Design Decision for Local Online News: What's the Secret Sauce?

PBS MediaShift IdeaLab
By Michael Wood-Lewis

An awful situation for any parent... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?
One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local
"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyperlocal," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?
Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?
Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?
A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce
chef_photo.jpgSo that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

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