Getting Local II: Terms of engagement – Knight Foundation

Getting Local II: Terms of engagement

The newspaper on the Web is not a sustainable model, and nonprofit news start ups are placing more and more emphasis on engaging their users with content and conversation, and perhaps, as members or donors. A new report from the Knight Foundation details emerging engagement practices at several of the larger nonprofit news sites.

Along with trying to create to revenue streams, larger nonprofit news sites are experimenting with engagement as well.

A new report, “Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” explores the role that userengagement plays in their sustainability strategies.

The bottom line is that these news organizations need strong connections to defined communities in order to be able to produce impact (aka “social value”) that may, in turn, attract financial support via donors and members as well as more commercial sources such as corporate sponsorships and advertising.

The report (I am co-author with Mayur Patel, Knight VP/Strategy and Assessment) details emerging practices at seven sites.

Looking at engagement, The Texas Tribune has set an impressive pace for both traffic growth and time spent on site. The site, launched in 2009, averaged nearly 400,000 unique visitors in the first four months of 2011. The Tribune also saw the greatest growth among the sites, more than doubling its traffic from about 200,000 unique visitors in March 2010 to 407,000 in March 2011. Average time on site per visit was nearly four minutes.

Two factors may play a role: 1. Texas Tribune has a defined target niche audience of people who are highly engaged in Texas politics and civic affairs; the site is not trying to appeal to a mass audience. 2. Among content innovations, the organization provides access in a highly searchable format to hundreds of public databases, which have proven a significant draw to the site.

Among other sites, engagement practices we reported on include;

Voice of San Diego hired an engagement editor, whose role is to increase the visibility of the site and deepen its connection with users. In 2011, VOSD also launched a major community event – Politifest 2011which includes a mayoral debate and an “idea tournament” like American Idol, as well as a member survey to query members on controversial issues of the day.

MinnPost added a journalist who specializes in data and crowd sourcing. With this new capacity the site produced its first interactive content, You Fix the Budget Deficit, which attracted more than 10,000 visitors.

The Bay Citizen has sought to engage citizens through the innovative use of high-impact data applications, including building a Bicycle Accident Tracker that tapped into the needs of the Bay Area’s active bicycling community.

New Haven Independent has fostered a robust commenting community around civic issues such as education by posting strict guidelines for engagement. The Independent also engages readers in more practical and fun ways, such as twice-a-year contests to see who can discover the most typographical errors on the site. The Independent keeps track of readers who email the most typos on a leader board and gives branded mugs to the winners.

* The St. Louis Beacon hosts a monthly Beacon & Eggs discussion of neighborhood development issues and bimonthly Barroom Conversations about race and class as part of its efforts to bring individuals together. In 2010, it started an annual Beacon Festival with arts, music and literary events to engage citizens in the St. Louis region.

The site profiles that accompany the report have additional examples of engagement practices. An eighth profile explores the lessons from the demise of the Chi-Town Daily News in 2009. (The link is to the main report page – You will find links to pdfs of the overview and profiles on the right.)

What emerges from these examples and others in the report is a picture of journalists and news organizations who are learning to extend themselves well beyond their traditional roles of producing stories. I believe their emerging practices are worth exploration and adoption by other news organizations.

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