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Help us consider an important question: What is good online news?

The NEW News studies give us an opportunity to consider the ingredients that make up the news we want and need. What news, information and journalism helps people better participate in civic discourse and become better citizens and decision-makers? And how do the tools of the Web serve to change the way news is researched, reported and shared?

This is one of the key conversations we’ll have with our advisory board, but we wanted to start out with a series of questions.

How much news does a site need to provide to serve as a news source? In this area, we are indebted to Michele McLellan’s research. Her team determined a minimum amount of news content to be considered as part of her group of hyperlocal news sites. For her project, the site had to publish a minimum number of times (3) a week. We will want to consider if we want to follow the same standard, set a higher bar, or perhaps a lower one.

What is the news we need? In the 2009 report, we analyzed areas of pressing civic concern, such as housing and corruption, to see how coverage fared in the face of disruption in the local news ecosystem. Since 2009, the local news ecosystem just keeps evolving, and while we will not examine the volume of coverage of specific issues this time around, our sense is that there always can be more journalism that holds people in power accountable for their actions and tells the stories, positive and negative, about diverse communities in the City of Chicago. (We are pleased that the Local Reporting Initiative has helped more than 30 journalists tell stories that we’re certain might not otherwise have been told.) So, in looking at the quality of journalism we see on sites, we likely will favor sites that focus on pressing neighborhood and social issues in a balanced, rather than sensational, way. What are your thoughts on the news we need?

What qualifies as news, and is it different from journalism? Websites that post the police blotter, upcoming announcements of civic meetings and the like are sharing information, we believe. Some would consider such information as news. But is it journalism without the context or analysis that helps us understand key questions: is crime rising or falling? Is this flooding problem an annual occurrence or something exacerbated by recent weather and climate conditions? What makes this upcoming block party special?

What makes good reporting? A J-Lab study of Philadelphia sites coined a term we like tremendously. In looking at sites, the J-Lab team determined that some had “journalistic DNA in that they report news, not just comment on it.” We like this phrase, and we plan to expand on it. Community Media Workshop has a storied history of helping journalists and local organizations connect with a goal of fair and balanced reporting: reporting that represents not just two sides but all sides of an issue. At the same time, sometimes good reporting means not just talking to disparate voices but digging into the data in a way no one else has before. How will we represent good data-based reporting?

What makes an aggregator of news a good one? Increasingly, website users value sites that curate available information into a meaningful experience. Whether it’s a consistent editorial eye (such as The Daily Beast) or the wisdom of crowds (such as Reddit), we value a go-to starting point. Aggregation is alive and well in Chicago. What are the signs that it is effective, or that it isn’t?

What is the role of opinion in an online news ecosystem? We plan to start with the premise that we are evaluating sites that publish some minimum amount of news pertaining to the City of Chicago. Where does aggregating the news stop and providing some type of opinion on the news begin?

How are online news sites taking advantage of the online medium to better report the news? The online medium ensures that stories can be endlessly updated, that visitors and readers can contribute their observations, and that people can work together to sort through information. What are the practices that allow transparent and effective reader participation in newsgathering?

In a related question, what is the role of the reader/website user in the news ecosystem? We will probably come back to this notion in a blog post later on, but technology gives online news sites something richer and more vibrant (but possibly noxious) in the way of community engagement.

What makes up good online news is a huge question. We may not be able to answer it in a blog post, or even in a report. But we hope to spark a good discussion, as well as give some transparency around the values we’ll rank highly when we look at Chicago local news sites.

What are the elements of online journalism we need as citizens? If you have thoughts on these or other questions, please post to the comments.

Measuring reach online

One of the metrics the Workshop looks at when studying local news sites is their reach. How many people read the news they create? We believe reach is important because we believe that news sites serve a critical public purpose, and that readership may, albeit imperfectly, reflect the value a site holds in the eyes of its communities.

Having said that, though, while we believe understanding the reach of sites is important, it’s an imperfect item to measure at best.

In the first NEW News report, we relied on self-reported data as one criteria in our rankings algorithm. The good thing about relying upon self-reported data is that it allowed us to have data on every operator in the study, including smaller sites whose traffic was not captured by Alexa or Google. The bad thing is that it was self-reported, which generated a lot of questions about whether we were all measuring the same metrics in the same way or, in some cases, whether the data was accurate.

