How Hyperlocals Should Handle User-Generated Content

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The best engagement for a hyperlocal site is when its audience becomes a cornucopia of user-generated content. But how do sites make that happen?

There was a recent media kerfuffle when the Nashville Tennessean ran two un-bylined articles produced by publicists at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Was that a no-no? We asked Jane Stevens, who led creation of the community-driven WellCommons health site at the Lawrence Journal World, to explain what works and what doesn’t when sites, as they should, turn to their audience for articles and other content.

Should there be any ground rules for what volunteers contribute?
The content should be factual, original, and/or sourced if it is not.

Potential contributors are out there. But is laying out a welcome sign enough?
You have to involve the community from the beginning idea stage to give people an investment in the site. WellCommons has an advisory group whose members met with us several times during the development phase of the site. Although we invited people who represented a wide swath of interests, it was open to anyone who wanted to join. We listened to what they wanted, and made changes accordingly. That group was the first to learn how to use the site, and posted the first content.  We gave dozens of presentations, did a few workshops, and a lot of one-on-one assistance in person and over the phone. Engaging the community and coaching people becomes part of a journo’s job.

What if the editor wants help in covering an important school board meeting on major budget cuts, and the volunteer is a member of the high school PTA. Is there a conflict of interest?
 As long as the volunteer’s affiliation is noted, then it’s not an issue. In this case, if I were the editor, I might ask a few people to submit stories — a teacher, a parent, a student, for example.

Should a site that uses community volunteers have a program to train and mentor volunteers in reporting and writing skills?
LJWorld did a couple of those before I arrived and concluded that it was a lot of effort for little return. It’s easier to work with people who are already writing blogs, who have communications experience or who have that role in an organization.

There didn’t seem to be anything “evil” about the VUMC pieces the Nashville Tennessean ran. One was about a benefit concert for cancer patients, survivors and their families, the other about the findings of a childhood obesity program sponsored by VUMC.  The authors are both former local TV journalists. Was the finger pointing by the alt-weekly Nashville Scene justified?
Hell, no. Nashville Scene is stuck in the dark ages (well, most traditional news sites are). Of course, it would have been better to have given those writers bylines. And, of course, I advocate opening up the news organization to content from anyone in the community.

The goal of WellCommons, you said, was “to tear down the walls of the newsroom” in reaching out to the community. What’s the difference between WellCommons and what the Nashville Tennessean did?
WellCommons is a social journalism site. Social media technology is woven into its infrastructure. WellCommons (like Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn) works ONLY if the community participates. WellCommons takes advantage of the “Long Tail” of content available (and currently hidden in communities served by traditional media) in the local health news and information niche. Our philosophy was that it’s impossible for one health reporter to cover everything, so let anyone who’s involved in the health community (NGO, business, advocate, government, educational institution, interested party, hobbyist) post her/his content alongside the journo’s. Therefore at any time, someone (many people, actually) in the community will find something useful on the site. It works very well.

Anyone who wants to post content to WellCommons can, as long as the topic is relevant and factual, and the tone is civil. People post to the site using a public-facing interface … just like Facebook or Twitter. No editor screens or edits content from the community (although WellCommons staff can remove it, if it’s incorrect, off-topic or abusive). People have to use their real names if they post content (but they can post comments anonymously), and often they’re also affiliated with one of the groups that comprise the site. So, people have two ways of judging the reliability of any piece of content: the person (via information on their personal profile page) and the organization s/he represents.

The Tennessean is still set up as a traditional news we-talk-you-listen site. Any content that appears has to go through an editor.

WellCommons focuses on health topics. Can its model work for general news? Can advocates — who write articles for WellCommons — do the same when covering, say, local government or the schools?
Sure. As long as people identify themselves and the organization they represent, then there’s no reason why people shouldn’t contribute whatever they want. People are pretty damn smart about information these days. They search out and use what serves their needs, even if those needs are sometimes colored by a particular political, religious, ethnic, gender-based or geographic prism. Journalists, in contrast, can offer something unique – in the best of all possible worlds, they provide a perspective that takes into account most of the prevailing views as they interact with the facts. They often do very good story-telling. In controversial or long-term issues, both become valuable to a community.

Looking at current trends – the pluses and minuses — will more newsroom walls be torn down, will hyperlocal sites succeed in earning the trust of communities and usher in a new, more connected local digital space?
They can’t help but be torn down. There are two big attributes of this digital medium that traditional news organization haven’t grokked yet: It is solution-oriented and it is social. Solution-oriented journalism refers to the very real situation of communities being dissatisfied with news organizations just describing a problem and then walking away from it. They want journos to provide information about solutions, and to stick with an issue until it’s resolved.

The most important aspect of doing social journalism is not starting a Facebook page and a Twitter account for a news organization. Doing social journalism means journalists take on an additional role in this digital environment — to develop technology to create a safe place and a trusted source, and give members of the community the tools to participate in it and interact with each other. That means creating a different infrastructure (a different content management system) that integrates social media with journalism. The only platform I know that does this now is the one that developed for itself. When we developed WellCommons, we modified LJWorld’s Ellington CMS to integrate social media, but the new organization’s parent company decided not to commercialize it.

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.

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