How Local Sites Can Leverage Technology to Build Community

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Bit by byte, technology is midwifing the birth of a new model of community journalism.

The old, but still very pervasive, model consists of the editor who directs his or her staff — very likely one overworked reporter these days — to “find out” what is happening in the community. To be sure, a diligent reporter, guided by an experienced editor, will find some important, useful things that will get published. But because the reporter can only be in one place at a time, he or she is like a hydrologist who tries to channel a heavy rain by holding a cup up to the falling sky.

In the new model of community journalism, driven and shaped by technology, the community produces the journalism. People interested in a subject — perhaps it’s how to increase academic proficiency in the local schools — can get together digitally without having to find babysitters or miss dinner. They may or may not be members of the parent-teacher association; more than likely they aren’t because some of them may no longer be parents with school-age children and, besides, PTAs, with their tea-and-sympathy habits, are becoming dinosaurs. The digital group checks their hunches against the latest data from the school (and not just test scores but other often more valuable information) and contextualizes it with more data from what’s happening at other local schools with similar demographics and elsewhere around the country. (There are 16,500 school districts, and probably 90% of them have achievement problems they’re working to solve.)

The group’s conclusions and recommendations are written up by one of the digital citizens and sent to the community website. Because school reform is a hot subject everywhere, the recommendations generate meaty responses that widen the website audience and, also likely, lead to more and better recommendations, which are also published.

The principal starts to pay attention, helped along by the prominent play that the website has given to the digital citizens. She and her team to help improve academic achievement study the new round of recommendations from the digital citizens. They decide the citizens have some good ideas they missed, and incorporate them in their action plan.

This is the new model of community journalism. Its product is not a 10-inch story that will be quickly forgotten, if it’s ever read, but very possibly an effective way to raise student achievement. I’ve moved the model along faster than it’s actually developing, but it is happening here and there. Some harbingers:

  • Patch is moving from the model of one reporter/editor per community to its version of the “group” model, which aims to enlist the “power crowd” to generate news that is often beyond the reach and even awareness of traditional journalistic scribblers.
  • James Macpherson, founder of Pasadena Now, is using technology to create increasingly rich news sections, including one on schools that’s drawing so many engaged users that advertisers are signing up in increasing numbers, he says.
  • The Lawrence (Kans.) Journal World’s WellCommons health site has been an early innovator.
  • The Knight Foundation has, in two years, poured $10 million in its Tech for Engagement Initiative  It asks what I think will become the hot new question at the intersection of journalism and community: “How can we use technology to facilitate more social connections – not just for individuals but for groups and communities?”

I’m watching what’s happening as a Street Fight columnist, but when I’m not reporting and writing about this level-two engagement, I’m a participant myself as a longtime journalist who got tired of clutching the equivalent of a buggy whip. The Local America-InstantAtlas development team I’m part of is using technology to create a platform where communities, through a combination of data and feedback, can find out how well they’re performing across a broad Livability Index that covers as many as 25 categories – everything from “K-12 Schools” to “Jobs & Economy” to “Health & Wellness” to, yes, “Fun.” The ultimate goal is not the grades, but what they mean: What is the community doing right that it should protect and what should it fix?

Putting my columnist hat back on, I wonder why more hyperlocal news sites aren’t adopting, or at least adapting to, this new news model that makes community and journalism what they should be — partners.

Some digital entrepreneurs with little if any journalistic experience see an opening and are exploiting it. There include very scalable pure plays like SeeClickFix and PublicStuff, which help empower citizens to get city hall to act on everything from fixing potholes to cleaning up environmental hazards. These and similar operations like them are proving quite successful in generation revenue — most of it in new ways well beyond the advertising that most websites rely on.

Journalists need to enter this new wall-less newsroom that has been reassembled digitally in the community. If they don’t, they will end up clutching at their buggy whips like the hansom drivers who had to give the right-of-way to Henry Ford’s Model A.

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.

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