In the subsequent NEW News study, we have instead relied upon measures that are available to everyone, which leads to a different set of challenges.

  • Public estimates of site traffic, from Quantcast, Alexa or Compete.com, often drastically undercount traffic to smaller sites. Because they are based on a small subset of overall website traffic, they tend to have accurate numbers for larger sites and less accurate numbers for smaller sites. In addition, some sites code their sites for better Quantcast data, while others do not allow their Quantcast data to be displayed to the public.
  • Public proxies of site traffic, such as the number of RSS subscribers in Google Reader, or the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers, represent the actions of a subset of visitors. They may be more likely to be regular readers. But it’s still not everyone, and we don’t have a consistent way to say that a site with, perhaps, 1,000 Facebook likes actually has 10,000 monthly unique visitors.

At this point, we intend to pull analytics or traffic ranks from Quantcast, Alexa and Compete.com, as well as the number of RSS subscribers in Google Reader, Facebook likes, and followers of an organization or editor’s Twitter account, and use those numbers to create a scoring system for reach. (For consideration, the Facebook and Twitter accounts must be readily available from the organization’s home page.) For sites such as Compete.com that present data over time, we will likely create an average of the prior six months of traffic.

What do you think of our ranking options? What would you add or delete, and what would you be concerned about? Please share your comments in the comment field below.

Online sites we should include in our research? Comment here.

Interested in commenting on overall project? Comment here.

Be considered for NEW News 2012

Want to be included in NEW News, or want a news site within the City of Chicago to be considered? Then please add your site’s URL to the comments. And please: tell your friends and colleagues. While we’ll have criteria for our reviews, we want to start with as wide a net as possible. We’d love your help!

Read more about the project here.

Workshop website serves as key online hub, according to new report

Although a new report found a surprising amount of isolation among Chicago’s online news sites, the Community Media Workshop’s website received high marks as a ‘Hub’ and a ‘Referrer.’ So what does that mean?

The report, released today by the The Chicago Community Trust, looked at more than 400 Chicago news and information websites to understand the structure of our online ecosystem. Hubs, according to the report, are sites that guide users to information on other sites via linking. Gapers Block was the #1 hub, and Community Media Workshop ranked #9. The Workshop site actually received the #1 spot for Referrers, meaning a site that has a position in the network that enables users to follow links quickly to sites with even more outbound links.

Other interesting findings include:

  • Websites operated by traditional media are unlikely to link to content on other local websites.
  • Almost eight in 10 of the sites studied received few if any links from other sites.
  • Sites that link more to other sites or receive more links are more important to the Chicago news ecosystem than other sites.
  • Sites that receive a lot of links include major sources of original reporting such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicagoist and Gapers Block.

The researchers, led by Rich Gordon of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Zachary Johnson of Syndio Social, recommended that people and organizations looking for a well informed community should encourage more linking among local websites.

At the Workshop, we’re excited to make these lists! We will continue to serve as a resource to Chicagoland nonprofits, journalists and communicators. And now we know that our ongoing efforts to do so (and to be as “link-y” as poosible on our website and blogs) are indeed helpful to Chicago’s online news ecosystem. For more information on Chicago’s ever-shifting media landscape, check out our reports from last year: “The New News 2010: Mapping Chicago’s Online News Scene” and “Realizing Potential: What Chicago’s Online Innovators Need.”

If there are other resources you’d like to see on our website or our blogs in the coming month, let us know.

Guest Essay: Why is the Internet so slow?

This is the last guest essay from our recent report “Realizing Potential” about the long-term needs of the online news sector. This essay, by Justin Massa of Metro Chicago Information Center, focuses on why net neutrality is so important for hyper-local online news providers and bloggers. You can find the first two guest essays on the NP Communicator blog as well.  Read the full report here.

“Realizing Potential” Guest Essay: Why Is the Internet So Slow?

By Justin Massa, Director of Project and Grant Development, Metro Chicago Information Center

Imagine if, when shopping for appliances, only GE microwaves could nuke your food on high power while other brands could only operate at 75 percent. Or, imagine if only calls from certain telemarketers rang through to your mobile phone while your friends had to pay an extra, per-call fee in order to reach you. Sounds crazy, right?

Unfortunately, there are a growing number of major corporations lobbying for just this approach to data on the internet.

