THE Dallas Morning News launched a print-only community newspaper called Neighbors in 2005 and, two years later, turned it into neighborsgo and launched a corresponding Web site under the direction of managing editor Oscar Martinez.
The idea behind the project: offer readers a place to publish their news on a separate area of the Morning News Web site with the lure of print publication for the best stuff. In addition to the Web site, 18 different print editions were launched, each targeting a separate geographic area.
The readers responded. Editors were inundated with submissions and emails. And, the way Martinez views it, print provided the motivation for most people.
“The innovation of neighborsgo isn’t the social-media aspect of neighborsgo.com or the amount of content generated by users,” Martinez says. “It’s the resulting print product, which is a mash-up of user- and staff-generated content. Print still has an incredible power to validate shared experiences and strengthen community connections. In 2009, this is a great story for newspapers to tell.”
Another great story for newspapers is how the editors at neighborsgo have gone about getting to know their audience. As Martinez says, “Before you can mobilize an audience, you need to know who they are. More important, they need to know who you are.
“Neighborsgo editors display their personalities online and interact daily with readers across multiple platforms – including prompt e-mail and phone replies, and outreach via external social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Once a month, editors meet with readers face-to-face, informally, over coffee. (A recent event featured nine editors ‘hosting’ more than 120 readers at nine area Starbucks.)”
For the Dallas news company, they have turned the concept of “citizen journalists” on its head. “In our world, editors are ‘journalist citizens,’” Martinez says.
MyCommunityNOW is a similar project launched by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 25 neighborhood areas. The basic premise is the same: leverage an inexpensive and efficient digital publishing to allow an audience to self-publish, then use the best submissions for localized print editions. The lure of print motivates the audience while the Journal Sentinel recognizes that its reporters and editors can’t be everywhere, nor can it always cover the news and events that readers want. So MyCommunityNOW provides expanded coverage in each community.
“Let’s face it, if there is a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new grocery store in town, the odds are slim that the newspaper will send out a staff photographer or reporter to cover it,” said Mark Maley, the site’s editor. “But if the chamber of commerce president has a digital camera, we strongly encourage him to take a few shots and post it on the local NOW site. It’s providing a facet of coverage that newspapers — especially in this era of downsizing and staff cuts — often can’t provide.
“But beyond that, we are giving people a chance to actively participate in how their community is being covered and to interact with others in their community through our sites. Just as people like posting videos to YouTube and photos to Flickr, they like to similar tools to interact with other residents in their hometown.”
The lure of print helps motivate NOW contributors, but so does a little friendly competition. So NOW editors frequently send traffic reports to the 130-plus bloggers who voluntarily contribute, with the page views their posts receive and how they rank compared to other NOW bloggers.
“My favorite type of submissions are the kind that surprise the heck out of me in terms of popularity,” Maley said. “Sometimes a small, two- or three-paragraph user-submitted story about a new business in town can get four or five times as many page views as a staff-written story about the city’s budget crunch or a more ‘serious’ issue.
“I’ve found that we can learn something about how we cover a community if we pay attention to what kind of news people are submitting to us – and what people are reading online.”