How Local Sites Can Leverage Technology to Build Community

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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  1. October 4, 2012

    Because getting people to write with any consistency and quality takes money. Which means you can’t give the product away for free for very long. It’s pretty simple. Ask Patch how long their average blogger sticks around. It gets old pretty quickly without some real incentive.

    1. October 4, 2012

      Mark, the new “groups” that Patch is forming are not just a new version of bloggers, as I understand the move. The groups consist of informed citizens who follow a subject closely (as I describe in my column above) and usually want to see action taken to fix a problem they’ve identified, or maybe protect a threatened community resource. Their strength is in the circle they’ve created. Three or four or more people bonded together can be much more effective than an individual blogger in defining a community issue and proposing and following through on corrective action concerning that issue. Patch is smart to want to bring the power of such groups to their sites. It’s not traditional journalism — the product of what one reporter can scribble in her notebook — it’s a new model of journalism that is integrated into the community. New and continually improving technology is driving the formation of these groups, and helping to empower them so they protect and improve their communities. What community news site wouldn’t want to be part of this positive expression of Jeffersonian democracy?

  2. John Triplett
    October 4, 2012

    Tom — a great column as always. I think you are really on the cutting edge of this whole trend. You are definitely right that a group, or small group, is more likely to sustain posting than a single individual. I guess i would say it still takes patience, coaching and very easy technology to get them going and sustain them. What we are seeing too is almost more of a “facebook for the neighborhood” than what journalists have traditionally considered community news. It’s what the neighborhood considers news and sometimes its pictures of baby bobcats rather than jobs or health and wellness.

  3. October 4, 2012

    Tom, what a wonderful picture you paint, in technicolor, of the amazing and powerful potential of local media and why each and every citizen should care and support such efforts.

  4. October 5, 2012

    Thanks for the mention. We are constantly adding new features to empower our array of local communities. Check us out @publicstuffcom or for more info.
    Keith Knapp
    PublicStuff Community Manager
    keith at

  5. sallyduros
    October 5, 2012

    I think the buggy whip analogy is a bit strong. I wrote about a similar idea to this in Huffington Post earlier this year. I have been looking for good partners on this idea — which the Poynter Institute helped me flesh out— to make it a movement. I think the problem for many journalists in this approach is that it is about making change happen. As journalism and many journalists struggle to understand the value of journalism in a place they are beginning to more deeply understand the activating essence of information. I think many are asking the question of how deeply they should wade into activation vs. reporting. My idea for the Accountability Newsroom sees journalists as having a bully pulpit equal to that of the politician. Many creative, competent and innovative journalists have newsrooms in start-up mode and haven’t turned the spigot on the Google juice and the ground-based fire power that will create that bully pulpit. But watch our for when they’ve hit that critical mass. Ideas like The Accountability Newsroom will happen.

    Sally Duros writes the blog for She is seeking innovative tools to create sustainable journalism. Connect with here on Google+ and twitter at saduros.

  6. jane stevens
    October 5, 2012

    Great post, Tom. I absolutely, positively agree — create the technology that makes journalists and community members partners. The role of today’s journo is to create a safe place and a trusted source for that ongoing community conversation. Married with data, it’s an unbeatable combo. Of course, as former director of digital strategies at LJWorld and leader of the team that created WellCommons, I’m biased.

  7. October 5, 2012

    Who do you think in neighborhood-news land is NOT bringing together people rallying around a cause? My soapbox on this is that we do not need to point our community members at MORE technotools when they already are using plenty – e-mail, comments, Facebook, etc. In the past two weeks alone, our community has crowdsourced solutions (and/or pressure BRINGING solutions) to really big problems – both in discussion and in just making it known that they are a force with which to be reckoned. And we didn’t need to bring a middleperson third-party software tool into it. In one of the two cases, a Google map is as complicated as things got.

  8. October 13, 2012

    Tom, I agree that what you describe is a model for community journalism, but I don’t think it’s “the” model, or even the best model. My money is on a hybrid that melds the standards of professional reporting with the widely distributed value of collaborative reader-engagement. This is the best of both worlds, each supporting and nourishing the other.

    Local schools are an issue that lends itself best to community collaboration by all stakeholders, from the principals to the parents to the students. But add professional reporting to the mix and synergy sets in and the reader gets a much richer report.

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