Telephone and power lines are, in a word, dumb. They don’t pay attention to who is using them for what purpose or what devices they are connected to, only that the user has paid the bill. Until very recently, the internet operated in much the same manner; while your specific connection speed might vary based on your individual plan, the actual content that came to your device and the specific make/model of your computer, phone, radio or car didn’t matter. All websites loaded at (roughly) the same speed and you have been free to connect any device to the web. This is the core tenet of net neutrality: your connection to the internet should be ‘dumb’ and deliver whatever content you request to whatever device you use at the same speed, regardless of what the content is.

But this principle has recently been called into question by both the courts and major corporations. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to regulate an internet provider’s network management practices and policies; in short, the FCC can’t enforce regulations to protect network neutrality.

Then, in August, Google and Verizon released “A Joint Policy Proposal for an Open Internet,” laying out a set of seven principles they believe should guide federal regulation. In their proposal, there is a clear distinction between the rules for “wireline” and “wireless” services. While wired broadband access (such as through a cable modem or an office’s network) would be governed by a weakened set of network neutrality principles, wireless broadband—which includes every connection to the web from a mobile phone—would only be required to disclose the exact nature of their services and would be allowed to control how fast various services were able to communicate data back and forth. Under their proposal, Verizon would be able to allow, for example, USA Today to display stories three times as fast as the Sun-Times in a mobile web browser, for the right price.

University of Illinois at Chicago Prof. Karen Mossberger’s research highlights the importance of network neutrality over wireless broadband for hyperlocal journalists in Chicago. In her “Digital Excellence in Chicago” report for the City of Chicago, she writes, “Over a third of Chicago residents have accessed the internet through some type of wireless device, and the concentration of such use among residents under 30 suggests that this trend is likely to increase in the future, especially with advances in technology.”

As the Workshop’s NEW News report suggests, the vast majority of Chicago’s neighborhood news sources are passion projects and few are generating much revenue. And, as we all know from our own internet use, speed is everything: waiting too long for a page to load simply means you will look elsewhere for the information. If wireless broadband providers are allowed to require that hyperlocal journalists pay for top-tier access—fees that many likely cannot afford—the inevitable result will be fewer sources for neighborhood news.

Guest essay: Business sense and audience engagement vital to online news success

CNM_RealizingPotential-1Over the next week, I will publish the guest essays from our recent report “Realizing Potential” about the long-term needs of the online news sector. This first one is by online news expert Michele McLellan, who also hosted the Block by Block conference a few weeks ago here in Chicago. The Chicago Community Trust kicked off Block by Block with a half-day conference of their own where this report and our NEW News 2010 analysis were released.  (Read the full report here. “Realizing Potential” guest essays from Patch’s Jessica Rosenberg and MCIC’s Justin Massa coming soon!)

“Realizing Potential” Guest Essay: Business Sense and Audience Engagement Vital to Online News Success

By Michele McLellan, Circuit Rider, Knight Community Information Challenge; Fellow, Reynolds Journalism Institute

We’re seeing an explosion of local online news startups across the United States.

Key drivers: Jobless journalists start independent sites. Technology is easier to master. Community leaders and organizations step up to help fill gaps.

This is very evident in Chicago, where dozens of sites and blogs are providing news and information, and The Chicago Community Trust and other organizations are working to support the emerging news ecosystem.

Even so, sustainability is a key challenge for most online news publishers.

Mainstream media sources often suggest sites fail either because it’s just too difficult to make a go of independent online news or because there is no obvious single source of revenue for news (like there used to be—advertising).

I suggest an alternative explanation: Sites struggle because their leaders don’t know much about running a business or making money. Often, the leaders are journalists who are downright uncomfortable even talking about selling ads or raising money.  Worse, they pin hopes on a single stream of revenue rather than planning for multiple sources and fail to plan for the time when they have enough people using their sites that they have something to sell.

Absent obtaining a grant that guarantees their independence and reinforces the idealistic notion that journalism is a public good rather than a product in a market, journalists can be just plain lost when it comes to making money from online news.

Still, many online news publishers are working on revenue and are optimistic that their local sites can be sustained.

As a fellow earlier this year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I developed a list of promising local news sites—both for-profit and nonprofit. We surveyed their publishers to identify best practices and key challenges they face. (Link for Michele’s List: bit.ly/micheleslist; link for survey: http://www.rjionline.org/fellows-program/mclellan/index.php)

Many publishers told us that engagement and community building are central to their sites.  While their top priority is creating original news content, engaging and building community is a close second.

