The future of community news is bright: thoughts from Block by Block 2011

Once again, I’m coming away from Block by Block, a gathering of primarily local news startups, with dozens of innovative ideas and thought-provoking philosophies to chew on. Kudos to Michele McLellan and Jay Rosen for enabling this community of passion to get together.

Here’s some of what I learned and want to take back to my community outreach team at the Columbia Missourian.

— Engagement efforts can’t be the frosting on the cake. They’re the meat and potatoes and should make up your basic approach to community interactions. Don’t report a story, then figure out how to share it. Have a specific audience in mind from the idea-generation stage, and go about your reporting in a way that figures out how you can make sure the people who most want and need the content will find it.

— If you want to grow your audience, make sure leaders in the community know what you’re all about. When Front Porch Forum launches in a new town, they personally get in touch with librarians, city council members, school board members, etc.

— Don’t expect your presence, or your message, to stick with people the first time. It often takes nine impressions for a message to resonate.

— Personally thank people. For registering, for contributing, for sharing, for reading. Sometimes it’s appropriate to do that publicly.

— Live and work socially. This does not mean just the digital tools we’ve come to know as social media. Be social in your community and in how you gather, produce and distribute your content. Make it easy for others to be social around what you’re doing. The Rapidian posts an image with every story in a Facebook gallery, with a link back to the site. They then tag every person connected to the story in the image. Simple, and brilliant.

— Get comfortable with the idea that growing audience involves some marketing. It’s okay to get excited when people wear your t-shirts or participate in your contest. Those things, while not traditional journalism, create a space where journalism can happen.

— Happy hours increase readership. This reminds me of a success metric that was suggested during the Engagement Metric workshop we hosted at RJI last spring. Our report (downloadable here) included the idea that community meet-ups could be judged on the number of empty beer bottles at the end of the event. I could get on board with that.

— When you invite people to get involved in your site, approach the interaction not from a position of what you need, but of what the people might have to contribute. Do you have two minutes? An hour? $10? A story to tell?

— MyVerona has a photo contest, in which they post old photos of community members and invite people to guess who it is. For a bonus, you can name someone they’re related to. I sure wish I lived in a town small enough to try this.

— A value of comments that we shouldn’t overlook, and should actually recognize and encourage, is their ability to keep a story alive. The shelf life of a story grows significantly when the conversation around the story carries on. A huge opportunity lies in what journalists choose to do with that.

— Chataratti posted complicated documents on Document Cloud and invited questions. They ended up with readers helping each other understand an important civic issue.

— How about a blog for advertisers, sharing success stories, interactions and site statistics. Actively show your value.

— We’ve got to think more broadly about the incentives we offer to contribute. How about pairing with advertisers? The more you interact, the more actual dollars or savings you earn? Or public recognition and identity building? Think of how a casino draws you into its fold by promoting you to new levels in their loyalty programs. “This is Joy. She’s one of our most valued/frequent/thoughtful contributors.”

— Google Trends and Twitter trending topics are so valuable. What if we shared information about that more actively with our users? Here’s what we see you’re talking about today.

— Livestream community events. NOWcastSA streamed high school graduations. Family members from across the world watched. Now that’s community service.


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