to eat the artichokes and apples that replace the french fries and potato chips. In that situation, why not invite some seniors from the high school to conduct their own tasting session on video, and let those students upload clips directly to the site?

If the high schoolers have opinions that diverge from the nutritionist’s, that’s okay. It can lead to further discussion on the site — maybe a riposte from the student guinea pigs — and possibly a compromise that accommodates teenage palates but also recognizes the importance of healthier school lunch menus. If you can achieve this, you’re sure to see a spurt in user engagement, which current and potential local advertisers will notice.

But none of this can happen if your content management system isn’t powerful and flexible enough to allow contributors to create articles and even whole pages without going through your site’s editorial gates  — and many entrepreneurial local publishers aren’t prepared to make radical changes to their daily publishing operations. A recent survey of Chicago area publishers by Knight found many local publishers to be less than confident about what to do about technology.

If you’re unsure about the social-media potential of your CMS, send some queries to the platform host so you can develop some best practices. If your platform is open source, you may have to pay a premium to add self-publishing options. But any fee will be a lot less expensive than hiring editorial staff.

Another alternative is checking out alternative platforms, like the Django-based open-source platform, Project Armstrong, that’s being developed by Texas Tribune and Bay Citizen with funding from the Knight Foundation.  (Armstrong  member discussion group is here.) This software is being rapidly revised based on a steady flow of suggestions from initial users — including some on serving ads — so it’s definitely worth checking out if you want to stay close to the leading edge.

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.

Image courtesy of Flickr user sskennel.