Some see community engagement as key to business success.

Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent said community has been the core mission of the nonprofit site. “We cultivated a community. We’re a journalism-driven community.”

Engagement may be a particularly strong factor for sites that chose to develop a membership or individual donations model, like that of National Public Radio.

Other sites are making money by hosting events and selling syndication rights to their content to other sites and publications.

Sponsorships are another vehicle that both for-profits and nonprofits can exploit. They may look like advertisements, but the buyer is paying to be associated with the site, rather than for potential click-throughs to the product advertised.

Still, our survey found that online local news sites rely most heavily on advertising for revenue. On average, advertising accounts for 45 percent of site revenue. Nearly half of the sites reported that 75 percent or more of their revenue comes from advertising.

Grants are the second largest source of revenue, followed by donations.  Other sources such as sponsorships, subscriptions, memberships and services account for miniscule amounts.

While most of the sites report revenue and about one-fourth said they were profitable in 2009, three-quarters of the publishers said they are trying to increase revenue.

It’s clear that this will be a process of trial, error and experimentation around revenue. In Chicago, a couple of examples of exciting ideas are evident: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com just won a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to develop Real-Time Ads. The Chicago Community Trust is facilitating learning and discussion among local sites about forming an advertising network. (Link to Real Time Ads grant: http://www.newschallenge.org/winner/2010/windycitizens-real-time-ads )

Chicago is not alone as a local news innovation space. In Seattle, for example, many neighborhoods have competing news websites, entrepreneurs are creating advertising and content networks, and the major traditional news organization, The Seattle Times, is partnering with local sites and bloggers. One of those partners is West Seattle blog, a site that shows that the right combination of location, community, commitment and advertising know-how can create a profitable and valuable news source. (Link to Seattle Times: www.seattletimes.com; to West Seattle Blog: www.westseattleblog.com)

The story is the same all over the country. Patch.com, America Online’s entry into the micro-local marketplace, is evidence that an organization that is primarily about revenue and the web sees dollar signs in local advertising.

Whether an experiment fails or succeeds, the generalizations that seem to dominate mainstream media coverage do a disservice to important learning about the new local news landscape. Most of the field is still about trial and error. Until we define effective practices, how can we say whether a given model works or not?

Eric Newton, vice president for journalism programs at the Knight Foundation, describes a three-legged stool of the expertise needed: journalism, business, web. I would also note the three roles overlap in ways that require reinvention of the church-state division of journalism from revenue generation.

That doesn’t mean every journalist should now be selling ads between reporting assignments. But clearly, the journalist must focus on engagement and value—as defined by the community—and must understand web culture and how to connect within it; the web specialist must not only build websites but must see technology through the prism of user preferences and community building; the business specialist must aggressively generate revenue in ways that are consistent with the brand, which is another way of staying consistent with how the site’s community sees it.

That approach ultimately will create diverse paths to sustainable community sites.

Online news experts descend on Chicago

Rich Gordon (right), professor, Northwestern and Zachary Johnson, CEO, IKnow Inc./Syndio Social present their report "Linking Audiences to News" at Thursday's conference.

Rich Gordon (right), professor, Northwestern and Zachary Johnson, CEO, IKnow Inc./Syndio Social present their report "Linking Audiences to News" at Thursday's conference.

Online news providers from Chicago and around the country converged in Chicago last week to discuss the ever-evolving trade of providing news and information via the web. The main event was Friday’s “Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010” hosted by online news experts Michele McLellan, Reynolds fellow, and Jay Rosen, pressthink.org. The Chicago Community Trust kicked off the two-day affair with a half-day conference on Thursday, “Advancing Chicago’s News Ecosystem.”

The Community Media Workshop presented two reports at Thursday’s conference–our NEW News 2010 report that we released in August, and our new report “Realizing Potential: What Chicago’s Online Innovators Need.” (Michael Miner blogged about the reports last week as well.) “Realizing Potential” is a look at what online news producers need to be sustainable in the long term. We spent most of August and September conducting focus groups and surveying Chicago’s online news providers about what type of assistance funders could offer to help them succeed. It’s obvious that cold hard cash is what most people need right now as they try to find economic models that work, but it’s also clear that foundations can only give so many general operating grants before they’re looking for other ways to help online news providers thrive.

