Sweat Equity and Community Engagement

Lessons from J-Lab’s report on local news startups

J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University, has given seed funding to 55 community news startups (with support from the Knight Foundation, a CJR funder) in the past five years. Now J-Lab has just released a report about what it’s been able to learn so far from the project: “New Voices: What Works.”

A blog post by J-Lab’s executive director Jan Schaffer points to an important, though subjective, finding from the development of its New Voices sites (emphasis hers):

While some studies have criticized hyperlocal news startups for not replacing journalism lost because of cutbacks in traditional newsrooms, we think these sites have done something else entirely.

One of the New Voices projects’ most important contributions is not that they replaced news coverage that has been constricted—rather they added coverage that did not exist before, not even in the heyday of American journalism.

The report highlights some of the most successful community sites from the program, including:

-The Forum, based in Deerfield, N.H., which after five years has more than 350 contributors who create 50 posts a week, “and its readers assert they are ‘better educated’ than regular readers about state and local government.” The Forum also publishes three print editions a year, pegged to Spring and Fall election days and a Summer events issue.

-Oakland Local, which uses an aggressive outreach program to provide media training to the most underrepresented communities of the city. The site also attracted a huge amount of attention and readership in its first year of launch thanks to its Facebook and Twitter campaigns.

-New Castle NOW, in New Castle, N.Y., which reports mainly on the town’s board of officials and school board, and is notable for its having brought in $90,000 in advertising from 73 advertisers since it launched three years ago.

The report distills its findings into these ten key takeaways:

1. “Engagement is key” for gaining momentum and attracting the most content from the community.

2. “Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise,” so don’t expect to retain anywhere near the number of contributors you train. Plan for high turnover.

3. “Sweat equity counts for a lot.” Passion and long-term commitment are absolute requirements for site founders.

4. “Community news sites are not a business yet.” ‘Nuff said.

5. “Social media is game changing” for the purposes of “recruiting, marketing, distribution, collaboration, reporting and funding opportunities.”

6. “Technology can be a blessing and a curse.” Easy-to-use and free web tools make these sites possible, but the sites get tripped up when they try to customize.

7. “Legacy news outlets are not yet in the game.” Sites shouldn’t count on partnerships with established newsrooms to help them launch; legacy news doesn’t have the time nor the energy.

8. “The academic calendar is not good enough.” Many hyperlocals team up with college and j-school students for free labor, but they should really operate year-round if they are to gain community trust.

9. “Youth media should be supplemental,” not primary, generators of content. Training middle school and high school students is an admirable goal, but these content generators will require more supervision and have a high rate of turnover.

10. “Community radio needs help,” and cable access television does, too.

You can download the full report here.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner