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The three primary roles your local website should play

Submitted by yelvington on January 26, 2009 - 5:34pm

Here's an image I've been using a lot lately, both for internal training and external presentations such as last week's BPB Forum Lokaljournalismus in Schwerin, Germany.

Journalists tend to gravitate to only one of these roles: the town crier, the quaint colonial-era village character who walks around ringing a bell telling you what's happening. It comes naturally. This is why 24x7 coverage teams and the "continuous news desk" concept take root so quickly when newsrooms suddenly awaken to the urgency of taking the Internet seriously.

But the other roles aren't secondary. They're coequal, and they're grossly neglected by most local news websites.

Moreover, they consistently surface in qualitative research as poorly met needs. The language people use is a little different, but recognizable: "Help me connect with people." "Help me get answers I need." "Help me find people like me." "Help me pursue my interests."

The guys from Harvard will tell you that a poorly met need is a business opportunity -- but you shouldn't need an MBA from HBS to tell you that.

It's easy to point the finger at the "business side" and say they're responsible for the revenue, and they're just not selling enough advertising to support our really great content.

The inconvenient truth is that the content isn't all that great, as judged by the marketplace.

Actual usage data from U.S. newspaper websites consistently demonstrates great reach (monthly cumulative unique-user count) and terrible frequency. There is an audience segment that uses local online news very heavily -- 30, 40, 100 times a month or more. But it's small, too small to sustain the World Of Journalism As We Know It.

News is not enough. Doing the same thing better and faster is not enough. It's time to look left and right at what's not being done.

What does a town square look like? Forums, blogs and photo sharing are obvious tools, and many newspapers have finally -- after years of active resistance -- grown comfortable with the idea of hosting them, if not adept at cultivating them.

But who in mainstream media has done as good a job of aggregating local voices as Chicago's Windy Citizen or Boston's Universal Hub?

And why not? It's not a matter of technology (both those sites use free, open-source tools) but rather of recognizing the value created by sending people away. What's the Number One website, the most powerful brand on the Internet? Google. What does it do? It sends people away. What do they do? They come back for more.

The third role, the "town expert" role, is where we all fail.

We even fail at being the town expert in the territory where we might claim to excel, the town crier function. (Note that I have drawn overlapping circles.) Show me one single local newspaper site, just one, that has done a great job of building topics pages. Yahoo has topics pages. Cnet has topics pages. Newspaper sites? They have stories. Incremental stories that beg to be placed in context.

But topics pages aren't the only model. What about Wikipedia? AmplifySD tried the wiki model for music, and of course the San Diego Union Tribune rewarded the experimenters by abolishing the online department and throwing its leaders overboard.

The brighter spots are outside the mainstream news industry, projects like EveryBlock and Repsheet.

Don't forget that the town expert overlaps with the town square. The informal community conversation has long been a primary source of answers. Who can I trust to work on my car? What about that new hair salon? Where can I leave my pet while I'm gone for the weekend?

Back in the days of dialup online services like CompuServe and The Source, where time really was money ($6 to $12 an hour), those services built a business around forums that provided answers to questions. They were called SIGS -- special interest groups -- and while there certainly was some idle chatter, when the meter was running the bulk of the conversation was direct and practical.

Too few people now working in online media enjoyed that experience. If they had, they might understand forums and comments as being sources of something other than pageviews and headaches.

Technology is not the problem. It rarely is. The deficit isn't in a lack of tools, or a lack of vendors. It's in a lack of vision coupled with execution. If you see your role only as it relates to the town crier function, then you're going to pour all your energies into storytelling techniques, flash, video and mojo dojo.

Those are not bad things. But they will not fix the frequency problem, and they will leave the community with poorly met needs. Don't complain if someone else steps in with a solution.

Comments

This is so true. I hate when stories aren't put in perspective. As a fairly in-the-know local in my city, I cringe when I read stuff and wonder if other readers have any clue as to what the reporter is talking about. I worry that the story, if they even read it, will leave them with more questions than answers. And when I get into conversations with people about the news, it's clear that many are woefully under-informed. But they either don't know where to go to remedy that or, worse yet, they don't care that they have such a superficial understanding. It's staggering how many blanks there are to fill in. Thank you for recognizing the work that's being done by sites like WindyCitizen.com to help alleviate that.

