Community Development: The Challenge of Building Integrated Teams for Local News Innovation

Written by on October 8th, 2010

I’m really excited that our project is working in the domain of local online-first news. Recent discussions at the Block by Block conference and analysis of best practices from recipients of the Knight Foundation-funded New Voices grants show that local news is a vibrant space for people trying to both innovate and meet the needs of their communities. But some of my interest is personal – local is what made me interested in journalism.

Prior to starting at Medill, I had been involved in a community project that engaged around prisons and literacy and was closely following debates around a proposed expansion of the county jail in Bloomington, Ind. Going to heated community meetings and also noticing apathy in other parts of the community made me recognize that information gaps and how issues are framed within a community can mediate who participates in community decision making and how they participate. Moving to Chicago with two school-aged roommates made me realize how, despite lots of news coverage of Chicago Public Schools, understanding how the system worked and how to navigate it was no easy task. At some point, the need for local news and information comes colliding into one’s life.

I’m also excited because this innovation project will have the unprecedented opportunity of working with four other classmates with a software development background. Though we’ve been immersing ourselves in reporting, audience insight, media business models and other parts of the Medill curriculum, we’ve also been anticipating the opportunity to do some coding. This gives our team a unique potential to build a working prototype or even a deliverable product rather than mock-ups. However, matching this capacity for innovation with the strengths of other parts of our team and matching our entire team’s abilities with the information needs of Chicago-area communities is not a simple task. We’re in the third week of working together as a team and while I started the week interviewing Evanston residents and looking at spreadsheets of interview responses collected by our entire team, my attention quickly jumped to imagining ideas for new online information platforms.

Our team is broken out into sub-teams including ones exploring audience insight, industry practices and needs, revenue opportunities, local business needs and technology development. Though its clear from hearing stories from online local news practitioners that attention to audience, revenue and technology are all crucial, even in our team, its hard to see how you connect the dots. We start our days with meetings and use shared Google docs to keep everyone on the same page with research findings, but as we move from research to implementation I think it will be one of our greatest challenges to make sure that each sub-teams focus is an important consideration for the others. The best idea I’ve heard so far was for team leaders to encourage different mixes of team members to have lunch together to create a less formal exchange of ideas and priorities.

Equally challenging is keeping community needs in mind when trying to code something new and cool.  Not every information important information need wants new technology. As Gary Wolf wrote in a Wired article about Craiglist, “In a design straight from the earliest days of the Web, miscellaneous posts compete for attention on page after page of blue links, undifferentiated by tags or ratings or even usernames.” Still, Wolf pointed out the site dominates in terms of traffic for people seeking dates, jobs and apartments. One account from our research described an Evanston neighborhood’s popular online news source as a mailing list, started when one neighbor went door-to-door encouraging neighbors to sign on. Many others were happy with getting information about their community from word of mouth.

When I interviewed EveryBlock creator Adrian Holovaty for a class assignment over the summer he said one of the “juicy” technical problems he was pondering was more social than technical: how to get a critical mass of people in a neighborhood to engage around EveryBlock. Even for a media organization that’s acknowledged as new and cool and innovating around technical problems, audience still remains a challenging problem space.

Negotiating these different priorities isn’t easy, and its likely to be sometimes frustrating. But this is also what makes news and information such an exciting space for a developer. Throughout the brief development cycle, I’ll be blogging not only about the coding problems we’ll be facing, but also the context of the code – both in terms of the team and the community.

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The Finale: Try Out Sourcerer


After months of hard work from all 15 members of the Local Fourth team, we’ve wrapped up our final Business Cookbook, Final Report and Presentation. Our Context Management System, Sourcerer, is up in prototype form.

And we want you to read, watch and use our work. Here’s where you can find everything:

Business Cookbook: “Sustaining Hyperlocal News: An Approach to Studying Local Business Markets”

Final Report: “Reimagining Hyperlocal News: Searching for a Sustainable Future”

Final Presentation, which is archived at this link. finally, swing by the Sourcerer prototype. Get a feel for what we’re doing. You’re going to like it, we think. The Context Management System can be found at And we’d love your feedback.

Also, if anyone out there in any aspect of the media landscape wants to try out Sourcerer on their website, we’d love to help. Send a quick note to Rich Gordon here: richgor (at)

Delivering an Ad Sales Approach: Pay Attention to Language


It’s hard to believe it, but local business owners, as we found in talking with them, are very sensitive people.

Not the kind of sensitivity that makes you want to watch “The Notebook” on repeat, but a different kind: the anger they get when being “sold” an online advertisement.

About a month ago, a few members from the Local Fourth Business/Revenue team ventured into downtown Evanston, Ill., to chat with businesses about their advertising preferences.  At first, this exercise was designed to add to our research – we were looking for more information about advertiser needs, a major portion of our final report and presentation.

