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“We are the traditional journalism model turned upside down. Instead of being the gatekeeper, telling people that what’s important to them ‘isn’t news,’ we’re just opening up the gates and letting people come on in.” — Mary Lou Fulton, publisher of the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif.

In November 2004, I wrote a story for Online Journalism Review profiling various hyper-local citizen media sites such as Northwest Voice and iBrattleboro that cover local communities with the help of community contributors. Fulton’s quote above came from that story, and her Northwest Voice project has been such a success for its owner, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, that they launched the Southwest Voice to cover that neighborhood as well.

I wondered how this world of hyper-local sites had changed since that time. Were the businesses starting to gel? Was the community responding in positive ways and contributing? What were the lessons and challenges for the publishers of these sites, and how had they found success? This kind of follow-up was timely, with the recent creation of the Knight Citizen News Network and its Principles of Citizen Journalism as a loose guide to accuracy and fairness for citizen media sites.

One of the mistakes made by media companies and startups trying to cash in on hyper-local sites is the idea that there’s a way to copy-and-paste the success of one operation and make it a franchise in other locales.

“There is a problem with one-size-fits-all,” said Lewis Friedland, project director of Madison Commons, a civic-minded citzen media site in Wisconsin. “There are some commonalities and lessons to be learned, but they are rules of thumb and not templates. There are not templates that would work even for small and medium-sized cities…People need to be careful, and the more commercially oriented sites, such as Backfence, if they’re trying to grow a franchise, they tend to impose uniformity. What’s important about this kind of journalism is that it’s tailored to the communication ecology of each community, and it has to emerge and can’t be imposed.”

After talking to a half-dozen publishers and funders of grassroots citizen media sites, I’ve come up with a series of lessons they’ve learned. These lessons can serve as a guide — rather than a template — for other hyper-local sites.

1. Serve as a model journalist and cheerlead for others to follow.

I talked to Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage, the publishers of iBrattleboro, a citizen journalism site started in 2003 for this community of 12,000 people in Vermont. The duo says their site went from 5,000 unique visitors per month in 2004 to 30,000 unique visitors per month this year. I asked them the big question for hyper-local sites: How do you motivate people to contribute when you can’t pay them? Their answer was to model and cheerlead.

Lise LePage and Chris Grotke

“There’s a learning curve when you start one of these sites,” said LePage. “You have to teach people that it’s not a chat room, that it’s not a forum. You have to model and cheerlead. We encourage people. If they call us up and say that we absolutely have to go cover something, we say, ‘Why don’t you cover it, write it up and submit it?’ Half the time they go and do that, and we reward them with lots of praise, because that’s all we got.”

LePage was one such model for reader/contributors when she had to live-blog a town meeting from 9 am to 6 pm, though she did get help from a local who uploaded photos of the meeting.

Jan Schaffer, executive director for J-Lab at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, recently announced the third year of New Voices grantees, with money going to seedling citizen media projects. I asked her to recount the successes and lessons of the 2005 grant recipients.

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Jan Schaffer

“I do think there is a lot of naked caring and passion for community exhibited in the most successful citizen media sites,” she said via email. “That’s something that MSM [mainstream media] are not comfortable with. It’s one reason why I think news organizations should consider partnering instead of competing with successful sites in their towns. It’s also a hurdle, I believe, for the companies that are developing templatized sites for local communities.”

2. Ask not what the community can do for you; ask what you can do for the community.

Many sites have tried and failed at the “build it and they will come” approach to hyper-local citizen media sites. Simply asking for people to submit stories, submit photos or submit videos won’t work without providing them with some motivation, with some support from the community.

Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine and helped fund the short-lived GoSkokie site at Northwestern University when he was running Advance.net, told me he has made many mistakes and learned hard lessons in the hyper-local realm.

“First, I hoped that local forums would contribute news, but they were too disorganized and anonymous and unruly,” he said via email. “Next, I thought I could get people to create town blogs but I learned that that is too much to ask. But it inspired Debbie Galant to start her own successful hyperlocal blog, Baristanet.com [in New Jersey]…I went to Northwestern to work on an experiment that led to GoSkokie.com, a group blog, and that inspired Backfence, which also has not yet succeeded. I think that’s because it required people to still come to us and give us stuff when the relationship should be the other way around: We go to them and give them stuff and support.”

Jarvis believes local bloggers will start to tag their content so that newspaper sites can use technology from Outside.in to aggregate hyper-local information in their community.

“I believe local will be a combination of all these models: Some will not have their own space and tools and will contribute to group efforts and sites,” he said. “But others will have their own sites and the key benefit to bring them is organization: helping my content be found with your content along with the group’s content. But the key to making this work is advertising — loose, local, partially automated networks of advertising; no work has gone on there yet and that is what is most needed.”

3. Journalism is hard work.

Asking average folks to become seasoned reporters overnight is asking a lot. Friedland trained 100 citizen journalists in six-week courses for Madison Commons, focusing on people in working class, low-income areas of town. While the training really helped, Friedland said there was a serious drop-off in participation once the classes ended. There was an 80/20 rule, with just 20 percent of people staying on to do work for the site. Why the drop-off?

“It’s a number of things,” he said. “It’s one of the things that people in the citizen journalism movement don’t take adequate account for, especially people who think citizen journalists will replace reporters in the newsroom — journalism is hard work. It takes a lot of motivation to do any single story, even at a relatively superficial level. If people are faced with [the options of taking] my kids to the zoo or watching TV or going out to do a story, they opt for the personal.”

Schaffer seconds that point in her lessons learned from the New Voices grantees.

