Time to Evolve
As community news organizations grow more vulnerable to financial pressures, current approaches to Web publishing seem increasingly inadequate. To succeed now, news organizations must be willing to think more broadly about their identity and the role of their efforts online. Simply republishing the news on a Web site or a Facebook page will not sufficiently address the revenue needs of most organizations in this climate.
The traditional print publishing model provided a monopoly of sorts that forced advertisers to pay a premium to reach readers who were conditioned to a one way/consumption model for journalism. The evolution of the Internet has changed all this. Advertisers have a variety of options and readers want to consume and participate in the media in new ways.
The rise of social networks and the frequency of link sharing among friends on services such as Twitter and Facebook has not only eroded the editorial role but also contributed to the preexisting general information overload. Improvements in mobile technology are changing the way that readers consume news and the time and space in which publishers have to reach them with content and more importantly, ads. Competing for the "information bandwidth" of overwhelmed readers has never been more competitive while their attention span has never been shorter - and Twitter hasn't even yet saturated the mainstream.
Among oft-mentioned culprits, many publishers blame CraigsList (see September issue of Wired magazine, pictured right) for harming their financials; yet, few tried to leverage their trusted relationship within their communities to offer a competitive product and experience. Instead, most clung to a paid classifieds model online inside cluttered advertising portals. Readers clearly favored the simpler, free CraigsList. CraigsList has a lot of shortcomings but found niches in which to support itself, whereas community news sites simple ceded (and continue to cede) the valuable community service which is classified listings. There are other examples as well, e.g. auctions, city guides, referral services, knowledge bases, dating services, et al. While mindset was the prohibitive factor preventing news organizations from seizing these opportunities, limitations in technology expertise and capacity also remained a complicating factor.
Using Reputation to Build Robust Town Centers Online
In most communities, news organizations still have one key advantage: a valuable brand and familiar trust with readers.
It's past time for community news publishers to expand their brands from reporters of news to hosting online town centers that attract and retain the trust and loyalty of their communities. The decline of the newspaper revenue model, the Internet and the evolution of social media are figuratively calling out for publishers to step into this role.
As Dorian Benkoil wrote at Poynter last week, [Why] News Organizations Need a Facebook Strategy, but simply using Facebook's generic Pages as he suggests will not be sufficient.
This summer, I've been slowly evolving the Facebook application framework we used for our Knight Foundation research study from community action team and news publication to a burgeoning, feature-rich town center application. News organizations that adapt this kind of application can leverage their brand within social networks in new ways and expand the ways in which they reach readers on regular basis. Note: our core open source framework was featured as a Poynter Big Idea last month.
Here are some of the new features (keep in mind, the sites we've been working have not yet been widely promoted and are still considered by us to be experimental):
- Things - a way for users to share, give away or borrow real world items such as music, DVDs, books, household tools or even trucks among Facebook friends, groups or communities.
- Ideas - a crowdsourced brainstorming and consensus building feature for online communities. Readers can suggest ideas and the community at large rates and comments on them, identifying the best solutions.
- Answers - a crowdsourced, knowledge base application that lets community members ask questions or find existing answers to local questions. e.g. "Where's the best place for Thai food?"
- Twitter Room - an aggregated view of hyperlocal community twitterers in one place with integrated retweeting and Facebook sharing (so you don't have to follow all these accounts yourself).
- Talk - a Facebook wall for discussions on any number of community topics.
- Neighborhood news - The Needle aggregates neighborhood blogs to provide a broader aggregation solution for the city.
- Photo sharing and profile customization - to allow users to share and comment their favorite crowdsourced pictures. Special images can be overlaid or placed as watermarks on the user's profile photo.
The Answer Under Our Nose?
Perhaps part of the answer to the challenges of the local community journalism business model is a migration to a more complete online town hall, rather than some undiscovered shift in the core approach to reporting the news (although I applaud innovative new approaches to storytelling online).
Facebook is an ideal application platform for these types of online communities. With more than 250 million users, most of the people we know as as friends and acquaintances already have an account. Facebook's application platform and authentication allow our framework to provide a consistent look and feel, a seamless unified login and some connection to the people we already know. e.g. Want to give away a crib to your Facebook mom's group or offer a truck to your Facebook friends - you can.
In contrast, the recently revamped online only Seattle Post Intelligencer on the Web offers many of these same services but trying to use each service is a complex mishmash, each feature is on an entirely different website with a distinct login and no connection to your Facebook network.
Examples in Facebook
While most of the sites running our framework haven't seen much promotion or exposure yet, we've been using them to put the new features through their paces and to experiment. You can see examples of some below:
- The Needle, a community site for Seattle
- ObamaVision, a topical site covering the Obama Agenda
- Parent Buzz, a topical Facebook community for parents
- Hot Dish, a climate change news site which earlier included an action team contest related to building climate awareness for our research study
- MnDaily, a community news site in Facebook for student newspaper covering the University of Minnesota, also used in our research study
- GenOmics News, an educational site on genome research powered by Canadian nonprofit Genome Alberta
- In:Site, an arts & culture community published as part of a University of Washington journalism class in Spring 2009 which NewsCloud participated in (currently on summer hiatus)
- NewsCloud, the generic example application running at NewsCloud.com
Our application framework is integrated with Google Ad Manager to provide a variety of revenue opportunities including direct sales. And, we're going to keep on improving and expanding this platform, polishing these services and adding new features. We even recently migrated the NewsCloud codebase to Facebook exclusively so we could focus on only one platform.
As community publishers know, the business challenges they face are distinct from national startups such as the Huffington Post. Succeeding in smaller markets is harder, just ask the Seattle Post Globe, founded in the wake of the downsizing of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, now possibly in its last week of operation. If new approaches aren't taken, it's quite possible most local news sites will be primarily consumed on mobile feed readers or through 140 character briefs written by friends on Twitter.
While our platform is clearly not the only answer, it may provide one way to build loyalty, expand relationships with readers and create new revenue opportunities.
About Us and Related Links
Jeff Reifman is the founder of NewsCloud. He is formerly a Group Program Manager at Microsoft, having helped launch MSNBC.com, and has written three freelance features for the Seattle Weekly. He has been involved in nonprofit technology development for six years and lives in Seattle. Read more. You can email him at jeff at newscloud dot com.
Here are a few other related links:
- Information about our Facebook application framework for your community or publication
- Our research page related to the Knight Foundation grant
- Press coverage of our research and Facebook efforts