Getting Local: Pondering the Future of News Engagement

technology / Article

"I'm excited about news. I'm not excited about paper." - Harper Reed, founder of Threadless

Knight's local nonprofit news summit in Miami.

It's the ultimate mind-meld in Miami. We've teamed up representatives from some of the hottest local nonprofit news organizations around the country with smart thinkers from the entrepreneurial community for a day-long conference on how to build sustainability through not just revenue, but better audience engagement and organizational capacity.

We'll be putting up inpidual posts about the themes that emerged, but here's a brief preview:

The engagement-donation paradox The paradox describes a situation in which the most active users of a site are also the least likely to give. Joel Kramer, CEO of MinnPost, said the biggest donors to his news organization tend to be older, philanthrophic folk who don't frequently interact with the site. On the flip side, the audience members who are most engaged with the site — those who are part of MinnPost's robust commenting community or share its stories through social media — give in the smallest numbers if they give at all. At the St. Louis Beacon, "Someone who gave us $750 didn't even know our URL," said the Beacon's Nicole Hollway.

Everything old is new again We know journalism is no longer a lecture, it's a conversation. For many of the local news startups meeting Friday, those conversations are best cultivated and nurtured through face-to-face interactions. The Texas Tribune has found a reliable revenue stream through major sponsorships of its TribLive breakfast events, in which key newsmakers are interviewed before live audiences. The St. Louis Beacon, which sees itself "not as a news organization but as an engagement engine," hosts three or four events per month. Voice of San Diego is seeing its most loyal readers show up at coffees with its staff.  "Our coffees are so simple because we invite the members to come in and talk to us. Our agenda is to find out what they are up to. But their agenda is to spread influence/gawk at the people whose words they read," said VOSD engagement editor Grant Barrett. These in-person engagements are creating higher brand identity, trust in the news organization, and in many cases, they can translate to dollars. But open questions remain about how to reach audiences beyond those who are most loyally showing up at in-person get togethers.

Comparing apples to monthly uniques to oranges The two dozen journo-entrepreneurs in Miami could agree on the various factors that defined engagement, but they lack a universal system for measuring it. Where monthly uniques are valuable for many, the news organizations that favor a dedicated, intense community cared far less about sometimes-vaunted uniques. The group called for a universal system to measure the strength of their social value in communities, but acknowledged that if revenue sustainability is the goal, "the metric that matters" tends to be the ones that sponsors and advertisers care about at the point they're deciding to spend.

Make an embeddable The YouTube community grew around a simple action that allowed users to spread the YouTube brand: sharing an embeddable video. Hong Qu, former user interface designer at YouTube and now a graduate student at CUNY, says you can easily translate that YouTube type engagement to the news ecosystem by creating news widgets that are easily embeddable for your audience. It's a way of freeing your content and letting it go, but those embeddables can still be tracked to measure what's happening as your widget is spread across the web.

My community, myself T-shirt company Threadless was built on the strength of a vibrant community of amateur t-shirt designers and the people who voted for them. Sometimes, those preferences were for keyboard cat tees. But hey, community rules. Threadless co-founder Harper Reed's simple truths:

  1. If you empower the user, they will empower you and empower your community.
  2. "If you don’t identify with your community, you are not in the right community. If you feel you are above, or below, you are not in the right place. You can argue with that, but that’s true."

So you can probably tell it was an intense day of big brains sharing big ideas. But even larger questions remain: how can strong communities be better leveraged for sustainable revenue? What is the value of a community? Are we doing a good enough job of engaging the wider audience, and not just our most loyal community members? To be continued...

Elise Hu is the digital editor of the Impact of Government project at NPR. She is covering this event as a freelance writer for Knight Foundation.

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