What we found was a lot of built up anger – anger toward online advertising. One local business owner was so distraught that we used the words “online banner ad” on our written survey that he almost refused to fill it out. After a minute of calming and consultation, he finally agreed.

Despite all this angst toward the idea of spending money on an “online banner ad,” there was something interesting we learned by accident through this survey. You see, one option we asked business owners to rank was named, “Full-page sponsorship ads.” At the time, we semi-stole the idea off the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, whom was selling a form of advertising themselves under a package labeled in a similar fashion. We thought we could mimic the idea – turn the conventions of an “online banner ad” into something a little larger, slightly more prominent on a website that gave the impression of being more important.  In essence, as we understood it, a “Full-page sponsorship page” was nothing more than a slightly exaggerated “online banner ad.”   Yet, as our survey results showed, business owners loved this concept.

Sales can sometimes center around perceptions. Learning the connotations and meanings that business owners dislike about a certain style of advertising on the Web could mean a big difference in a sales approach for a hyperlocal publisher.  When we set out to conduct out survey that day, we had no idea that we were going to learn this type of information – that language counts when classifying advertising on the Web.

This just goes to show how important primary market and advertising research can be for a hyperlocal. Taking the time to conduct this sort of thing that open up ideas that could help lead to revenue generation.

It has become the focus of the remarks we are planning on making during our final presentation this Thursday evening (which, if you haven’t already heard, is taking place at the McCormick Tribune Center Forum on Northwestern’s Evanston campus at 5 p.m.): Sometimes finding a sustainable revenue-generating model in a hyperlocal space is about putting aside what you think you know, and learning a whole lot of little things you never knew about a market. Sometimes, as we surely found out, information you weren’t looking for will arise – and become increasingly valuable.

Main lesson: pay attention to how advertising sales are perceived to local businesses.  Perception can be everything at times, and creating a positive relationship with businesses can lead to a fruitful, long-term partnership.

Something both sides can profit from.

Some Thoughts on the Cookbook


The “money problem” for news organizations has remained unsolved for decades, and even more so for hyperlocal news organizations. Though our latest how-to guide, “Sustaining Hyperlocal News,” attempts to show and encourage hyperlocal publishers to conduct proper research and explore multiple revenue opportunities, it is by no means an ultimate solution.

When the quarter-long research finally culminated to this cookbook and I regained my consciousness, I reflected on our work and thought about the ever-so-elusive nature of the problem at hand.

As we saw first-hand at the Block-by-Block conference held in early September, there is a tremendous amount of academic research and attention being devoted to this problem… rightfully so, given the recent economic downturn of the journalism industry. But I believe that, while academic theories are generally true, no theory will ever guarantee success when you’re actually sitting down face-to-face with a business owner making that carefully worded sales pitch.

It’s really like learning to ride a bicycle – I can write a comprehensive book about riding a bicycle… I can go into details about the physics of momentum, the mechanics of human brain and the function of balance. But at the end of the day, reading this book simply won’t guarantee success when you pedal away for the very first time. In fact, I bet you will fall several times before you get it right.

With that said, I think there is an aspect to this money problem that is similar to riding a bicycle. You can read our cookbook many times over, but when it’s time for you to make that sales pitch, you need to be a skilled salesperson and not an academic (this is why in our cookbook, we also recommend hiring a full-time salesperson).

There is definitely an artistic aspect to the process of creating revenue, just like writing the content is an art in itself. There are few guides that touch on the technical part of writing, but you will ultimately develop your own unique tone and style. In the same manner, I believe that you will develop relationships with your hyperlocal audience and business owners over time in your own unique way.

Lastly, if you find our cookbook “Sustaining Hyperlocal News: An Approach To Studying Local Business Markets,” intriguing, please make an effort to attend our final presentation where we unveil an online hyperlocal product developed from our research.

A Week Away from the Final Presentation


In a week, we — the Local Fourth team — will be making our final presentation in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.

It’s been a crazy several months and speaking for myself, I can remember the first few weeks of our project when we were coming up with concepts and ideas for our vision of the dissemination of hyperlocal news. I thought the 2010 Block by Block conference held at Loyola University near the end of September was a valuable event for us to go to. More than anything else, it gave us a first-hand look at how hyperlocal websites, in different markets throughout the nation, conduct their business on a day-to-day basis.

One of the main complaints about maintaining a site was figuring out to fund it, and that’s one of the things that the Local Fourth team concentrated on as we went about constructing a resource that could generate revenue. Another complaint at the Block by Block event brought up by was the issue of interactivity. Everyone knows about Facebook and Twitter, but the question became this — how do people use those social media tools efficiently to increase awareness about their sites and local communities?

