Does Hyperlocal ‘Engagement’ Work — And Can it Be Monetized?

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Jan Schaffer knows her way around journalism in the public interest. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, she won the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize — for Public Service — for a series of stories that helped free a man wrongly convicted of five murders and bring the civil rights’ convictions of the Philadelphia detectives involved in the investigation. Through appeal, she escaped a six-month jail sentence for refusing to name her sources for her story on the celebrated FBI Abscam sting.

In 2002 she founded J-Lab to help the news media use technology to engage citizens on big public issues. There’s a lot of talk about hyperlocal news sites using technology and social media to take civic journalism to a new level where the community is an equal player, but how much is wishful thinking and how much reality? I went to Schaffer for answers.

Your career includes strong involvement as a reporter,  editor and later manager in civic journalism. What has changed, good and/or bad?
We didn’t know it at the time [the 1990s], but civic journalism turned out to be the precursor to what we today call interactive and participatory journalism. But the Internet and mobile technologies were not yet widely available as engagement tools. Instead, interaction and engagement with the community happened in real space, via town hall meetings and deliberative exercises.

At the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, we helped support 120 pilot projects in newsrooms between 1993 and 2002. They were extremely successful in advancing both journalism and engagement. The organizing principle of all these projects was to experiment with ways to engage communities in solutions to community problems, in setting voter agendas, and envisioning game plans for the future of their communities.

Today most news organizations aspire to reach out and involve their communities in reporting on issues, although many go about it somewhat clumsily. The bad news is that “engagement” has come to be defined somewhat narrowly, and in my view less meaningfully, in terms of online metrics:  the number of unique visitors to a website, the growth in Twitter followers or the number of retweets, or the number of Facebook “likes.”

Do you see promising indicators?
Most indicators are anecdotal. However, the vibrant increase in the number of hyperlocal news sites launched since 2005 signals the interest people have in news about where they live. And the ways that editors at these sites are working to redefine what is meaningful news and information for their audiences signals the need for journalism, writ large, to revisit some knee-jerk habits and practices. It would be an interesting study to see if the most engaged sites are run by journalists or so-called “civic catalysts.”

There’s a lot of conversation, but not that much action-oriented advocacy. Chris Peck, co-founder of Journalism That Matters, said “many venerable news-gathering organizations are frozen in fear and trapped in their old models of doing business. This paralysis could grow into a civic disaster.” How can the the local news industry take engagement to the next level?
Advocacy is still a concept that makes most traditional news organizations squirm. And that is probably not a bad thing in an era when we see the emergence of so many websites that are masquerading as news but are actually tools of people with particular political agendas.

That said, one characteristic of many emerging indie news sites is that they are motivated by mission or a passion for a particular topic. Some are advocating for good public education, others for livable communities with room for bikes and pedestrians. Still others want to advance a safe environment.

The problem still to be solved is how to be a good news organization that is liberated enough to engage the community for the good of the community without being regarded as steeped in campaigns for particular causes.

How important is technology in making this kind of engagement happen?
Technology certainly informed my decision to spin the Pew Center into J-Lab: In particular, I was influenced by an interactive map the Everett (WA) Herald created under Mark Briggs’ leadership. It invited the community to drag and drop icons on the map to vote for how they wanted riverfront site redevelopment to occur. The map generated considerable community response. The community said it wanted things like biking trails – and ultimately got them.

There’s no question that technology can make it easier for some citizens to deliver input when they cannot make it to a public meeting. Technology has also lowered the barriers so that people can easily launch community news sites on their own. And it has made it easier for traditional news organizations to distribute their content via many channels. Fostering genuine engagement, however, is still a nut to be cracked.

If the local/hyperlocal news industry does deepen its engagement with the community, can that kind of public service be monetized?
I think added value can be monetized. But moves to monetize processes that are supposed to build community capacity feel no different than the real estate developer who comes in wanting to build his project “for the good of the community.” I’d wait to see whether this proceeds in a way that it should be monetized.

Are there any paths to monetization – or other financial support – that haven’t been but should be explored?
I think multiple micro steams of funding will continue to be necessary to support local news startups.  I would like to see more of the stewardship model, like the Vermont Journalism Trust, in addition to the classic advertiser/donor/member models.

Based on current trends and looking over the horizon, where will the local/hyperlocal news industry be in five years with community engagement?
I think many more sites will launch, but also many will close. We need to understand that they don’t all close because they failed. Sometimes they close because they did so well that the founders were offered good jobs. Sometimes founders were such good stewards of their communities they were asked to run for local office. I would wish we could have a national marketplace for the buying and selling of small sites, so that new editors can leverage something that was already built instead of having old sites go dark and new sites re-invent what they did.

(“Why Hyperlocals Are Missing Out on Engagement” was the subject of “The New News” in June 2011.)


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.