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Taking It to the Next Level

It’s been five years since J-Lab released the first study on community news sites, “Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News?

And you need no better affirmation than the just-completed Block by Block conference in Chicago that community news start-ups are far from fads. They are genuine news hubs and connectors in their communities.

Just check out Northwestern Prof Rich Gordon’s exercise in mapping the new media ecosystem of Chicago (pdf). New community news sites turned up as some of the most authoritative nodes and connectors in the city’s entire ecosystem in his dramatic presentation at Thursday’s Chicago Community Trust meeting.

Or listen as Placeblogger CEO Lisa Williams tells us that in 2006 one in eight Americans lived in a city with a placeblog; now that number is one in two.

We left last week’s gathering with ideas for a half-dozen more training ideas – stay tuned – and we’re moving forward on a book on How to Launch and Sustain a Community News Site. We’ve been “gathering string,” as journalists say, on this project for a long time.

J-Lab, with funding from the Knight Foundation, has incubated 55 community news startups since 2005, created 19 online training modules and five websites, to help jumpstart news startups, and offers daily ad hoc advice to people who call or visit with questions. We were most pleased to see that 12 sites that have received J-Lab/Knight funds over the years were among the 70 sites represented at the conference.

I was particularly struck by how many of today’s concerns are identical to those expressed at the earliest community news summits J-Lab did four and five years ago, including a 2006 gathering at the Online News Association.

The BxB conference and Thursday’s session by the Chicago Community Trust were the first major gatherings of those interested in online community news startups since then. Kudos to Michele McLellan for securing the funding to support the gathering.

There are many lessons to share. Many that we have gleaned in funding our New Voices projects were echoed again and again throughout the Chicago meetings. They are outlined in our new report, “New Voices: What Works,” and include such things as:

  • Passion counts for a lot. Nearly all the sites represented at last week’s gathering were labors of love for individuals, most of them one-man bands who are not quite making a living at it yet.
  • Launching is the easy part; living on is hard. There is no one business model yet for these fledgling enterprises; only multiple small revenue streams – if you have enough energy to pursue them all.
  • Citizen Journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise. Volunteers don’t stay for long and there is a pronounced need for these sites to have community managers to engage in outreach, cultivation and engagement of their communities.
  • Community engagement, as much as community content, is key to success. These are not just journalism enterprises; local news sites are community connectors as well.

“We are not writing about the community anymore. We’re writing for the community,” said David Boraks, founder of in North Carolina. Indeed, J-Lab has learned that this kind of mindset is altering the very nature of community reporting. Check out what we have learned in our “New Perspectives on News” report.

The mechanics of launching a local news site on little more than a wing and a prayer are well in place. Whether sites use WordPress (See the J-Learning how-to guide here.) or Drupal or some other content management system, site founders are able to launch and get good content. Many have brought in ad revenue and some have received grants.

What most of the Chicago participants said they needed next was a roadmap for taking their projects to the Next Level – or Phase 2, as Anne Galloway of said. (J-Lab gave Galloway a New Voices grant this year to launch Tipster on her site.)

The Next Level is a more secure place where they know they’ll be around for another year and might even have funds to hire a community manager, pay the editor and even some staffers. The Next Level involves better ways to engage users and let them know you exist and ways to turn these hard-work efforts into genuine businesses.

While individual site founders were themselves clear about their missions, more problematic was translating mission into a precise “pitch” that would resonate with all their stakeholders – the community, advertisers and funders. There are opportunities to help here.

There was much talk about how these community news sites could nab some of the $100 billion spent each year in local advertising. A handful of the sites are making enough to pay some salaries – including, West Seattle Blog,,, and But no magic formula surfaced at BxB because every site is different. Ad networks have formed in Sacramento and Richmond, Va., and one is emerging with in Washington, D.C., but the potential is still being realized.

Key to this group, though, is that they all acknowledge that local advertisers just don’t get things like CPM’s, which larger news organizations use to sell ads. “Advertisers don’t care about metrics, but they do care about your mission,” said Tracy Record, founder of West Seattle Blog.

Finally, while there has been much talk of an “investor” model for community news startups, J-Lab has another model on its wish list: A community stewardship model supported by journalism trusts funded by individuals who care about their media ecosystems.


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