A’s to some Q’s from this week’s E&P webinar

By Steve Outing

This week I was one of the speakers in a webinar, “Hometown Paper In A Digital World: Serving Local Audiences As Well As Advertisers Through Search And Community,” produced by Nielsen and sponsored by Editor & Publisher. (I write a column for E&P Online.)

Audience members had the opportunity to send in questions for the speakers to answer, but there wasn’t time to answer but a couple during the webinar. I’m going to answer the questions here on my blog, because they were good questions and perhaps you will find the answers useful.

I spent my 10 minutes of the webinar discussing community and external content — in other words, the need for newspapers to step up to the plate in terms of creating online communities, and going “outside of the box” when it comes to the type of content newspapers offer online.

Here are the unanwsered questions:

Why isn’t the content that local newspapers already have, enough?

One of my messages during the webinar was that newspaper websites need to “stop being islands.” The thing with the web is: there’s a wealth of content — news and information — being produced that covers your local community. Local bloggers cover your community, independent of any organization. Public officials blog. Governments and community groups produce new information. There are online discussions going on that are of interest to some members of your audience. Schools produce news and information that goes onto their websites or out in newsletters. And so on.

In short, there’s a huge flow of information about your community that’s happening every day. It’s difficult to keep track of that, and to know when there are bits of this flow that are relevant to you — because it’s something about your neighborhood, or your kids’ school, or your church, etc. Websites like Outside.in and Yourstreet.com are early attempts at tapping into and capturing and filtering this flow of news and information.

So the first part of my answer to this question is that this is a great opportunity to provide a valuable service to a newspaper’s readers — it fulfills a need (that others will quickly fill if you don’t move quickly). Indeed, I would suggest that by not offering this (external) news and information, you’re not fully serving your community.

The second part of my answer is that news consumption habits are changing quickly online. We all know that it’s a simple matter to sample many different news and information sources with a few clicks. Online, there’s not the brand loyalty that news companies enjoyed in the pre-digital era. News aggregators like Google News, Yahoo! News and others increasingly are the way into news — especially for the younger generation who don’t have loyalty to old news brands. New aggregators like Outside.in and Yourstreet.com are entering the picture.

A local news organization is more likely to remain relevant by broadening the information it can provide to its community, becoming a news aggregator itself as a way to stem the need for people in your community to look to other aggregators to get the full picture of what’s happening.

The final part of my answer is that newspapers increasingly are cutting back on staff and newshole. My local paper in Boulder, Colorado, is getting steadily slimmer and slimmer. Its Sunday editions now resemble the old weekday editions. Industrywide, editorial staffs are getting trimmed. The product that newspapers offer is less than it used to be. Tapping all of the freely available news and information sources about your community is a smart way to do more under these trying circumstances.

Adding in bloggers and outside information, volunteer researchers, etc. — how do newspaper editors make sure of credibility? Editing all that content?

It depends on how you use outside information. If you’re accepting submissions of citizen photos from a news event, or eyewitness accounts, to add to staff reporting, it’s smart to do some verification. (You’ve got editors capable of that.) If you’ve got a page that links to independent bloggers from your community, verification is not something you need to do; but you will want to identify the blogger as independent so as not to confuse your online users, and alert them that you cannot verify the accuracy or credibility of the blogger. If the blogger is “featured” by you on an ongoing basis, that implies a relationship, so you will want to have an editor keep an eye out.

If a reporter is utilizing the “crowd sourcing” technique on a reporting project, some verification is going to be part of the reporter’s job.

“Editing all that content” isn’t something you should be doing. Your role is bringing alternative sources of information and news to the community’s attention, verifying that it’s worthy of their attention. I don’t think that you have any business, for example, editing the city mayor’s blog that he/she publishes independently or on the city website.

A lot of this has to do with labeling. Let your readers know which content is from your staff, and which is beyond your control but you are pointing readers to as a service to them (e.g., the independent blogs of soldiers from your community serving in Afghanistan).

It’s easy to ask volunteer bloggers or citizen reporters to help out, but I find that most bloggers claim to be experts but really they’re not. What they say is often libelous and lacks integrity. It seems like it would be a huge task to weed out the riff-raff and come up with content you can use.

I sense in this question (actually, it’s a statement) an attitude of “we (newspapers) know best,” which is not an attitude that will serve you well in the new media environment where “everybody’s a publisher.”

If you’re talking about featuring some selected outside bloggers on your site, then certainly vet those people before you add them to your content package online. And you can choose not to link to some outside sources because you recognize that they’re not credible. (That’s part of the service you provide — linking to the good stuff that’s online about your community.)

I think you paint with too broad a brush when you say “What they say is often libelous.” If you find community bloggers who you think fit that description, by all means don’t link to them. But there’s much of value being published online about your community. You’d be foolish to ignore that (because alternative-media competitors will do it).

Don’t forget, too, that the audience can (and should) be editors, too. There’s a lot of crap on Youtube, for example, but through user rankings, the best videos rise to the top — and it’s become a wildly popular website with traffic that even the largest news sites can only envy. Your audience can report abusive or false content submissions from other users. Verification and rating doesn’t have to rely solely on your newspaper’s editors; it shouldn’t.

How does crowd-sourcing affect journalistic credibility?

Crowd sourcing generally means that a trained journalist is at the center of the project, but utilizes new techniques to tap the knowledge or volunteer work of a crowd of relevant people or experts. As long as the reporter manages the process ethically and operates with accuracy and verification in mind, I don’t see an ethical issue with it.

The Internet and social networks make it possible to reach out, communicate with, and leverage a larger group of people and experts than was possible before, when journalists had limited bandwidth and tools to reach out to sources, or staff assistance with research or sub-reporting tasks.

Ethics are required for both the journalist at the center and for the participants. The journalist may need to educate participants on what is ethical behavior by those in his/her “crowd” who are helping out — and be on the lookout for unethical behavior by those who purport to be helping him/her.

Crowd sourcing and such techniques as social networks for beat reporters are pretty new developments in the reporting field. I’m sure ethical issues will arise as we see more of this.

Can you incorporate YourStreet.com into your site easily?

Here’s the answer from YourStreet.com CEO James Nicholson:

“For news organizations we are planning to offer a white label version of YourStreet. We will create and host a news mapping application with the look and feel of the news organization which could include just that organization’s content or other organizations’ content as well – the feeds can be customized. So news organizations could have the full functionality of the YourStreet site without any of the technical hassles. We are in initial discussions with a few media companies and expect to announce the white label service and the first partnerships in Q1 ’08.”

The company also is working on a widget that will be aimed mostly at individual bloggers or website owners who want to display a news map with limited functionality on their site, according to Nicholson.

Is pure play online only?

When I used that term during the webinar, I meant media companies that are purely online, as opposed to traditional media companies that have a legacy business to sustain while at the same time are developing online operations.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!