Construct Your Community’s Info-Structure

By Jan Schaffer

Posted on November 13, 2007  |  Articles

Originally published in the Newspaper Association of America's Imagining the Future of Newspapers blog, Nov. 13, 2007

In 2005, Lisa Williams launched a hyperlocal news site for her newfound community of Watertown, Mass. Writing with wry, self-deprecating humor, she called it h2otown.info and it was an instant hit. She soon coined a term, “place blog,” for what she had created and started tracking down others. Earlier this year, she launched Placeblogger.com, a portal that aggregates and researches more than 1,000 such community news and commentary sites.

At Harvard that same year, former CNN reporter Rebecca MacKinnon co-founded GlobalVoicesOnline.org, a curator and translator of blogs, often from uncovered third-world nations. It now aggregates news from more than 200 countries.

Meanwhile, Lisa Stone, a former television/Web journalist, co-founded BlogHer.org with two fellow bloggers. Over three years, BlogHer.org has become a portal and paid advertising site that indexes topics, news and information from more than 10,500 blogs, mostly by women.

These three initiatives share some common traits: Each built a new infrastructure for certain kinds of news and information. And each infrastructure enabled ordinary people who were paying attention to their country, their community or their topic to commit acts of journalism.

Smart news organizations are beginning to take some cues from these media developments. They are concluding it’s time for a new core mission, one that repositions the newspaper in the community and revisits knee-jerk practices.

That mission calls for building an overarching local “info-structure,” one created to support new definitions of “news,” new participants in content creation and interaction, and new pathways for news and information.

News organizations need to construct the hub that will enable ordinary people with passions and expertise to commit acts of news and information. You need to be on a constant lookout for the best of these efforts, trawling the blogosphere, hyperlocal news sites, nonprofits, advocacy groups, journalism schools and neighborhood listservs. Your goal is to give a megaphone to those with responsible momentum, recruit them to be part of your network, and even help support them with micro-grants.

This new mission is requiring journalists to embrace new partners, validate supplemental news channels, and support - without always controlling - a vibrant local newscape. Denouncing these alternative channels of information as not “real journalism” will no longer work.

Importantly, it calls for journalists to get off automatic pilot. You need to re-imagine what you do and how you do it; you need to test drive new ideas day in and day out. You need to pay better attention to what consumers find valuable and not assume you always know what’s best. And you need to expand your “tribe.” It will expand anyway, whether you like it or not. In the process, I believe you’ll add value and when you add value, you’ll add audience, and when you add audience, you’ll add advertisers.

Here are some observations from my perch over the last 13 years on the front lines of journalism reform movements.

Let’s start with our core product: News. How is it being redefined?

Today, “newsworthiness” more often is decreed by the consumers rather than the suppliers of news. That poses an enormous challenge for traditional journalists who are finding that their long-time definitions of news are no longer serving the public. Indeed, they are no longer serving themselves - note how many journalists don’t even read their own newspapers.

News reports that simply chronicle an incremental development or cover a meeting or an event seem to add little value. Of greater worth are reports that:

  • Relay some information you are grateful to have - even if it makes you sad, angry or fearful.
  • Move you out of your comfort zone and into your “squirm” zone.
  • Link you to others with common concerns and experiences.
  • Take a 5,000-foot view of a subject rather than a 50-foot view to connect the dots and impart broader understanding.

Definitions of News

Heading into the future, news becomes less of a concrete deliverable - a story or package of stories occupying some form of real estate online or on the printed page - and it becomes more of an ongoing process of imparting and learning about information. The process of involvement in the news, whether it’s an interactive consumption or a proactive creation, becomes as important as the output. Look at how the processes of posting, commentary, aggregation, reaction and translation contributed to the creation of h2otown, GlobalVoices and BlogHer.

The goal is to relay and exchange information that meets any number of benchmarks - not necessarily all at once. The information should:

  • Yield useful knowledge.
  • Grow that information or knowledge.
  • Surprise or enlighten.
  • Move citizens to do their jobs as citizens.
  • Hold public officials accountable.
  • Do a better job of holding citizens accountable.
  • Help people navigate their daily work and personal lives.
  • Empower others to discover or share their own stories.
  • Engage people in opportunities to participate in either the process of news - newsgathering, news analysis, news reaction - or in addressing public problems and issues.

