A project of Democracy Fund

June 23, 2014

The Local Fix: Topic Love, Civic Recommendation and Comments

Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we’ll look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. Sign up to get the Local Fix delivered each week

Here is One Good Idea: A database of city contracts. The Lens in New Orleans just posted more than 5,300 government contracts and all the documents have been run through a text-recognition software so the are fully searchable. Check out the Vault at the NOLA Lens.

1) From Comments to Conversations – can local news be the place for local conversations?

On Thursday the Washington PostNew York Times and Mozilla announced a partnership to develop a new kind of comment system for news sites, designed around expanding engagement and supporting communities as contributors. The new tool, funded by the Knight Foundation, will be free for any news organization to use. Separately, Atlantic Media’s director of analytics suggests that “unmoderated comments appear to have a small, but real deleterious effect on readers’ perception of the sites” and on traffic. While some people are killing off their comment sections all together, others are experimenting with ways to make comments more useful and integral.

At the local level, there is an real opportunity make news websites central hubs for the most important debates happening in local communities. How do we get there? These two posts by Scott Rosenberg and Bora Zivkovic are a good place to start.

>>> Full Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is also a funder of the Local News Lab, which we just launched this week. The Nieman Journalism Lab has the scoop here.

2) Find Your Community’s Topic Love – rethinking newsrooms based on local niches

Responding to the leaked NYT Innovation Report, Thomas Baekdal asks: what if innovation isn’t the problem, what if the journalism itself is? Baekdal argues that a do-it-all, mass market approach to news doesn’t work anymore and that news organizations need to get to know their communities’ unique, narrow interests and passions. News needs to be more relevant and useful to communities, he says. Baekdal was talking about major national news brands, how might this translate to local news?

At Montclair State University last month the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said local media needs to tap into the “topic love” of their communities. To that end, Poynter reported this week on how the Atlanta Journal Constitution reorganized their newsroom into “topic teams”, modeled in part on Quartz’s “obsessions“.  Even a 1-2 person community news site can tap into the topic love in your community. How might such a focus shape the structure of your site, the focus of your reporting, or your modes of engagement? How might you think about building niche brands or serving discrete needs within your communities?

>>> The Carolina Public Press is doing a massive listening tour across Western North Carolina asking residents “What’s going overlooked? What is going under-reported? … And what can Carolina Public Press offer you — where you live, work, volunteer, worship and act?” Read more here.

3) New Revenue Streams in Social Media Feeds – from the beyond banner ads department

Many news organizations include social media posts as part of the ads they sell. From sponsored tweets to advertiser shout-outs on Facebook, there are a number of ways sites are using social media to expand offerings to advertisers. See for example how Oakland Local used a Twitter photo to promote a sale at Whole Foods. And on one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, Roman Mars uses social media to ask his listeners to send him examples of the websites they have built using Squarespace, one of the show’s sponsors. He then features the best ones on the air.

But outside newsrooms, people are exploring other models for raising revenue on social media. Inc recently featured the story of how Brandi Temple created a kids clothing storebased almost entirely on Facebook, and the New York Times profiled how social media stars on Vine and Instagram are striking advertising deals. What can local news organizations learn from these examples? 1) The key is building strong communities and engaging them on many levels. On social media the focus isn’t selling ads next to content, it’s about sharing connections with your community. 2) Small local businesses are looking for help navigating social media and testing new platforms. As news organizations develop expertise around different platforms there is a business opportunity for providing services to local advertisers who need help with their own digital presence (Ken Doctor has looked into this)

>>> For more ideas about social media revenue strategies check out how one artists made $50,000 selling art on Facebook, and Jeremy Miller’s list of strategies for monetizing online communities.

4) Digestible, Actionable Atomic Units – from gadget reviews to civic recommendations

Last week the technology site The Verge launched a new feature called “This is My Next” which tries to cut through all the buzz of long product reviews and endless comparison shopping and instead just tells you what to buy. TechCrunch explained it this way: “Using high-level editorial commentary to contextualize the vast array of information available on the web into digestible, actionable atomic units.”

News sites are already experimenting with niche guides, like local food or recreation guides, but this takes that model and stretches it out throughout the year. Most local sites have encyclopedic knowledge of their town or city – they know the businesses, they know the history, the know the local nonprofits. You know your communities the way the Verge knows gadgets. Whereas Yelp gives people 100 options, you can give them the best one or two and add context, history and more. Instead of product recommendations, think about civic recommendation. This could focus on services for home owners, daycare and school info for parents, how to navigate local government and more.

>>> On a related note, check out how the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica both created useful tools for assessing charitable organizations around the US to help guide people’s giving.  podcasts like  are promoting sponsors with creative interactions with fans.