What if newspaper re-thought its role in the community, moving from a focus on protecting its turf against perceived competitors and embracing a responsibility to connect its readers to a wide range of community news and voices?
And what if in doing so, the newspaper created an environment where entrepreneurial community news publishers viewed the paper as a partner rather than an organization out to crush them?
And what if, in this newly cooperative local news world, the question became not which news organization benefits, but how does the community benefit?
As someone who worked in the hyper-competitive Tampa news environment, this sounds too good to be true. But after visiting Seattle last week, I've seen how The Seattle Times is working to make this scenario a reality -- and I'm wishing I had been more committed to this kind of effort in my old life as an editor.
I've read a lot about The Seattle Times and the News Partner Network, a collaboration between The Times and more than 40 community news sites to share story links and photos among the sites. In 2009, The Times was one of five news organizations that received funding through J-Lab to build a local news network involving at least five community news sites.
As you can see, The Times took that project and ran with it, building what is likely the most extensive collaboration network involving a newspaper and community news sites. In discussions last week with Bob Payne, partnerships and audience engagement editor at The Times, and representatives of four of the partner sites, I heard both what makes the network work and where some of the ongoing challenges lie.
Bob makes it clear that this is about collaboration, not about The Times trying to big-foot the community sites. The Times highlights the work of the community sites on its website and links to the stories. That means The Times doesn't get the web traffic; the pageviews and unique visitors accrue to the community sites, not the newspaper's site.
The Times doesn't want to substitute its own news judgment or editorial practices for those of the sites. The site publishers are the experts in their communities, Bob said. The benefit The Times derives from the partnership is extended reach; Times readers are able to connect into community news that the newspaper would never cover, or that it would cover only in brief. In this way, The Times burnishes its role as a news and information hub for Seattle.
Joining us in this discussion were Matt Rosenberg of Public Eye Northwest, Leland Dart of My Everett News, Teresa Wippel of My Edmond News and Thomas Brown of historylink.org. They all spoke of the benefits they derive from increased traffic. Teresa said she can tell right away if the Times has featured a story from My Edmond News by the spike in traffic she gets.
But they also spoke of the credibility benefit. Leland is a relatively new member the network; he said it already is having an effect in helping him get calls returned from sources. The Times, in effect, injects some of its own credibility into the larger network by providing access and visibility to the community sites and their stories.
In a sense, this is like thinking of journalism as a public utility. My husband, Rusty Coats, was along on this visit. He described it as thinking of The Times as a hub in the power grid; the community sites are wind farms, each of which is powering its own community but also contributing power to the larger grid. It's an interesting way to see the interconnected nature of one community's news ecosystem.
So what's not working? It has been difficult to translate the network effect into advertising sales and the revenue model. The effort is still underway, but there have been frustrations on all sides. This isn't surprising; figuring out the local advertising pieces is a work in progress across the entire field.
Bob Payne told me that if I took one lesson away from this meeting, it should be that foundations need to focus more on the business sustainability needs. So much non-profit funding has focused on technology and craft; Bob said if he had a piece of advice, it would be to focus on sustainability. That's exactly what we're working on at The Patterson Foundation.
After my time in Seattle, I'm reaffirmed that focus is the right course. Because if the News Partner Network is any indication, the journalism is in good hands.
Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.
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