Think about how you, yourself, consume news every day. It’s unlikely that you read your daily newspaper front to back. You skim the pages, tour the headlines, glance at the photos - and only go deep on a few stories that really hook you. Most likely those are stories that offer something you didn’t know before. Then you pull the string on other information, gleaning more from drive-time radio, e-mails and e-newsletters or RSS feeds at work. A television might deliver white-noise news in the background, and late-night television may lace the day’s events with parody or comic commentary. From these various components of news, you, the consumer, engage in the process of crafting a pretty good internal narrative of the day’s happenings.

One take-away lesson is that it’s time to rethink predictable stories - those knee-jerk assignments that are often as painstaking to read as they are for the journalists to write. Consider doing “charticles” for simple updates like The Oregonian does. Tell what happened, what’s at stake, what’s next - and put it in a box. Link to a timeline with background on your Web site. If readers need it, they will find it.

News is not parroting quotes because someone important said them. It’s not reporting lies, again just because a high official said them. It is not keeping some giant scorecard in the sky and writing about who “won” or “lost” today - the Democrats or the Republicans? The Mayor or City Council? It’s not requiring a conflict or semblance of a conflict before it’s decreed to be a “story.” Notice how few citizen journalists define news this way.

Nowadays, anyone can decide what’s news and report it, write it and deliver it as well. There are many opportunities to build rooms in your info-structure for those who want to commit these acts of journalism. Make room for citizen journalists, student journalists, think tanks, nonprofits, individual bloggers and advocacy groups. For instance, check out the Council on Foreign Relations’ online “Crisis Guides.” It would be hard to duplicate a more comprehensive examination of international crisis zones. Or link to TechPresident.com, the Personal Democracy Forum’s nonpartisan site that tracks online activities of presidential candidates.

Invite members of your community to help you investigate or report on an issue. Take some cues from:

Finally, make room for the small-J journalists in your community, people who are paying attention to what’s going on. They are a tremendous resource and they deserve to be supported with space, attention - even small grants to encourage them to contribute to your info-structure.

When the residents of Deerfield, N.H., had no available media, they created their own. The Forum is now an online newspaper with 220 contributors who produce an average of 37 original stories a week. Surrounding newspapers have noticed and are spending resources to compete. But why compete? Why not collaborate and even help support The Forum? NewHavenIndependent.org and the Twin Cities Daily Planet have attracted support from community foundations that traditionally look to build community capacity.

Many of these startups have a different mindset when it comes to competition. NewWest.net aunched to cover 10 states in the Rocky Mountains region, but it has also embraced the mission of being a home for a fledging Rural News Network to help small Montana towns with no available media like Dutton do it themselves.

Remember, though, there is no free lunch. News organizations that think citizens will freely contribute to their citizen journalism pages need to think again. While citizen journalism may well be a new form of volunteerism - something baby boomers do when the finish coaching their kids’ baseball teams - it’s a fragile dynamic. There must be a high degree of equilibrium, a balance between the giving and the getting, in these initiatives. Money is not the only motivator. People contribute for a reason - either because of a personal passion, to effect change, to learn something, or even to get smarter about technology.

Be clever in juicing that equilibrium. If you have to pay the high school that uploads the most robust content on your hyperlocal sports site, like the Orlando Sentinel does, consider it an investment in your info-structure.

Use your Big-J journalists where they can really add value. Professional journalists should focus their expertise and skills on doing investigations, identifying trends, building databases, holding public officials accountable and articulating the master narratives in their communities.

Ultimately, the marketplace will decide what is news. News will be whatever adds value in a noisy information landscape, whatever helps people get their jobs done, whatever imparts wisdom, and whatever elicits gratitude. To figure this out you also need some new players in your info-structure. They include:

  • “Can do-ers” instead of those who whine about what they can’t do.
  • Computer programmers who will be the architects of searchable databases or news games in your info-structure.
  • Collaborators, people who have the sensibility to see the possibilities of working together instead of moving into kneejerk competitor mode.
  • News analysts who will trawl incoming information looking for Big-J opportunities. Minnesota Public Radio uses these para-journalists to analyze information coming in through its Public Insight Journalism network.
  • Tribe expanders. Journalism in the future will come from many places. We should contribute to the momentum of the best and most responsible efforts and recruit them for the info-structure.

For those who embrace these challenges, there is cause for a great deal of optimism.

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.