Weaving the news...

Social Networks and the Renaissance of Local News

Weaving the news...Part 4 of 5:

There is no magic wand to reverse the “great unbundling” of local news and restore the kind of profits that once attracted so much unhealthy attention from Wall Street. The old economics have changed and we need a new model to replace it.

Putting the mission of local journalism ahead of the mission of profit maximization is a first step. But there are two additional factors in the renaissance of local news: social networks and mobile computing. This post focuses on the former and my next post on the latter.

As we talked about in the “great unbundling,” the market for local news is inherently fragmented and expensive to serve. The way services like Yelp, eBay and Craiglist served these local information markets was to harness the power of people through investments in crowdsourcing technology.

Networking News Distribution

The Internet works well for services that reach millions of people in far-flung geographies. These kinds of services scale freely in ways that no longer seem to obey the laws of physics that once shaped the print newspaper business. In that world, a physical distribution network was difficult to build. Those companies that had them turned geography into a source of competitive advantage. But in the scale-free physics of the Internet, the economics of geographically-constrained markets breaks down. Restricting who you serve because of where they are simply shrinks your potential audience. On the web, there is no place. This is changing with mobile, as we’ll explore in the next post, but the last fifteen years of having no geography on the web has profoundly reshaped the economics of news distribution.

Watch out for that long tail; it's got a mean bite.What replaced the economics of physical geography on the web? To answer that, we need to look at network theory and what it teaches us about power curves. Power curves emerge as a result of the kind of linking we do on the web. The more links I have coming to my site, the more likely it is people will find me, and the more likely it is that I will then get more links. Map a power curve and you get the image to the left. The horizontal axis represents the number of websites and the vertical axis represents the number of incoming links that each of those websites has pointing to it. The overwhelming majority of websites live in the “long tail” on the right-hand side of the curve with hardly any incoming links. On the far left of a power curve for online news, we would find Yahoo News, MSNBC, and CNN, with hugely disproportionate shares of incoming links and traffic.

Power curves arise out of links, and it’s people like you and me who do that linking. We do it through blogs like this, through links in email, by posting in Facebook and tweeting and retweeting on Twitter. Every time we do these activities, we’re “networking information” – connecting it to people and connecting it to other bits of information in ways that distribute it across the web.

In the old world of print newspapers, boys on bikes distributed the news. Today, readers distribute the news by networking it. Local news services in the renaissance will need to embrace this idea deeply if they are to succeed. The new economics of news distribution rests on linking and networking behavior, and that requires a whole new type of relationship with readers – one that treats them less like passive consumers and more like proactive partners in disseminating news. In other words, local news services will need to invest in developing reader-distributor networks and they will do this through investments in information networking.

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.  ~Arthur Miller

Crowdsourcing News Reporting with Information Networkers

It costs money to put reporters in city hall, and I don’t happen to be one of those people who believe that volunteer, citizen journalists are an alternative. That said, I do believe the new model for local news will entail a very healthy dose of crowdsourcing. It’s just crowdsourcing with a twist. Next generation local news services will use crowdsourcing techniques because the new economics dictate it and because, sometimes, crowdsourcing actually adds real value to traditional journalism.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, the economic engine of the local paper has been unbundled in ways that fundamentally reduce the dollars available for local journalism. Philanthropy might bring back a fraction of those resources, but we are ultimately talking about less money. Crowdsourced journalism simply takes advantage of the same techniques that eBay, Craigslist and Yelp used to serve their highly fragmented markets for local information. They used various forms of crowdsourcing to empower people to serve themselves. These web pioneers have already demonstrated the power of these kinds of tools to fundamentally alter the economics of an industry. It is now up to local news providers to modify these tools to achieve similar results.

There are many situations where tapping this power of crowds results in something better, more valuable than journalists could create on their own. I like the frame that the FCC’s The Information Needs of Communities report uses to describe some of these functions of journalism:

  • Empowerment: Citizens publishing their own content, whether it’s ideas, reporting, photos, or videos.
  • Smart Aggregation: The explosion of available information on the web requires filters to help us find what we want. Social networks like Twitter help us find people who link to stuff we care about.
  • Authentication: Crowd-based fact-checking can be a powerful means for authenticating certain types of information and journalism itself.
  • Witness: There are far more citizens than journalists, and web-based journalism takes advantage of the probability that phone-toting people may be on the scene to capture that eye-witness account of a tsunami or incident of police brutality.
  • Sense Making: Commentary from readers provides context that helps other readers connect with a story in ways that may go beyond what the original reporter was able to achieve.
  • Watchdog: Citizens can help process publicly available government data in ways that help hold institutions accountable – though citizens without formal journalism experience and credentials can have a hard time exposing information that institutions want covered up.

There are specific roles in journalism that can be fulfilled by crowdsourcing, and there are others that don’t work quite so well. There are certainly also cases where some of these roles blur the lines around what is and is not really news reporting. Hyper-local, neighborhood reporting can easily drift into glorified personal blogging. The vast majority of the images, videos and other stuff we post on line isn’t really “news” but personal updates. But occasionally, what we have to add is news, and real-time information networks like Twitter seem to do a pretty decent job of elevating that kind of news from the dusty trails of our personal musings.