“Momentum is key: You have to post frequently to make it really relevant,” she said. “Doing these sites is very hard work and most people involved in this already have another day job that pays the bills. But the good sites tend to find their contributors virally. NewWest found its web editor because the guy posted photos on Flickr as part of a NewWest promotion.”

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Doug Fisher

Doug Fisher, an instructor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, helped start Hartsville Today with the local twice-weekly newspaper and a New Voices grant. Fisher says it’s important to support your core of regular contributors.

“I think any site like this has to have two or three regular contributors/stringers,” he said via email. “Whether you pay or it’s done out of love depends on the situation — and we will have to deal with it eventually because we have several very good writers whose work draws an audience. But you also don’t want to have too many — just enough to prime the pump but not so many that it just becomes another passive channel where people can sit back and let someone else do it. It takes constant, tireless promotion and reminders to the community.”

4. Collaborate with and link to other local news outlets.

Though many hyper-local sites view the local newspapers or TV stations as competition, many of them have used partnerships to help boost traffic and visibility in the community. Northwest Voice and the YourHub sites have print editions to help sell advertising — because most small-town businesses still don’t believe in online advertising — and to give contributors more widespread notoriety.

Madison Commons has had a partnership with the Wisconsin State Journal, as well as two local daily newspapers and a local TV station. iBrattleboro has benefitted from a regular spot on a local community radio station.

“We’ve been invited onto a local radio station for an hour once a week, and we talk up the content on the site,” said LePage. “That’s been mutually beneficial for us and the station. We picked up a lot of their listeners, and they get more attention from our readers. It’s a continual reminding of people that our site is out there.”

5. Barter and network in the community to save costs.

Starting a community website might not cost a lot of money, but eventually the costs of adding features, doing events, and training citizen journalists starts to add up. K. Paul Mallasch started Muncie Free Press nearly two years ago, and recently listed some of the lessons he’s learned in running a startup online publication.

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K. Paul Mallasch

Mallasch said that boot-strapped sites can save money by bartering with local businesses, and by getting out into the neighborhood and meeting like-minded folks who might volunteer their time. He has been able to barter for office space for the Muncie Free Press.

“It’s very unlikely you’re going to have all the skill-sets needed for a grassroots journalism site, but you can overcome this quite easily by making connections with other people in the area,” he said via email. “This will happen more on a national/global scale as some of us break through to profitability, but until then, you can take advantage of any local networking opportunities. Need something from a local business? Try trading them a banner ad for the good or service. You might be surprised how often it works if you approach it right.”

6. Meet face-to-face with the community to make a real-world impact.

Most successful sites try to have meet-ups in town so that contributors and community members can see each other and cement their relationships. This has the dual effect of creating a buzz in the town about the site, and also taking some of the flames out of heated arguments online. iBrattleboro has had nights out at restaurants and bars, and the site’s co-founder Chris Grotke told me they even have “adult field trips” to places like a water treatment plant.

“We like for people to meet each other, because they’re less likely to flame each other if they recognize them from the community,” Grotke said. “‘Oh that’s the guy I run into at the supermarket,’ or ‘That’s the guy who sells me nails at the hardware stores.’”

7. You need a real crowd if you want to do crowdsourced journalism.

Friedland told me that scale really does matter if you’re hoping to get a large group of people involved in a crowdsourcing project. If you’re in a small town, and have light traffic to your site, don’t expect to take on huge investigative projects a la NewAssignment.net.

“The Gotham Gazette site is a quite robust high quality civic news site,” Friedland said. “Well, it’s in New York so it can draw from a range of contributors. Even a city like Milwaukee or Madison doesn’t have that kind of critical mass. So to sustain local journalism in a smaller area is difficult. Crowdsourcing only works when you have a sufficiently sized crowd to source. There’s an assumption that that would work on all levels and sizes but that’s a big mistake being made, especially by newspapers that think they can replace reporting with crowdsourcing.”

8. Take a long view on making the site a profitable endeavor.

Although adjunct sites such as Northwest Voice and YourHub have been money-makers, they are the exceptions to the rule with hyper-local sites that usually have more of a civic than business purpose. According to a recent J-Lab survey of 191 citizen media sites, 51% of the sites said they didn’t need to earn revenues in order to continue operation of the site. Only 7% of sites surveyed said that they take in more money than they spend on the site, with 43% being funded by the site founders.

“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Hartsville Today’s Fisher. “This is done out of a desire to give people a voice and to find new ways to invigorate smaller newsrooms with an online component. The focus here is on smaller newsrooms. Larger ones have or can get the resources. The real challenge will be for those smaller and mid-sized newsrooms to find cost-efficient ways to extend their presence and bring their communities into the journalism conversation.”

iBrattleboro continues to be a money-losing operation for Grotke and LePage even four years after launch, and they haven’t quit their jobs as web designers.

“We’ve always taken a long view on the site,” Grotke said. “We always figured it would take 10 years to make money off of this. We’re in year four, and we might revise that down to six years to make money, because things are moving a little faster than we anticipated. The Washington Post lost money for a decade and they didn’t mind, and they turned it into a profit source for themselves eventually.”

LePage notes that online advertising is a difficult sell in a less wired small town where print newspapers have long ruled.

“Advertising will come, but 70% of people in our town don’t think it’s an ad unless it’s in the newspaper,” she said. “They’re just getting broadband here, we’re about three years behind the rest of the world with technology. It’s starting to dawn on people. It’s not like any other site is leading in online advertising; no one is getting any.”

What are the lessons you’ve learned with your own citizen media site, either as a publisher or as a contributor? I invite you to share your experiences, and I’ll update this blog post with any important lessons you share.

Photo of Jan Schaffer by Shel Israel.