Sunday, April 02, 2006

"Karma plays a role, man"

Today's NYT business section has an article about how not-for-profit media -- think craigslist or Chowhound -- are nightmares for businesses tring to make money for the same services. It's well worth a read. (The headline above is the last line in the piece).

I'd like to encourage some further thinking about this, specifically from our perspective on the news and content side of the equation. The reporting and other services we offer are valuable and will continue to be, but we're in danger of being left behind and consequently marginalized if we fail to repond to the growing bottom-up, peer-to-peer movement that animates so many of these alternative services.

There are lots of applications. I'm thinking today specifically about hyperlocal community news. And I'm thinking about ways to have your readers provide it for you (and for one another).

We need to learn how to do this. I'm sure there are many ways to approach it; here's one:

Why doesn't somebody assign a copy editor work as liason with readers who want to write about what matters to them, and then set aside a few columns or half-a-page to publish the results on a regular basis?

I'd tell the editor to worry about libel, taste and basic readability -- but not at all about subject or tone. Letting readers tell us what matters to them -- what they think is worth covering -- is at the heart of this experiment. Letting their voices show through is essential.

You could obviously run as many of these contributions as you wanted online, where space is no premium. You'd want to pick the best of them for publication. I'm certain that publishing some would encourage many more contributions, which would make for a stronger pool from which to select the next round for publication.

Properly framed, labeled and promoted, this could become an important connection with readers, talking about what mattered to them, and doing it in their own voices.

Anybody want to talk about trying this? I'm available.

8 comments:

  1. The Tri-City Herald is doing something along these lines. For years (well before I arrived in 1989), we did not have a Saturday editorial page. Not really certain why, but that was fixed last Christmas Eve with the launch of Tri-City Forum.

    This page is user-written and has a companion Web site, the Drupal-driven tricityforum.com. One drives the other, back and forth. It's made for a deliciously readable Saturday editorial page. The Web site has not necessarily taken off in the manner we hoped, but that will come, too.

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  2. I agree with Howard. We have to act now or choke in their exhaust.

    We used to run a column called the "Red Phone," where readers could call in to a designated number to spout off about whatever they wanted. An editor then listened to the calls and transcribed selected ones to appear in print. It was wildly popular, but we did away with it over concerns about how the anonymity of the comments affected the paper's credibility.

    Sometimes I regret this decision. The Red Phone got things done in this small town. Roads were fixed, political messes were tidied up and more than a few great stories came from tips left on the line. "Politicians fear the phone" was a headline on one of our house ads for the call-in line. Maybe that was a bit over the top.

    Maybe it could be done solely over e-mail, with readers zapping their comments to the moderator editor, who could post them online or in print, or both.

    How this is introduced would be pivotal to its success. I'm just thinking out loud.

    If done the right way, it could be a newer, better Red Phone, without the baggage. It would be less opinion and more readers’ own stories and concerns. “What’s news to you is news to us” could be a moniker. What is the best way to frame this? I don’t know.

    Yes, we'd have anonymous comments in the paper ... but we'd also create a treasure trove of relevant content. Isn't that our goal?

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  6. About 10 years ago, I started a column in The Island Packet called Seafoam because it was to consist of whatever washed up from the community on Hilton Head Island and surrounding mainland.

    It's still going, and is still 100 percent reader driven.

    It was to fit into my schedule because the people would do all the work. But I find that I have to make calls and do some research to flesh out the snippets or photos I get. Sometimes I have to do the interviews and start from scratch if all we get is a phone tip.

    Seafoam does not have a clever lead. It's always "thanks to so-and-so of /// for sharing such-and-such." That is to reinforce that this is their gig, not mine. And that's why we don't put my ugly mug shot with the column.

    Seafoam runs each Monday on the features section front.

    It has evolved. After a while our editor, Fitz McAden, asked me if I could always promise a photo with Seafoam, and I said yes. Later he asked if it could lead the section front with it every other Monday. I said yes. We've never come up empty, but I must credit the copy desk with doing a fantastic, creative job, sometimes making wine out of water.

    Seafoam puts allegedly minor things in the paper, not as a buried mention, but as big-time display. I think that's important. People say it makes them famous.

    Also, this Saturday afternoon a big news story erupted when a boat with 28 people aboard capsized. The first I heard of it was when I checked my e-mail and found that a former Seafoam contributor had sent me four photos of it taken from the water. I forwarded it to the news desk, which already had it covered. But I thanked my contributor profusely.

    That indicates where most of our readers are. They generally do not think to post their news, or especially photos, on our Web site. They send it to us, and they want it in print.

    It also indicates a hidden advantage of Seafoam. It puts us in contact with many people/institutions/neighborhoods/ideas than we would encounter without it.

    ALSO, our paper has started a weekly, full-color page in the Monday paper featuring photos submitted by readers. It's called Capturing Life.

    IF you've read this far, I've got a little bonus for you.

    At the outset of Seafoam, I credited former Island Packet editor Tom Fesperman for the name. He wrote a wonderful column for us by that name during his short tenure with us in the late 1970s.

    Our new bretheren in Charlotte would know Tom's name well. He was a well-respected newsroom leader for both the Charlotte News and the Charlotte Observer. Among other things, he's the guy who put a young Charles Kuralt on the street to produce a daily People column.

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  7. We'll be able to do this a lot more when we get the online tools we need, but we've been inviting readers to help with coverage on a story-by-story basis. Currently, they're helping report on roadside litter in NC, a story we launched in response to reader suggestions. We wrote a news piece Sunday and invited readers to share their photos, descriptions on tips, and will build more coverage out of that. Additionally, our public affairs section was remade as Q several years ago to include people in the discussion of big issues.

    THat's one kind of participation. The other kind, people posting their news and so forth, will also be doable when we get the tools in place. The challenge then will be organizing, editing and integrating into our sites.

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  8. A Charlotte reader5:36 AM

    From a potential colleague in Charlotte (I count no chickens before closing):
    A related good read:
    http://comjig.blogspot.com/
    And following is a neighborhood website from another Charlotte colleague. In the future, I dream of a way we can make partners with sites like this to provide local local content and support our communities:
    http://eliza-blog.blogspot.com/
    On a more corporate level, one of our new regional publications in Charlotte, Neighbors of Lake Norman, commits to a "Scrapbook" page in color in each edition (twice a week) with photos from readers. We need to provide a pdf of this online as well. An advertiser committed to a color modular ad, and the advertiser has since committed to two other regional publications.
    This works best in markets where readers have the time and money for digital cameras and the downloading and emailing. Difficulties arise when the advertiser wants a certain publication, but the readers aren't coming through yet with contributions. Would love to be able to offer a prize, like a cheap digital camera, to reader contributors.
    Especially those who offer photos other than sunsets.

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