The thrill — and frustration — of journalism innovation

Posted on October 19, 2010 by Janet Coats

Block by Block, the gathering of community news site publishers held in Chicago last month, gave me so much to think about that I felt as if my brains were running out of my ears.

The event, a first-of-its-kind gathering of the news entrepreneurs focused on very local news and community building, had an energy and optimism that has been lacking in most journalism meetings these last few years. Instead of doom and gloom about the threats facing journalism, these publishers were focused on possibilities and promise.

One of the reasons The Patterson Foundation invested in this event was because of our belief that those who are working to find new paths for journalism desperately need connection among themselves. The best estimate is that there are about 4,000 independent community news sites in the United States. If all 4,000 of those publishers have to learn by trial and error, instead of sharing the knowledge that comes from both success and failure, precious momentum, time and – yes – money will be wasted.

Part of the general good feeling in the air at Block by Block came simply from the fact that publishers were able to start sharing. So many community sites are run by single proprietors or by a few people working together. The realization that there are others – truly thousands of others – all facing similar challenges and fears was a powerful experience. If Block by Block accomplished nothing more than that, it would have been money well spent.

But there was no way to be in that room at Loyola University and not sense something larger afoot. Some talked in terms of a “movement.’’ Others, perhaps put off by the idea that there is some large shared cause among these publishers, still acknowledged there is at least some unity among them when it comes to common needs and threats.

The two greatest needs boil down to this: attention and money.

You can talk in terms of “community engagement,’’ and “stickiness’’ and “time on site’’ and “return visits,’’ but the simple fact is that attention is what these sites need to survive and thrive. We live in an age when we drown daily in a new wave of information and news. The sites – really, the information communities -- that will make it are those who stand out in that crowd. They have to be of value to a distinctive audience, or community – a tough thing to do in an age when many view news and information as commodities.

Tightly linked to the need for attention is the need for money. While the conversation about engagement was generally a fun one for the Block by Block participants, there were lots of furrowed brows in the room when it came to the money question. That’s nothing new – journalists have long been uncomfortable with talking about how their work gets paid for. Add to that the fact that there are real differences of opinion among community publishers about funding models. Some are hustling after advertising with an enthusiasm that rivals the chase for a great story; some disdain advertising as a model at all.

As someone who is rooting hard for a strong ecosystem of community news publishers to take hold, watching the Block by Block participants grapple with these issues was both thrilling and frustrating. In my next couple of blog posts, I’ll share my observations on both sides of that ledger – starting with the thrilling.

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