Practicing journalism in the Galapagos, where “hyper-local” meets “hyper-sensitive”

Gina Andrade at Radio Encantada, which broadcasts from Galapagos Islands.

Gina Andrade at Radio Encantada, which broadcasts from Galapagos Islands. (Photo courtesy of Judy Muller)

When most people think of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, they think of exotic species, from giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies. There are more than a hundred volcanic islands in this archipelago, a living laboratory for scientists and a “bucket list” destination for tourists from all over the world. [Read more…]

5 lessons learned: Improving civic engagement through a local news site

Four years ago a team of communication scholars, researchers and journalists set out to create a community news website that would increase civic engagement and cross ethnic barriers in a predominantly Asian and Latino immigrant city. Since Alhambra Source launched in 2010, it has grown to more than 60 community contributors who speak 10 languages and range in age from high school students to retirees. Their stories have helped shape local policy and contributed to a more engaged citizenry within a diverse community. Below are five lessons we’ve learned about creating a community news website that fosters civic engagement.

1. Investigate your community’s news and information needs before you launch.
While few news organizations are likely to have a dedicated team of researchers and scholars at their disposal, they can — and should — identify community information needs to guide the development of their site. On the simplest level, that means a reporter should know his or her beat well and do some investigating before launch.

As a journalist in Alhambra, for example, I witnessed firsthand the civic participation gaps and the barriers between ethnic and linguistic groups that our researchers had identified. The lack of civic participation was made evident in 2010 when five incumbents ran unchallenged, prompting officials to cancel the elections.

The need to cross language lines became clear when school and government officials, police officers and other community leaders all told me that they could not understand the most active press coverage of Alhambra: the Chinese-language newspapers. These newspapers target about a third of the city’s population, and yet city leaders had no idea what was being reported. Identifying basic communication needs such as these can help define the goals of a local news source and also establish a baseline that can later be used to demonstrate the site’s impact to funders or other supporters.

2. To effectively build a community contributor team, hold regular meetings, play to contributor strengths, and remember they are volunteers.
We work with community contributors — in our case that means Alhambra residents who volunteer and tend not to have professional journalism experience. Initially, I set about recruiting Alhambrans to report stories that might interest them or their neighbors. I searched for people already producing content online, talked to leaders of community organizations, and spread the word about our new site. Once we launched the site, we featured our contributors prominently with a call for others to get involved.

Monthly meetings in our office space have been crucial to the strength and expansion of our team. They are part newsroom story meeting, part community advocacy, and part social gathering (we always include a potluck dinner). After the first few meetings and the site launch, I no longer had to actively recruit contributors — at least one new candidate would contact me each month. As our reputation grows, so has our team. That doesn’t mean everyone sticks around: like any volunteer community, we have to work to keep people engaged and interested in giving their time. But enough new people come to keep up the site’s content and energy, while a regular base of contributors provide a core continuum.

3. When it comes to community contributions, a personal perspective is often crucial to a story.
Community contributors often want to report because they have an agenda they want heard. Obscuring that under a veil of objectivity just does not work on a community level. I’ve found community contributors are great for insight stories and features, sometimes providing our most creative articles, ranging from a critique of the local food rating system (“A=American, B=Better, C=Chinese”) to a call for new bike laws to a visit to the local psychic “Mrs. Lin.”

One story type that I have found community contributors can consistently produce better than outside reporters is a first-person piece incorporating a wider perspective. The stories that have received some of the highest traffic on our site and met our research metrics of increased civic engagement have tended to be of this type. Some examples include a story on the challenges of inter-generational communication for a child of immigrants, one about growing up Arab or Muslim in a mostly Asian and Latino community, and one about why a church community organizer takes issue with a city ordinance.

Finally—and this is important—keep in mind that these are not professional reporters. Everyone needs an editor, and working with community contributors often means multiple drafts and intensive fact checking. Many times it would have been easier for me to have done the story myself, so it is important to match volunteer reporters with pieces to which they can add value.

4. Crossing language and ethnic divides cannot be achieved through multilingual content alone.
Before we launched, we intended to be a site in the three languages most spoken by our readers — English, Chinese, and Spanish. We quickly discovered that we lacked the resources. And as it turns out, such a plan might not have been worth the effort.

About a quarter of Alhambra residents live in households where no adults speak fluent English. There is a clear need for foreign language media, particularly in the ethnic Chinese community. But that does not mean that the community would be interested if we created a multilingual website. From anecdotal interviewing, we found that these residents are satisfied getting their news from ethnic publications and are less likely to go to a website.

Instead, we found many other important ways to bridge the language divide. Here are four:

  • Building a multilingual team, which helps expand the range of stories we can cover and the types of people we can interview
  • Translating local foreign-language coverage into English
  • Translating selections of our own original content into Spanish and Chinese (through two means: high-quality human translations for select articles and Google Translate function across the entire site)
  • Establishing relationships with ethnic press so they print versions of our articles in their newspapers.

5. Use feedback loops as engagement and learning tools.
We use polls and surveys extensively on the site to engage residents, create a link between them and city officials, and improve our coverage. Some of our most successful surveys have ranged from where to find the best local burger or boba to whether the city should ban fireworks sales to which supermarket should come to Main Street.