By extension, what’s the best way to get everyone involved on a hyperlocal website and give them the community news that they’re looking for?

There were many more questions that were asked at Loyola, but I think the final presentation will offer a glimpse at some of the solutions we came up with when constructing our site.

On December 9, we’ll unveil our project to the public. After that, we’ll see if we’re on the right track or not.

Determining Paths to Financial Sustainability: The Release of Our ‘Cookbook’


When I first stepped foot into the classroom where I would be embarking on my final quarter as a graduate student at Medill, you could say I was a bit taken aback at the mission statement of my capstone course: solve hyperlocal news on the Web.


Not that my classmates and I weren’t smart enough or up to the challenge, but come on – making hyperlocal news “work” online has been a hot-button problem in newsrooms and journalism institutions for, at least, the last 20 years. We’re going to somehow derive the magic key to solve it, make it financially sustainable?

Perhaps more daunting was the experience my classmates and I had at Block By Block, a September local media summit that featured hundreds of local news entrepreneurs still searching for answers to making their site financially sustainable. Some of these local news junkies were successful (I interviewed the editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a site that operated under a $1 million budget last year), while others were, well, not so successful (one entrepreneur expressed making as little as $500 in revenue every six months).

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About Our Business ‘Cookbook’


Over at Local Fourth’s YouTube channel this afternoon, we have video interviews with Frank Kalman and Steve Melendez.

Kalman, above, a leader of the team researching business and revenue, discusses the process behind his team’s “cookbook,” which will detail the economics behind a local website like the one we’re building.

Melendez is one of the project leaders and a member of the technology team. He’s been dealing with the ever-increasing need for optimal communication between the technology and research teams.

Check out more videos at Local Fourth’s YouTube.

Damn You, Mark Zuckerberg!


When we agree with something, it’s very natural to say, “oh yeah, I like that!” That phrase seems like something we all own, something that we all have a little stock in (like how all those Green Bay residents get a piece of the Packers, you know what I mean) when it’s said. But somehow, someway, Facebook has managed to take over those three words, and along with them, the thumbs up sign we all know, love, and hand out freely when we agree with something.

It’s nearly impossible to disassociate the “like” button with Facebook these days, and we’re feeling awfully strained just thinking of something similar to the phrase. In our project, we want to create a rating system, something that allows users to agree with statements and throw their support behind a particular answer to a topic. Sure, “agree” seems alright, but what sort of symbol goes with that?

We’ve tossed around a raised hand, a dog catching a frisbee, a smiley face, and the most recent, a flaming number (that indicates it’s a “burning question”). And I can totally get behind the “burning questions” idea, but during our usability testing our participants are seriously confused by the concept.

And I’m seriously steamed with the swashbuckling Mark Zuckerberg; we want our site to reflect community concerns, not look immediately like a Facebook offshoot. So I have to ask, hyper-local community, what other ways can you say “like?”

The Second-Second Story, or “Who Got there First”


Back before cable television, before web reporting and ever-quickening newsfeeds, scoops could be easily heralded — the story either was printed in your daily edition or it wasn’t. If another newspaper beat you on a story, the proof landed on your doorstep in the morning.

A rival newspaper could always do a second-day story, showcasing that it, too, was on top of an issue.

But as our dissemination of news quickened, the second-day story quickly became the second-hour story. And the second-hour story quickly has become the second-second story. (It’s complicated, I know.) So it’s getting tougher to decide who got there first, right?

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Nearing the Finish Line


Last week, the audience research team showed the most recent version of our website to a handful of Evanston residents. This week, we are taking things one step farther and conducting a handful of in-depth usability tests, which will help us gauge what needs attending to in the few weeks we have left in the quarter.

The most difficult part of these usability tests so far has been the length: typically, these types of tests should take no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. People are busy, and asking them for more time might keep them from participating at all. What’s great about this next round of testing is we’ll be able to ask several more questions, spend much more time with our interviewees and (hopefully) get incredibly detailed insights as to how Evanston residents feel about our product.

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We’re Almost There!


Can you believe it? Nearing mid-November, already? It’s hard to believe, but time is moving by quickly, and the Local Fourth Business/Revenue team is nearing completion of its main deliverable for the project: The Business “Cookbook.”

For the last two weeks, the Business/Revenue team has been cramping down, putting the final touches and design elements on our business findings and recommendations for the hyperlocal news entrepreneur.

Our “cookbook,” designed to provide a new way of thinking about making money in the hyperlocal space, takes a dive into some new ways of thinking: put audience first and foremost, not content, use academic research methods to more effectively assess your business environment and make better decisions, hire an ad sales manager, take traditional print advertising to the Web – static ads, instead of rotational banner ads, and much, much more.

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