Sometimes the distinction between news reporting and news distribution gets blurred. This is particularly true when it comes sense making. For example, when I post a link to a story on Facebook along with a personal note, I’m providing context to my friends, context that will help them see how this story fits into their lives. That’s not reporting, but it’s also not just distributing. It’s somewhere in between. I will almost always be better at providing contextual bridges to what my personal networks care about – and this is something journalists need to use to their advantage.

The News Engagement Pyramid

A while back, while still running Groundwire, I developed a framework called the engagement pyramid to help mission-drived organizations engage their constituents in changing the world. One of the unstated assumptions behind that model was my firm belief in the important role that organizations play as a container for organizing work around an ongoing mission.

I believe the engagement pyramid holds some insights for engaging communities in the social mission of delivering local news. A networked social enterprise for local news would have some minimal level of administrative and fundraising staff, but most of its staff would be focused on editorial and on information networking. I won’t take the space here to reprise the details of the engagement pyramid, but here are a few thoughts on two specific “engagement roles” for building a networked approach to local news:

The Editorial Engagement Role: From Distribution to Editing

The engagement pyramid’s vertical dimension represents the intensity of engagement, with low-level, lightweight engagement at the bottom and high-intensity, deep engagement at the top. With editorial engagement, the lower tiers of the pyramid focus more on news distribution, while the higher levels evolve into information creation and actual reporting. I might start by following a local news service via Twitter and RSS, then start tweeting (endorsing) its stories to people in my network, and eventually contributing my own thoughts about the stories in my tweets, and possibly even through a post in my own blog.

Managing the relationship with me up to this point is the work of the news service’s information networking staff, but once I’m contributing, the editorial staff will start to take more of an interest, possibly even pulling me into its pool of affiliated writers and reporters. As part of the service’s network of local contributors, my reporting gets featured in increasingly prominent ways by the editorial team, based on the quality of my reporting and its alignment with the service’s mission (owning). If my work becomes good enough, I may eventually be brought in as part of the service’s editorial team (leading).

The Information Networking Engagement Role: From Distribution to Community Leadership

Writing might not be my greatest strength, and so my passion for local journalism may be better served by channeling into networking. Again, the entry route starts with distribution via following on Twitter or RSS and moves on to retweeting and other forms of endorsing through passing information on to my networks. Rather than graduate on to doing my own writing, however, with the information networker role, I focus my energy on building the culture and connections that keep the community strong.

News networkers help a news service cultivate the networks of people that are critical to distributing its content and bringing more people into the engagement pyramid. They focus their network organizing by place (neighborhoods, landmarks, etc.) and by issue (environment, politics, etc.). They build critical connections with bloggers who are already focused in these areas of interest. They also reach out to others by attending real world events, watching hashtags on Twitter and all sorts of other offline and online organizing tactics.

News networkers also protect the culture of a news service by reinforcing certain rules of behavior in its various forums for engaging the public. They are the first lines of defense in coordinating the broader community’s response to the kinds of troll behavior that weaken online communities.

One of the other roles of information networkers is working with the editorial team to ensure the news service’s content is optimally “engaging” – that is to say, that it’s written in ways that fully engage other readers in ways that ‘network the content’ out to the rest of the community. Every article needs hooks for local information networkers to attach the context that makes it meaningful and relevant to other readers. How does this issue affect my neighborhood? How does it affect businesses or families like mine?

Combining Social Enterprise with Social Networks

Some might dismiss the above vision for the future of local news as overly idealistic. But this kind of user involvement already exists in other information networking services such as Twitter, Digg, Reddit and even Facebook. These services manage to harness enormous quantities of citizen time and energy in networking information. People derive great meaning and a sense of community by participating in these services. Could this same enthusiasm be extended to networking the local news?

We all live someplace. Events that happen in the places we live and work can deeply affect our lives. Traditional models for delivering quality journalism about these places is on the endangered species list and headed for extinction.

Will we be able to combine the social enterprise of local news with the social networking of local news? I believe it is possible and that, with some experimentation, we will eventually land on a model that creates great personal, social and community wealth.

But like all things involving the exertion of human effort, the networking of local news needs to be trivially easy for it to reach critical mass. People shared photos online sporadically and haphazardly before the advent of Flickr (and Facebook) photo sharing. Now sharing photos with friends is one of the main reasons we take pictures in the first place. People never used to write reviews of restaurants until Yelp made it easy to do and easy to find, and the same was true of product reviews until Amazon did the same thing.

Today it’s not second nature for us to find local information when we go online. Before information moved to the web, the first thing we saw when we walked outside was the news sitting on our front doorstep – easy to find. Our three TV networks, each broadcast local news coverage once around dinner time and once before bedtime. But those regular doses of local news are now lost in a dizzying area of cable channels and websites. The first phase of the Internet was ill-suited to local information; it got lost in a sea of global power curves.

As we will see in the next, and final post, the rise of the mobile Internet is now changing this situation by making place mean something once again on the Internet. And though there’s no way to re-bundle the old economics that drove the print newspaper business, we may now be moving into another type of local content aggregation via the GPS on your phone.


Up next… (July 28) Part 5 of 5 - Mobile Computing and the Renaissance of Local News


Part 1:   The Information Needs of Communities
Part 2:   The Great Unbundling and Collapse of Local Newspapers
Part 3:   Social Enterprise and the Renaissance of Local News
Part 4:   Social Networks and the Renaissance of Local News
Part 5:   Mobile Computing and the Renaissance of Local News (July 28)

Image modified from original by Puzzler4879.