Big Metros and Small Indies Play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’

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Metro newspapers are shrinking —  both in head count and amount of community news they publish with their limited resources. But they still have an important edge on their hyperlocal competition —  in reach. But now some metros are deciding to trade reach for news.

Through a networking project funded by the Knight Foundation and managed by J-Lab, nine metros are collaborating with 146 community websites and blogs with whom they would ordinarily compete. The metros have the chance to feature interesting and even significant local news that they would otherwise miss, and the much smaller “indies” can amplify their stories to reach thousands more people in their communities. It can be a win-win scenario that exceeds all expectations, but this is not always the case, as J-Lab’s executive director, Jan Schaffer, explains in a Q & A with Street Fight.

Are the successful networking projects, which began three years ago, now self-sustaining or do they need additional external funding?
The challenge with all these networks is that someone, preferably in the hub newsrooms, needs to take ownership of maintaining the network, growing the network, and developing partner relationships. There are new partners to recruit, standards to be met, training to be scheduled, and opportunities to pursue, in addition to the posting of links to partner stories. This can be a 20- or 30-hour-a-week job or part of a FTE position. The Oregonian News Network’s coordinator, Cornelius Swart, for instance, started as a consultant and is now hired to work on the paper’s online staff as well as shepherd ONN.

I would not say the networks are self-sustaining, but some of the more successful efforts are working on ways to continue their efforts. In Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Portland, full-time staffers are charged with keeping up the networks. In Seattle, Bob Payne is working to involve other editors in the newsroom in the project; in San Francisco, the public radio station is trying to cobble [together] funds to continue with the project’s coordinator.

In all cases, external funding, particularly from a community foundation, would help a lot.

Networking by topic, as opposed to geography, seems to produce the most compelling news, as in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s fracking partnership. Assuming there’s a thematic story as big as fracking in any region, is partnership by topic the way to go?
I don’t think it’s an either/or; I think it’s an “and.” The fracking partnership in Pittsburgh has resulted in good enterprise journalism. The sports partnership in Tucson resulted in good sports news. But the blog and news site partnerships have created some connective tissue that has supported a bigger tent for news and information in [these] communities. There are certainly windows of opportunities to have both topic and geographic partnerships in any community, with the topics deriving from whatever the master narrative is in any given community.

Better design and packaging by the host partner could have attracted more user attention, it seems to me. Agree?
One of the points of discovery in the Networked Journalism project is that these media partnerships are most effective when you let the community know about them. A home page presence on the hub site is really critical. ONN just let us know last week that it finally got a place on the home page. Charlotte’s partnership took on new life once it got some home page real estate. Yes, design and photos help to drive traffic to the partner sites. But house ads in the hub newspaper help, too. Debriefs of partner stories on radio add a lot of juice. Logos, headline widgets, Twitter feeds, e-newsletters, events — you can use a big toolbox. And I would suggest there are sponsorship opportunities, as yet unrealized, in some of these strategies.

Bottom line is that the win for the partners has got to be some traffic. And the win for the hub news organization is really a boost in the brand (as we saw in our Seattle survey) that comes from building the infrastructure that helps meet the community’s information needs.

I didn’t see that much community conversation created. Is this a problem?
Most of the community conversation is happening on the partner sites. These hyperlocal sites really rely on tips, crowdsourcing what they hear on a police scanner, comments, bulletin boards, and their Facebook groups for interactivity. Could a model be developed to take some of this up to the networked level? Probably. But it would likely be most effective around a metro-wide issue. The legacy news organizations still combat a lot of trolls in their comments sections — more so than on some of the smaller sites, which have more intimate relationships with their readers.

You do acknowledge that the project did not produce any examples of encouraging revenue. What’s needed to make that happen, if it can?
You need dedicated ad salespeople in the room who want to engage with digital dimes instead of digital dollars. I think you need more affordable ad-serving platforms. I think you need a way not to poach the advertisers who are already advertising on the smaller sites. And I think it is still problematical how you’d divvy up any revenue. By traffic? By frequency of content? By CPMs? By size of audience? It’s hard to please everyone.

Post-project, have any publications — whether legacies or indies/bloggers — said they like what they see and want to try their own experiments in networked journalism? If so, does any new project require dedicated funding, and if so, how much?
Mid-project, we saw interest from the Arizona Republic, which has since launched its own network. There are already networks in Sacramento, Chicago, and Richmond, which did not require start-up funding to my knowledge. There are nascent efforts in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Public Interest Network. Our networks were launched with about $50,000, which seems to be an achievable investment in a greenhouse initiative.

Have you isolated out any critical element(s) that makes networked journalism especially successful (e.g., the right personnel driving the project, the right partners, the topics, the geography, etc.)?
Well, the right leader supporting the project in the newsroom is key. As we saw in the Net-J project, MSM editors are starting to realize that emerging news sites in their communities have a lot of journalistic DNA. At the same time, though, many are really hungry for more training — in digital and business skills as well as journalism practices.

The right coordinator is key. You need to navigate relationships with prospective partners who are not always in love with their legacy news organizations. Indeed, their communities might not be in love with their metro daily. Mutual respect, awareness of mutual needs, and clear-cut standards are important. If a partner misbehaves, it’s a reflection not just on the hub site but on the entire network, and that partner may get tossed from the network. On the other hand, admission in the network is a form of validation of your efforts.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.