We often incorporate the findings from these informal polls into stories. It enables more residents to participate on the site in a simpler way than writing a story, and in public policy issues, it offers a means for us to share community feedback with the government. For example, when the city council recently acted to limit pay-for-recycling, less than a handful of people from the public came to the meeting (like most days). But on our site more than 100 people voted to express their opinions, the vast majority against the ban. The city council then decided to grant a reprieve to one market.

We also use the polls to gauge our impact and to see on which topics residents would like more coverage. We have surveyed residents about what stories they would like to see, research questions they would like answered, and even improvements we could make to our website. Engaging the community this way enables us to better respond to their needs. After all, a community news site, like a city itself, is a work in progress.

Alhambra Source is the pilot project of a new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg. The project aims to link Communication research and Journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. The Metamorphosis Project is the primary researcher, and Intersections South LA is another project site. This is the first in a series of articles on the topic of creating and evaluating local news websites that strive to increase civic engagement.

The case for independent news sites as profit-makers: 'I think there's a great business model here'

After my recent stories on the state of independent news sites, several folks called or e-mailed to say I was barking up the wrong tree by focusing on nonprofits like MinnPost and the Voice of San Diego. The real future, they said, is with sites that are in it to make money. They may be right.

“I think there’s a great business model here,” said Merrill Brown, a media management and strategy consultant. “If you can get a quality product out there, local advertisers are looking for alternatives… I think there’s plenty of evidence of that.”

So far, of course, there’s little evidence that profitability will reliably follow. Even many operations that talk about being in the black do so with asterisks – the key players aren’t drawing a salary, or the site is subsidized with other lines of business, for example. Others argue nonprofits will be the winning models for robust public-service news sites. Only today, a seemingly promising startup in Seattle, Crosscut, announced it was transitioning from a for-profit site to nonprofit status.

But many people say it’s not surprising that profits are not there at this point in the innovation cycle, and point to the rapid growth of businesses trying to tease out local advertising dollars. The day of online profits is coming, they say, and for-profit news sites will be best positioned to thrive.

“We’re still at the very early stages of local advertising on the Web,” said Jonathan Weber of Missoula, Mont., who runs a string of Western state websites under the name, New West.

Weber says the potential is already clear in the disparity between the time people are spending online and the amount of local advertising going into the Web. “You’ve got 6 to 8 percent of ad dollars online, but 25 percent of people’s media time is online,” he said. “I very much believe that gap has to close.”

By the volume of people calling him and asking for advice about starting online news operations, Weber can tell there’s wide interest in running community news sites. Some of the aspirants are former newspaper reporters and editors who took buyouts or lost jobs in newsroom downsizing efforts, and are hoping to find a new journalism life on the Web.

Weber tells them two basic things: First, making a go of a community news site on the Web is no picnic. (His own New West operation remains slightly shy of the break-even point after three years of operation.) Second, the long-term outlook is bright. “I think we’re at the front edge of this,” he said.

Brown said the potential of local advertising can be seen in the number of players stepping in at the national level to aggregate community event and hyper-local information. Sites like Yelp, Zvents and Eventful show the potential demand, he said.

Although these and other national players each take a slice from local advertising, Brown said the size of the pie is plenty big. “There’s lots of money in local advertising,” he said. “Advertisers are unhappy with newspapers; TV websites remain poor; and television is overpriced.” One key to success, Brown said, will be the adroit mining of vertical advertising categories like entertainment, fashion, real estate, the arts, etc., that are “revenue-friendly.”

With so much in flux – mainstream media in severe financial trouble and Web participation rising rapidly – it’s impossible (at least for me) to get a solid grip on the scope and dynamics of news-site development on the Web. Will national news aggregators like Ourtown or grab a strong foothold in communities across the country? Will national lifestyle networks like take a big chunk of advertising dollars? Will the wide-scope offerings of a local newspaper be a sustainable model online? Or will a multitude of niche sites – local sports, local politics, local schools, local traffic – be the winning model?

At a minimum, it would seem we’ve entered a period of intense startup fever, with expectations growing that the marketplace is ready (or almost ready) to support Web operations that combine hometown information and advertising.

Peter Krasilovsky, a digital media consultant and blogger, says the entry point for any community news startup has to be the advertiser. Too many website entrepreneurs are still thinking in terms of the newspaper model — assembling a potluck of community news and trusting that advertisers will naturally follow, he said. “That’s a kind of longing for the old ways,” he said.

Successful startups, he said, will begin with the question of what local small businesses need to be successful. One answer may well be advertising on a local news site, but there are likely to be many other answers, and Web entrepreneurs need to be prepared to provide them, even if it’s at odds with their initial mission. “You’re never going to have a successful business until you focus on the advertisers,” said Krasilovsky.

James Macpherson, who runs the Pasadena Now site, is following this strategy, aiming to serve as Internet and e-commerce consultant for Main Street merchants in Pasadena. But all advise that people who get in the game now will need to prepare for some lean (at best) early years.

Like Weber, Macpherson hasn’t yet turned a profit. And Weber gets close to the break-even point by having sideline businesses like hosting conferences on the Western state issues of growth and change, and a small indoor advertising operation.

“There’s going to be a business there,” said Krasilovsky. “But think of it this way. People are going to have to get accustomed to making $30,000 to $50,000 a year instead of $100,000 or $125,000.”