Last week, some of the busiest people in journalism pried themselves away from their laptops, stood up from their kitchen table offices, and met face to face. It was the Block by Block Community News Summit, where the publishers of about 100 community news sites met in Chicago for the first event of its kind.
Hosted by Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Michele McLellan and NYU professor Jay Rosen, the conference was the natural culmination of the research McLellan has done surveying the most promising local news sites for RJI. “When we started talking to the publishers, it was so clear that that they were starting to learn things that were worth sharing, and that they were desperate to talk to each other,” McLellan said.
The people she spoke to for her survey were those who would most benefit from sharing ideas with one another, but who were also probably least likely to be able to have the time to do so. She organized the conference in order to pull them out of their daily grind to swap what they’d learned since they launched their sites. Because they came from all over the country (and Canada!), the attendees made up a special group: hardworking, prolific editors, all striving for the same things, without being at all in competition with one another.
McLellan said she was tired of community news getting a bad rap. She pointed out that if you look at the wide spectrum of hyperlocal blogs and news sites, there are going to be some duds. But that’s to be expected, she added, as there is such a low bar to entry. As publishing online gets easier, she wants to focus on the most innovative sites, the “leading edges” in the field. Sites like The Oakland Local, which partners with community organizations in the city to find new voices that are typically underrepresented in the media. Or Gapers Block, a Chicago-based site that started up in 2003, and still has only one editor, but over 100 writers all working for free. Or Open Media Boston, whose editor is working to join with other sites in a network that can sell ads together.
These are the entrepreneurs who are inventing new models of journalism on the local level. They already know how to do good journalism. They just need help staying alive. “Five years ago, just getting started was a big challenge,” said McLellan. “Starting isn’t hard anymore. Now it’s about how to get to the next level.”
There were no “experts” present, by design. As Rosen said in his introductory talk at the beginning of the conference, “There are no speakers at this conference, because the sites are the stars.” The idea behind the conference was that the participants, all leaders in news innovation in their individual communities, would be able to teach each other what worked and what didn’t.
So, for instance, the publishers of Birmingham’s The Terminal, The Oakland Local, Spot.us and West Seattle Blog spoke in the morning about community engagement. And publishers from New York’s theLoop, Dallas’ Pegasus News, New Jersey’s Baristanet, and Alamo City Times talked about how to attract and incorporate local advertising. Breakout sessions in the afternoon covered topics like legal best practices, social media, and figuring out the best revenue sources for each site.
All day, participants asked each other the toughest questions: Are there any ads you wouldn’t take? How do you maintain editorial standards when you depend on inexperienced volunteers for content? Where do you draw the line between community engagement and community advocacy? What should your relationship be with existing traditional media sources? If you’re not native to the community you’re reporting on, who’s going to tell you when you’re not getting it right?
One especially interesting part of the conference was the kickoff dinner on Thursday evening, when McLellan and Rosen did a roll call of the attendees, asking each one to stand up and sum up what they wanted to learn while they were there, and what lessons they thought they could share. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the most common skill they said they could share was “collaboration,” and what they most wanted to learn about was “money.” One publisher after another stood up and said a variation of “I’ve figured out how to do this, but I don’t know how to make it last.”
Although the spirit of the conference was overwhelmingly positive and inspirational, there was just one tense moment when someone said that she came to the conference to see what other publishers thought about AOL’s quickly expanding hyperlocal network Patch, and whether they, too, felt threatened. (Someone from the next table over hissed at the mention.) It was unclear whether she knew that representatives from both Patch and Yahoo were present; they hadn’t been included in McLellan and Rosen’s roll call. But when they got all the way through the alphabetical list, after Brad Flora of Windy Citizen had graciously welcomed everyone to Chicago, a spontaneous shout came from a table in the center of the room: “Why doesn’t Patch stand up and tell us what we can learn from them?”
Tim Windsor, a regional editor at Patch, was a good sport: “I want to learn about how to do a better job of listening to our communities…and I think what I can try to share is some of our thoughts about how we can carry journalism forward into the twenty-first century, how we can make it a sustainable business.” Anthony Moor from Yahoo was next: “I’m here to learn how you guys are making this happen, and what you need,” he said. “Yahoo is in sort of an exploratory mode about local news, and we’re really not sure what we’re going to do, so we’re here to learn. And what I can share, I hope, is the largest website on the Internet. So I think we know something about gathering audiences.”
The prevailing concerns expressed at the outset of the conference (money and corporate takeover) weren’t universal, however. One woman shook her head when talk at the dinner table strayed too long on the question of money, saying quietly to me, “I’m so tired of people asking me about my site’s ‘sustainability.’ It’s such a conversation killer for me. It would be like my giving birth to my daughter and then immediately asking her how she planned on feeding herself.” At another point during the dinner, the man on the other side of me leaned over and whispered, “What’s Patch?”