Washington, D.C. – Community news sites should engage, not just inform, their users; ramp up quickly with social media tools; tease out contributors rather than train a corps of citizen journalists in advance; and invest a lot of sweat equity, according to a new J-Lab report culling lessons learned from five years of funding community news startups.
The report, “New Voices: What Works,” distills the track record of 48 community news projects launched since 2005 and offers recommendations for the future. The projects were created with small grants from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the grant program.
“One of the most important contributions of all of the New Voices community news sites is not that they replaced news coverage that has been constricted – rather they added coverage that did not exist before, not even in the heyday of American journalism,” said Jan Schaffer, J-Lab director, in releasing the report.
“The report shows that New Voices projects have added perspectives to community debate while serving as important experiments,” said John Bracken, Knight Foundation’s director of digital media.
Among the report’s 10 key takeaways:
- Engagement, not just content, is key: Robust and frequent content begets more content but it’s the engagement with users that make sites successful.
- Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise: Citizen journalism math is working out this way: Fewer than one in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors. It’s better to nurture frequent site visitors to generate content.
- Social media is ushering in a new era for community news startups. Sites that build on friend networks are launching with lightning speed.
- Sweat equity counts for a lot: Projects built on the grit and passion of the founders have created the most promising models for sustainability.
- Community news sites are not a business yet. Income from grants, ads, events and other things falls short, in most cases, of paying staff salaries and operating expenses.
Nevertheless, optimism in the sector runs high and passion for informing their communities are juicing a lot of online local news startups. “These projects inject rays of hope at a time when the business of journalism is imperiled,” Schaffer said. “The New Voices projects continued to adapt to their realities and confound our expectations – in good ways.”
The New Voices program, launched in 2005, awards start-up funding to news entrepreneurs to create community news sites. Through 2010, 55 projects were funded from a pool of 1,433 applicants. The report examines the 46 projects funded from 2005 through 2009. Nine other sites funded this year will launch over the next six months.
According to the report, the 46 New Voices grantees launched 48 projects; 42 are still online. Of those sites, 32 – or 76 percent – are still being actively updated. The most robust projects operate year-round and regularly post new content; the less robust projects were plagued by frequent turnover of key people or technological problems.
The New Voices projects launched from 2005 through 2008 received $17,000 in grants over two years. Beginning in 2009, grantees received $25,000.
View the complete report at www.kcnn.org/nv_whatworks/pdf.
To see the list of grantees and read progress reports, visit: www.j-newvoices.org.
About Knight Foundation
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.
J-Lab helps news organizations and citizens use digital technologies to develop new ways for people to participate in public life. It also administers the Knight Citizen News Network (www.kcnn.org and www.J-Learning.org), the New Voices community media grant program (www.j-newvoices.org), the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism (www.j-lab.org), and the McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneurs initiative (www.newmediawomen.org).
About American University’s School of Communication
AU’S School of Communication is a laboratory for professional education, communication research and innovative production in the fields of journalism, film and media arts and public communication, working across media platforms and with a focus on public affairs and public service.