The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Mar 05, 2011

How community foundations can create local online hubs with NewsCloud

Posted by Michele McLellan

Part of the series on NewsCloud's Philosophy of Online Community Building and Social Media.

By Jeff Reifman

NewsCloud's open source platform is an ideal tool for community foundations wishing to help their communities and grantees become hosts of vibrant online communities. This post will present some resources and suggestions for approaching this kind of project.

Why Community Foundations Should Invest in Local Online Hubs

The Knight Commission recently released a must read report entitled Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action:

"Ensuring that every local community has at least one high-quality hub is one of 15 key recommendations made by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy."

This report is a great resource for understanding the role local online hubs in creating informed and engaged commnunities.

The report highlights three approaches often taken: 1) Hubs focused on community government information, 2) Community Connections: Local forums and Community E-mail Listserves and 3) Community News and Commentary. NewsCloud's platform excels at the latter and can also provide forums and help present directories to community and government resources.

Consider looking at the Knight Foundation's Community Information Challenge as a possible funding source - see #7 below. Current challenge deadline is March 7th. The Community Information Challenge FAQ states: "Knight is looking for projects that help fill community information needs, foster community engagement and help residents participate in the creation and sharing of news and information." This exactly describes what you and your grantees can accomplish with the NewsCloud platform.

What is the NewsCloud Platform

NewsCloud's platform offers a variety of news and interactive community building features that are ideal for place-based (or topic-based) community building. These features are designed to transition organizations from a monolithic publishing model to a more social, peer to peer, user generated content approach.

NewsCloud's features include: publishing news and audience story links from around the Web, reader blogging, crowdsourced question and answers for member peer-support, crowdsourced directories of resources e.g. government links or community hotspots, crowdsourced idea gathering, discussion forums, classifieds and lending library (for selling, sharing or giving away physical items such as books or household stuff), photo and video galleries and even a predictions game. All of these features are tightly integrated into Facebook and Twitter for viral sharing and easy access.

Sites as large as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and MPR News are experimenting with NewsCloud sites. You can see some examples of NewsCloud in action here.

The NewsCloud code is freely available for open source download since it's been largely funded by the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. However, installing and managing a site requires moderate technical expertise and hosting expense (we plan to reduce these over the next year).

While the hosting and managing of the technology does requires some ongoing investment or technical expertise, the bulk of your investment should be made in community moderation, outreach and promotion.

Strategies for Launching Local Online Community Hubs

1) Ask your local grantees to collaborate on a community hub

Initially populating content for and promoting interactive community sites is the biggest challenge to getting these kinds of communities off the ground. If multiple grantee organizations are involved in a local community, it distributes the workload and diversifies the community from the beginning. It also is likely that they will each promote the site to different communities, enhancing your outreach and marketing effort.

Host a regular conference with moderators (weekly at first) to plan, coordinate and share learning from working with the community and the site technology. Collect feedback and requests for NewsCloud at its online support forum.

2) Consider funding one full time community moderator and grantee coordinator

Depending on the number of collaborative grantees, it may be helpful to have a dedicated staff member whose responsibility is to oversee the quality and management of the site.

3) Provide a marketing and promotions budget for the site

Sites without marketing don't grow. Period. Be sure to provide a moderate budget for raising awareness about your new hub in its first year(s).

4) Fund the hosting, technical management and support for the site

Consider this a basic infrastructure and capacity building investment to enable your grantees to collaborate on a a local online hub using the NewsCloud technology.

If you work privately with NewsCloud, it generally costs about $10,000 - $12,000 to set up, train staff, design the skin and host a site for the first year. It's less in subsequent years. Since NewsCloud is open source - you can also hire your favorite local technical consultant to do this instead.

5) Consider allocating funds for additional software development for special requests

Either working with the open source community or NewsCloud, provide some budget for requests and ideas from your grantees to be turned into reality. For example, maybe one community will want to build a plug-in to help local parents coordinate shared child care. Another might want a mobile platform (another item were hoping to build later this year).

6) Have Grantees Work Together Over Time to Experiment with Approaches for the Site Business Model and Its Sustainability

You won't fund this site forever, but it will take one to three years at least for a site to become self-sufficient. Encourage your grantees from the beginning to collaborate and brainstorm on approaches that might work. Local advertising, charging for classifieds, annual membership for readers, fundraising drives, etc.

7) Consider making an information needs application request to fund broader investment in your community site

Unfortunately, the current contest deadline is Monday, March 7th (but the form is simple - just four questions, so apply now). However, the contest runs regularly throughout the year.

Because the information challenge cycle takes about six months, it may not be as appropriate for launching your local hub as it would be for expanding and deepening your efforts e.g. outreach, unique feature development, experiments with approach and business model, etc.

(This is cross posted on the NewsCloud blog.)

Have some feedback on this post? Share it at our support discussion site.

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