How Community Involvement Can Pay Off for Local Publishers

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reporterJim Brady may be the most durable pioneer in digital community news. So I yellow-highlighted this paragraph from his recent interview with Poynter’s Butch Ward as Brady prepares to launch the new site in Philadelphia:

“I used to be a believer in staying out of the fray, and just reporting on what was happening and stopping there. But I now think news organizations need to expand their thinking there. I’m not suggesting that papers drop objectivity in reporting; I still believe in that. But I think they need to acknowledge that their role should be to help connect their consumers to information, people, events and whatever else might empower them to take action to improve their communities.”

Brady has pinpointed what many community publishers and editors are struggling to do. They know commuter traffic tie-ups on the Beltway and convenience store holdups just don’t make the difference in community news today. It’s just too easy to report this kind of news. “Duty” coverage, as it’s called, is still part of many sites’ content menu, but, by itself, it can’t build a solid relationship with community.

Nor does social media — unless it rises above the level of chatter, which often it doesn’t do. Community publisher-editors are realizing that too.

The trick is to do what Brady wants to do — empower users “to take action to improve their communities” — and to do so in a way that creates buzz that draws more users, gets them clicking away, and also engages local businesses as advertisers.

This is a big order, and not many editor-publishers have figured out how to serve it up. One of the few who have is Brian Wheeler, executive director of the nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow site, about which “The New News” has periodically reported (here, here and here).

At CT, Wheeler has been doing what Brady is preaching for no less than nine years. He’s made community involvement in Charlottesville (home of  the University of Virginia and with a population: 44,349) a best practice that attracts engaged readers, helps the community solve problems and brings the site enough contributions — from users and businesses — to make it a sustainable nonprofit.

How did he pull it off, especially since he started, back in 2005, with essentially himself as CT’s “resources?”

“We picked a handful of quality-life-life issues that we knew were important to the community. We said CT wanted to help fill the gaps, and the community responded positively,” said Wheeler.

But it didn’t happen instantly. With some foresight, Wheeler put together corporate funding that gave him time to make CT’s community involvement strategy work. Progress was slow until, in 2009, CT partnered with Charlottesville’s print and digital daily newspaper, the long-respected Daily Progress. “When the community saw our content on Page 1 of the Daily Progress, it got the message we were a serious provider of information,” Wheeler said.

Key to maintaining community involvement, he said, was using non-bot emails to keep subscribers updated on issues that CT was featuring. “We hand-crafted messages twice a week,” he said. They were both informative and attractive.” As a result, he said, email to subscribers is “the No. 1 driver of traffic.”

Some tangibles from CT’s community involvement:

CT has won a number of awards for its in-depth and investigative reporting related to the community’s local water supply and major transportation projects (here and here, as two examples). Says Wheeler: “These infrastructure choices have also been major issues in local elections, and Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reporting and non-partisan voter guides have helped inform community decisions about the candidates and public policy.”

The end result of all these efforts for nonprofit CT is “we have achieved sustainability,” Wheeler said.

To find out how community involvement can work at a for-profit community site, I went to Howard Owens, founder and publisher of The Batavian in the upstate New York community of Batavian (population 15,465).

“We try to cover as much as we can the good things going on in our community, to highlight the success and the  contributions of people in our community,” Owens said. “One thing I often do that readers love is drive around and take pictures that show off the beauty of Genesee County.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t cover the bad things,” he continued, “or we don’t dig in and do ‘watch-dog’ reporting when it’s called for, and certainly we’ve gained a reputation as the place to call when something potentially nefarious needs to be investigated But one of the foundations of our success is that we make no secret that we love Genesee County and we want to see our community succeed. We want to see businesses grow. We want to see our youth win big games.  We want our events to be successful. We want to see lower crime rates and the lives of people improve.”

An example of how The Batavian’s content fulfills its mission to be involved with the Batavia community:

“Based on our coverage, a group of local residents have attempted to form a Neighborhood Watch program  (it ran into some organizational issues, but initially had a lot of participation and energy behind it). We seem to have had a big impact on spurring The Le Roy community is trying to save the Frost Ridge Campground which the town is trying to force to close through an alleged zoning code violation lawsuit.  Since the lawsuit became news (which we broke and have provided the most in-depth and detailed coverage on) every town board meeting is packed with protesters and at the parade in Le Roy this weekend. ‘Save Frost Ridge’ got the biggest cheer from the crowd.”

Owens’ advice to other publisher-editors on community involvement:

“Show sincere and honest appreciation for your community. Don’t be afraid to be a booster. Embrace your community, care passionately about the local quality of life, and you’ll be better at business and better at journalism.”

Does community involvement pay off business-wise? I asked Owens.

“We dominate locally in audience size and advertising base,” he said.

I counted the display-ad boxes in The Batavian on Tuesday. There were 143, and that’s not counting specials like gift certificates and coupons.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.

Related Street Fight content:

— Brady on Thunderdome: The Glue at the Core Was Never Able to Dry

#SFSNYC: Jim Brady on Building Engagement and ‘Stacking Digital Dimes’

Howard Owens on What It Takes to Sustain a Hyperlocal News Site