NOWCastSA models community engagement for a digital age

Posted on November 03, 2011 by Janet Coats

If there is one core value underlying the New Media Journalism Initiative, it is innovation.

When The Patterson Foundation’s CEO Debra Jacobs asked me to work on this initiative, she gave me a relatively blank slate. But her one charge to me was to focus on innovation. We’ve tried to do that, as we’ve worked with community innovators who are carving new paths for journalism in a digital age.

In today’s post, Kathleen Majorsky introduces us to a site that is innovating in how it connects to its communities and enables community action. The lessons of NOWCastSA have implications for independent community publishers who want to build engagement as they key piece of their mission.

Block by Block is Charlotte-Anne Lucas and the NOWCastSA site.

NOWCastSA uses a multi-platform approach to civic engagement in the San Antonio, TX area. Through infographics, Google maps, webcasts and live chats, NOWCastSA is providing a multimedia forum for citizens to take part in and change their community.

Digital tools enable communities to use data in ways that print would never allow. NOWCastSA is proving to be a leader among community news sites in harnessing the power of data not just to inform the community but to help community members make decisions. From Google maps about immunization locations to farmers’ market locations to a map on obesity trouble spots in San Antonio, the data is popular because it enables action, Lucas says. The hope is to make these maps even more interactive.

“If we put up that information in the right way, we also will let people annotate those maps and tell us their stories. It will be a way to get people to tell stories through what they know because those are things happening in their neighborhoods,” Lucas says.

Another platform offered by NOWCastSA that is changing life in San Antonio is their streaming webcasts. With a live chat feature under the webcast, community members can engage in real time. NOWCastSA focuses on significant civic events that are important to the community, such as a workshop about the future of the metropolitan transit organization.

“The engagement level is positively magic. The community has come to equate us with allowing them to be in the room even when they can’t actually be in the room,” Lucas says.

Lucas and her husband recognize that the multi-platform approach to local news doesn’t have to be achieved with expensive equipment, which is a good thing.

“We’ve discovered that you can do this on a $2,000 Mac and with two $650 cameras, which brings it into the realm of small local news sites. The potential of that and becoming an interactive platform for civic engagement is a very positive thing. I would like to see it replicated in other communities,” Lucas says.

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