SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — This spring, San Antonio residents will vote on a five-year, $596 million bond package intended to upgrade the city’s infrastructure. The package includes 140 projects across the city, such as improvements to parks, sidewalks, and drainage facilities.
Until they go to the polls on May 12, citizens who want to learn details about these projects can visit NOWCastSA.com, an online community news outlet serving the San Antonio area. The site features an interactive Google map that reveals photographs, budgets, and other details for each of the projects, as well as webcasts from the San Antonio Bond Committee meetings. Soon, articles from local journalism students who have visited the proposed project sites will be available for reading. And for those who want to keep in touch with other citizens to share opinions and information on the bond package, NOWCastSA has incorporating Drupal’s Organic Groups feature into the site so people can create social networking circles around individual projects or issues.
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The extensive bond package coverage is part of NOWCastSA’s editorial mission to promote civic engagement by arming San Antonio’s residents with data and information. “Our readers have a far better idea of what’s behind these numbers [than us],” says Charlotte-Anne Lucas, managing director of the site. “The way we’re trying to set this up, contribution from the community is every bit as important as what we write.” The site’s interactivity between content and users is the “very opposite of old media,” according to Lucas, who was a newspaper journalist before beginning to manage and edit online platforms in 1999.
NOWCastSA was founded in 2009 as a grassroots project of Community Information Now (CI:NOW), a nonprofit consortium of twenty-five San Antonio organizations that, in their words, seeks to provide a network for creating positive change in the San Antonio and south-central Texas region. In addition to Lucas, NOWCastSA employs four full-time staffers, including a video journalist and video producer.
NOWCastSA covers a breadth of topics such as housing, transportation, the environment, health, and local culture. The site emphasizes multimedia coverage, particularly video and live webcasts. The site has live-cast everything from chess matches to town hall meetings and city planning workshops. In 2011, the site streamed eight high school graduations in San Antonio, and in the process gave a parent deployed in Iraq the opportunity to watch his son graduate.
An abundance of video content is one of the reasons NOWCastSA boasts a high “stickiness” rate, according to Lucas. “People hang out there for eleven minutes!” she says. “When people do connect, they stay with us.” In 2011, the site averaged 2,785 unique viewers per month. Viewers are also apt to engage with the comments feature of the site to engage in conversation with each other.
The site features a section on SA 2020, a long-term planning initiative launched by San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro. In this section, community members discuss economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and other topics important to the future of the city. These topics have garnered thousands of comments from the site’s visitors. As a result, students from the University of Texas in San Antonio are using them as an archive for research on civic engagement, according to Lucas. “My numbers overall may not be super high, but when I get that many comments, I feel like we’re engaged with our audience really well.”
NOWCastSA was launched through a two-year, $488,000 challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. CI:NOW contributed $438,000 and the San Antonio Area Foundation, a public charity, gave $50,000. In 2010, NOWCastSa was awarded another two-year challenge grant from the Knight Foundation for $205,000, which was matched by CI:Now and a variety of other San Antonio institutions. Staring this year, NOWCastSa will begin advertising, underwriting, and sponsorship opportunities for local businesses and organizations. Even without advertising, the site brought in $51,000 in underwriting in 2011 and they are hoping to double that number in 2012.
“In terms of what it costs to keep NOWCastSa alive, we burn $1,000 a day,” says Lucas who is optimistic about the financial future of the organization. “People recognize it’s a service to our community.”
City: San Antonio