Just love your three circles diagram. I know well that newspaper content isn't serving readers or giving them what they want. But you articulate the roles in a way that really makes sense. Newspaper Web sites so often are designed to mimic the newspapers, not create context, and are so hard to negotiate. Plus, the reader needs you talk about -- Who can I trust to work on my car? What about that new hair salon? Where can I leave my pet while I'm gone for the weekend? -- are often not considered. Many journalists, I think, wouldn't even consider answering those questions as part of their jobs. No wonder readers don't feel connected or engaged or that they need us.

You challenge us all to mention at least one paper that has great topic pages. There is one: NYT Check out http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/all/b/index.html That would've been great in any local paper

Well, those are great examples, and a starting effort is far better than nothing, but I don't think they're great topics pages. They're really just database queries returning newspaper stories (Atlanta glues on a paragraph that feels more promotional than informational). I'd say the same thing about USA Today's topics pages.

What we need is some journalistic thinking applied to those topics, an editorially crafted synopsis, pictures and maps where appropriate. What do people need to know in order to get into this topic? "Recent stories about this topic" should be a component, not the sum.

Steve, Are you thinking along the lines of Mahalo pages? http://www.mahalo.com/John_McCain Also, have you checked out the Drupal comment subscription plugin? Highly recommended. http://drupal.org/project/comment_subscribe

Tremendous post, Steve. And the dirty little secret is that there's more advertising revenue for the Town Square and Town Expert sectors than there is for news. Local news sites need to provide all three to serve readers and be successful.

First, thanks for the kind link! As with everything else, the non-newspaper "town expert" pioneers have already settled down and become homesteaders. Look at Yelp or even some LiveJournal communities. To its credit, the Boston Globe is moving into this area. See BoMoms - although if I were in management there, I might be a bit concerned that they have a front-page post that asks "Are you a BoMoms blogger? Let us know what you're writing about," because, well, if you have to ask your own site users what they're writing about, you might have some issues.

Hi Steve, This very much describes the vision behind Phillyfuture.org and why it is implemented the way it was in its current form (experiencing serious down time right now btw). The aggregator brings together many of the the most interesting bloggers across the region and serves as the Town Square. The group blog was to serves as as place for Town Criers to drive attention to interesting relevant subject matter about Philly. I was hoping having the group blog thrive along with the aggregator would have attracted some Town Experts, and on and off, that did happen. I need to write a piece about creating a site like Philly Future and the challenges it has presented as a hobby. The important thing about your piece here for me Steve is that it justifies my reasoning about having both a group blog and an aggregator working in concert at the service. Thanks, Karl

The subject line says it. Just want to add that Print has an important role in this model. I'm a Print evangelist so of course I see that every problem of communication needs Print in the mix to really work for masses of people instead of niche audiences. "great reach and terrible frequency" Just fair notice I'm going to use that wherever appropriate. If possible I'll link back. But please accept my apologies if I sometimes forget. I figure that after about a month, it enters the open land of blablablabla. The argument about the critical nature of Print is much too long and not as well written, so if you're interested, here's the link: http://sellingprint.blogspot.com/2009/02/people-keep-talking-at-harvard.html

The truth is that newspaper owners have been bleeding papers for decades with obscene profits. Now, faced with brutal competition, the publishers are blaming their problems on the new competition . In fact most dailies in this country are tired and starved. Greed has weakened them so much they can not compete. That's the real problem and it is too late to fix it now. I've been a publisher and owner. I know how the papers were called "franchises" and "clean" operations (meaning no unions). Frankly my time with publshers was very discouraging often sickening. Most cared very little for journalism, or their readers. They are finished. Good riddance.

Great post, Steve. It can't be denied that journalism is still business, especially in these times of great competition from anywhere. Some journalists would rather bank on the selling power of the news they gather. News has become a commodity to sell. Whatever happened to the journalists' creed? It's just the sign of the times. James

As the architect of the USATODAY.com topic pages, I feel like I need to get my butt in gear and get some features moving off our roadmap and into our topic page application! I also believe that topic pages should be a lot more than just reverse chron lists of stories, but I'm also trying not to recreate Wikipedia on our site. There's an appropriate balance somewhere in between - so far we've integrated photos and other content from the web using Daylife's API. But there's a lot more we can do. Thanks for the nudge, Steve.

Aggregate ALL (pictures, video, text) the local content you can. Then section off the aggregation by user and editor defined tags, integrate search and add some contextual advertising... This is all well and good as this discussion has been going on for years but what's next after we've all become aggregators? Whats next after we've all become Google? *dusting off the crystal ball eagerly peering into the future

I find that there is little interest in my community for news in the traditional sense - that being news that editors believe readers need to know. Readers seem to increasingly want information, even news must be presented as info. Why? Probably because people need information to help them make sense of their world. Thanks fot the insight. It helps us to publish a better local website.

I found Steve's article really interesting and very true. In the UK hyperlocal websites haven't caught on as well as they have done in the USA, but I’m sure they soon will soon. After being made redundant, early this year, myself and a business partner decided to setup and launch a true local website for the county. Rather than just supply local news and sport from an independent source we added all sorts of other content that would be of interest to local Shropshire people! www.shropshirelive.com was born and continues to grow. What we think is unique about the site is the 'get involved' factor. Everyone in the community can become part of the website by reporting on local issues, taking photographs, reviewing events, restaurants, films and shows or adding any kind of feature! Please do take a look at http://www.shropshirelive.com, I would love to know your thoughts and comments, so please do not hesitate to mail me! Of course if you would like to get involved too, then get in touch. Martin.

I was really glad to find this article as I have been working over the past 2 years developing a network of local town websites that do more than just aggregate news stories and articles. My plan is to engage the members of the community by offering financial incentives for their contributions to the online version of their town. While we aggregate news headlines and summaries from external local resources, we also engage our members to submit their own content in the form of articles, opinion pieces, pictures and videos. We also provide ways for intracommunal communication by sorting a members global social contacts by their location, providing real-time chat and offline discussions and tools for them to find and engage their neighbors. After considering what you have outlined I think our best move forward would be to cross-link these various components into topic groups where on a large scale I would wander if a shared tag system would be an appropriate model? I would be extremely appreciative of any further feedback I might be able to get from you and others in relationship to my project which you can access from our core parent domain at http://localtownwebsites.com

Great way of looking at this Steve. The reason why many journalists and local experts shy away from going town the Town Square route is that internet commenters on many news and local websites are downright rude and (sometimes) very aggressive. Moderating comments and the "hey why did you moderate my comment" type stuff is quite a bind. This is something I'd really like to crack on my own website as this will encourage lots of repeat visitors, but it's a tough nut to crack.

Over the past several months, our Local Town News project for over 30,000 supported towns across America began offering a "Local Town Mayor" program where we have a bonified resident of the town partner with us for 50% of all earnings for that town. The town mayors act in the capacity of a local manger for the community, with one of the primary tasks being the moderation of submitted articles and comments. The moderation against offensive posts, spam and vulgarity enhances the environment for the readers and independent journalists who may place their own monetized ad codes along with their published articles in the capacity of town criers. Our "Online Mayors" have an offline presence in their community, and in order to build growth for their town web portal, are directed to contact every municipal, public and non profit agency in their towns to attract representatives of these organizations as participating members of the online community, providing a slew of "Town Experts" into our mix. All of this is provided at the dedicated URL for that town, our online town square while where we aggregate our content with links off site to other online resources, such as local television and newspaper websites, and even local businesses through our directory data. So I think we are within all the circles on your display, and have add another circle, our mayor or Town Management circle right in the middle overlapping them, and then we put the entire thing in a circle for the entire nation. You can see how we have implemented this by going to http://LocalTownWebsites.com and use our quick location finding tools to get to your town's specific local town website.