Net-J: Oregonian News Network

"We will always do our brand of verified, deeply reported journalism—that’s what we know—but we believe journalism can and should include a much broader range of coverage, and we don’t necessarily think only our journalists can do that work."

The Oregonian News Network
Nurturing a Big Tent for Journalism

The Oregonian was invited to join the second round of pilot projects and from the beginning looked to The Seattle Times' network as an important model.

However, instead of adding all the partners iteratively, the Oregonian News Network (ONN) grew from two parallel efforts: one focused on building an alliance of Net-J news partners and the other on building partnerships with community blogs.

By June 2011, The Oregonian had recruited nine Net-J news partners, created a logo and began promoting the network as "independent, interactive journalism across Oregon."

Simultaneously, some 50 community bloggers were being courted by veteran editor George Rede to partner with The Oregonian. Mostly lifestyle blogs, these sites focused on everything from food to public affairs, arts and entertainment to the outdoors and recreation.

By early 2012, both networks were combined under the Oregonian News Network (ONN) rubric. Cornelius Swart, who was the part-time Net-J project coordinator, was hired full-time to shepherd the combined network as well as work on the paper's OregonLive.com website. Swart had been embedded in the newsroom from the start of the Net-J project. Previously, he was also an indie news publisher, putting out the Portland Sentinel, which focused on North Portland.

"What began as an experiment in providing more content for a newspaper site and more traffic for hyperlocal sites has evolved into an important engagement program," Swart said. 

As of fall 2012, the network had about 48 partners and they had posted some 2,400 stories to the OregonLive.com website.

One of the program's biggest successes was improving the quality of indie journalism through a series of training sessions. The Oregonian even launched a News Buddy mentoring program that paired a hyperlocal site publisher with a veteran journalist for two weeks of advice and journalism tips.

Among the project’s hurdles was trying to work around Advance Internet's rigid web template, which made any ONN home-page presence difficult. The ONN partnership also had to deflect a few slaps from Willamette Week, a competitive alternative weekly for the Portland area.

How It Worked

Swart said the size and complexity of the news operations of The Oregonian and OregonLive.com made it challenging to aggregate news from the partners. OregonLive.com could not post headline links to partner stories like Seattle did, and The Oregonian did not want to republish partner content like The Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer were doing.

Initially, ONN developed its own, rather labor-intensive method: RSS feeds came into two Oregon News Network landing pages. Those feeds then linked to a “synopsis” page, which housed excerpts of partner stories that were posted by Oregonian editors. It was only at the bottom of these pages that a link back to the partner source finally appeared. These excerpted content "nodes" also got topic tags that could place them in other topic "wells" on the site.  For instance, a biking story might also be tagged to a particular neighborhood.

More recently, partners have been allowed to post their own excerpts directly onto OregonLive. They go into a queue, where Swart approves them and promotes them to the appropriate web pages. “The new method is gaining popularity among partners and saves considerable time,” he said.

While there is no ONN home-page presence, editors can decide that a partner story is worth including in the page's headline links. A recent home-page redesign has made it easy to move partner excerpts to the home-page on a story-by-story basis, Swart said. An ONN headline widget does appear on some internal pages.

In late fall of 2012, ONN finally got some real estate on the home page with a widget that appears on the right rail. The widget links to recent news from ONN partners and only appears at the homepage at certain times of day.

After the first year, however, partners reported that they got only small bumps in traffic from participating in the network. Concerned that readers might not know to click over to full partner stories from the synopsis pages, Swart has tried an information box with excerpts to cue readers that the posts are aggregated content.

In July 2011 Willamette Week criticized ONN for featuring "sponsored content" on OregonLive, basically headlines on the ONN page. These headlines were mostly being pulled in from partner site Neighborhood Notes, where it was clearly labeled as paid content. The problem was that ONN's RSS feed was picking up both headlines from news posts and from sponsored posts. The latter, Willamette Week asserted, violated ONN's Standards and Practices. ONN adjusted the RSS feed so that only news content showed up on the network's landing page.

Yet another Willamette Week article criticized the inclusion of Oregon Capital News as a partner because it was a project of the Cascade Policy Institute, a Libertarian think tank. Oregonian editors said they found the site's reporting to be independent and unbiased. By year's end, however, the site had lost its support and shut down.

Starting with an Aspiration

Editor Peter Bhatia said he wanted to make OregonLive.com "a central place for local news – however you define it."

"We also believe in a 'big-tent' theory of journalism. We will always do our brand of verified, deeply reported journalism – that's what we know," he said. "But we believe journalism can and should include a much broader range of coverage and we don't necessarily think only our journalists can do that work."

The Oregonian decided to give partners $2,500 each with some set aside for later partners or a potential hyperlocal start-up.

Ten partners were recruited for the first year. Among them were My Eugene, which covered news and community meetings in Eugene, Ore.; Bike Portland, which covered the city's robust cycling scene; The Lund Report, which produces high-quality journalism about the health care and insurance industry; NeighborhoodNotes, which reported news from Portland's 95 organized neighborhoods; North Coast Oregon, covering the Columbia Pacific region; and Clark County Blog, covering the area around Vancouver, the state's fourth largest city.

A second tier of partners, not receiving funding, included The Yaquina Wavelength, a community newspaper and website for the central Oregon coast; The Skanner, an African-American owned publication covering metro Portland; and Oregon Capitol News, which covered news from the state capitol until it closed last year.

Like in the other pilot networks, not all the participants were stable contributors. By the end of the first year, both Oregon Capitol News and Clark County Blog shut down, and My Eugene halted publication in the fall of 2012 after its owner relocated for a new job. Bike Portland left the network for mission reasons; The Lund Report produced a major investigative story for the newspaper in the summer of 2012 but some freelance contract issues emerged that ended its network affiliation.

Neighborhood Notes, however, began producing a weekly freelance business column, Open and Shut, listing retail openings and closings for the paper. Several other partners have become regular freelancers for the paper.

Oregonian reporters were at first concerned about the network but ended up finding it added content and posting frequency to their "wells," Swart said.

While referral traffic from ONN was small, "partners appear to benefit from and appreciate both trainings, networking opportunities and being a part of the club," Swart said.

They got to use photos from the newspaper's archives and got some access to research tools such as Lexis Nexis. North Coast Oregon got a new website so it could better participate in ONN. The Oregonian featured some of the partners in-house ads in the paper, and in a Q&A series on OregonLive, and it worked hard to meet requests for training.

The Oregonian held a early “Business for Bloggers” training session and a more recent session on publishing for niche blogs. It trained partners in using databases, including the Oregon Judicial Department’s database and provided video training for mobile devices. When partners said they needed help hiring freelancers, ONN created a freelance reporter referral database.

The Oregonian also helped partners differentiate between news, advocacy and paid content. Paid content was emerging as an issue because it was becoming an important source of revenue for the start-ups.

"The biggest surprises of the year," Swart said, "was seeing how eager hyperlocals were to learn new reporting skills and how widely it has been embraced by the public and the local ecosystem."

In a video explaining ONN, Ken Aaron, co-founder of NeighborhoodNotes.com, said that another benefit of the partnership surfaced in making sales calls to prospective advertisers.

"People recognize that our stuff is showing up on Oregon Live. That partnership gives an extra oomph, a little more legitimacy, to what we are doing, and they are more receptive to what we are offering." 

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