In December 2008, a class of Northwestern University journalism master’s students — including two Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners — unveiled a prototype news Web site called News Mixer. The site, one of the first to integrate Facebook Connect as a system for identity management, got a fair amount of attention for its novel approaches to user interaction around local news.
Almost two years later, another team of students from Northwestern’s Medill School is hard at work in another "innovation project" class. Once again, the class focus is on local news and information. And once again the class includes Knight scholars — this time, five of them. Geoffrey Hing, Steven Melendez, Andrew Paley, Shane Shifflett and Jesse Young are all in their fourth and final academic quarters. They will graduate in December, after the class completes its work.
While there are similarities between this class and the one two years ago, there are also quite a few differences. One is the number of students enrolled. News Mixer was developed by just six students; this year’s class enrolls 15.
Another difference is the scope of the class’s mission. In 2008, the charge to the students was relatively simple: as described in the class syllabus, "You’ll develop ideas – and, we hope, software prototypes – that might improve the quality of news-based conversations and enhance civic engagement and ‘social capital.’ " This year’s class has a broader focus, defined in part by a partnership with the Community News Matters grant program, which is providing financial support for the class. (Community News Matters is overseen by the Chicago Community Trust, which initiated the program as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge.)
Medill’s commitment to the Chicago Community Trust was that we would identify an existing Web-based publication and, through a case study approach, recommend ways it can be more successful — in understanding and serving an audience, in business and revenue strategy, in content and functionality. The overarching goal is not just to help one site, but rather to provide advice that would be applicable to other Web publications serving a geographically defined community.
The community where the class is working is none other than the home of Northwestern University: Evanston, Illinois. The site that’s serving as our case study is Evanston Now, run by editor and publisher Bill Smith. While Evanston is hardly a typical community — it’s a college town, with a population that overall is more educated and more affluent than most — it has some characteristics that make it an interesting place to explore the challenges and opportunities in hyperlocal Web publishing.
Evanston has a racially and ethnically diverse population (66% white, 19% African-American, 9% Latino and 7% Asian, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates), a culture of civic engagement, a regular flow of news that sparks community interest and discussion, a commercial district with advertisers who might support a locally focused site, and in Evanston Now, a site with a professional manager who has an interesting background in journalism, marketing and technology. Put simply, if a news site like Evanston Now can’t build a substantial audience and a profitable business in a community with as much going for it as Evanston, what hope does a site without its advantages have?
In the first week of the class, the students attended the Block by Block Community News Summit in downtown Chicago — an event that brought together hyperlocal publishers from all over the country to share what they have learned about running independent Web-based news and information sites. At the event, the students learned that local publishers are struggling to identify their audiences, build engagement with users and generate revenue to support their work. They also interviewed local publishers about their business strategies for a series of posts on the Block by Block blog.
In the past two weeks, the class has divided into three research teams:
- The audience team has been surveying and conducting in-depth interviews with Evanston residents to understand their interests in local news and information.
- The business and revenue team has studied the local advertising market, talked with local businesses about their needs, and explored alternative revenue models.
- The industry research team has talked with local Web publishers and brainstormed new ways to build engagement around local news and information.
The class’s research will feed into a report that will provide advice to local publishers, including Bill Smith of Evanston Now, on how to build a more successful hyperlocal site. The research is also serving as a foundation for the technology development that the Knight scholars will lead in the remaining weeks of the course. Watch this space for periodic updates on the class’s work — and also check out the class blog at LocalFourth.com.
LocalFourth (the "fourth" is a reference to the press as the Fourth Estate) will publish a regular flow of posts between now and mid-December. A few highlights of what’s been published so far:
- "Hyperlocal’s Sustainability Problem," by Emily Dresslar;
- "From Zero to Personas: A Step-By-Step Process of Our Audience Research," by Jordan Turgeon;
- "Community Development: The Challenge of Building Integrated Teams for Local News Innovation," by Geoff Hing.