After three focus groups, 71 survey responses and interviews with online news experts in other cites, here are just a few of the things we found out:

  • Generating revenue is what keeps people up at night (41% of survey respondents said this was the biggest issue facing their site)
  • 61% of survey respondents said their sites do not bring in more revenue than they pay out in expenses
  • 62% said that many members of their site’s target audience do not know about their site
  • One in three sites reported that if they understood their audience better, they could do a better job attracting advertisers and could produce a better site
  • Most requested areas of training included: Building audiences (90%), Driving traffic (89%), Using metrics (80%), Seeking grants (80%), Using social media (77%)

Among other things, the report recommends that funders:

  • Help online news sites sell advertising and generate other sources of revenue
  • Help online news sites better understand their audiences
  • Support an investigative reporting and community issues reporting fund
  • Stay informed about the impact of national policy on local online news

To read the full report and complete list of recommendations for funders, download the report here.

These reports, as well as new research about how Chicagoans are consuming news and how different online news sites are linking to one another, were shared with an audience of more than 100 people on Thursday. (Check out all of the information and presentations on The Trust’s website or skim through a wiki about Thursday’s happenings here.) The group of attendees and the information was fascinating. For example, the report “Linking Audiences to News: A Network Analysis of Chicago’s Websites” (still in draft form but check out the presentation here) found that Gaper’s Block and Windy Citizen play critical “hub” and “intermediary” roles in Chicago’s online news network based on how many people link to their sites (Gapers Block=hub) or how many sites they link to (Windy Citizen=intermediary). These findings evoked cheers from the audience, which was fun to see since Andrew Huff (Gapers Block) and Brad Flora (Windy Citizen) were both in the room.

There was also frustrating information on news consumers’ feelings about the media, although probably not surprising. According to research by Medill School at Northwestern University and The Chicago Community Trust, more than half of Chicago-area residents surveyed don’t know enough about candidates or issues to vote. This and other findings about how people are consuming news in Chicago led to a healthy discussion about the type of news people need versus the type of news people want. (Download the full presentation about the draft report “News that Matters: An Assessment of Chicago’s Information Landscape” here.)

And it’s worth mentioning that in order to follow what’s going on at a conference now, especially one for and about online innovators, you better have your laptop or smart phone handy. There was rapid-fire conversation happening on Twitter during the sessions–just take a look at hash tags #bxb2010 and #cnm2010. And there was live streaming, a chat room and live blogging to help cover the presentations and panels. It was fun to watch in real time, and it’s a great way to archive the information for anyone who missed out last week.

At the Workshop we’re excited to serve as a neutral hub for this emerging sector, and we applaud the amazing work happening in Chicago. We also challenge funders to continue to support ambitious journalism–the kind that helps diverse communities, that tells the stories that may never have been told well by traditional media. Philanthropic support should aim to support a sustainable, thriving online news ecosystem that is ethical, comprehensive and accessible by all Chicagoans. Such investments may bear more risk than normal grant making, but they promise high rewards: a more broadly informed and engaged citizenry for the 21st century.

Photo: Rich Gordon (right), professor, Medill School at Northwestern, and Zachary Johnson, CEO, IKnow Inc./Syndio Social present their report “Linking Audiences to News” at Thursday’s conference.

Tracking online news traffic and other NEW News updates

newnewsfeatureopt3It’s been a month since we released the second annual NEW News report, and we’d like to thank everyone for the feedback and responses we’ve received.

It was our goal to send the initial survey to as many of Chicago’s online news providers as we could find, but unfortunately, we missed a few. Marina City Online is one of those sites. It’s a great hyper-local site that covers the 1,400-resident community of Marina City and the River North and North Loop neighborhoods of downtown Chicago. Let us know if we’ve left other sites off so we can be sure to include them in future surveys, updates and reports.

Another challenge that’s become clear after the release of this year’s NEW News is tracking online news traffic to Chicago-area sites. Last year, as the Workshop tried to rank online news sites, we asked online news providers to give us their site traffic numbers. We found out this is easier said than done. Some sites are forthcoming with traffic numbers, and others have reasons for keeping that information private.

Because we were aware of these concerns and because we weren’t ranking online news sites this year, we conducted our own research using compete.com to identify where Chicago readers were getting their online news. You can read more about those findings here. Although this information proved very useful, Newcity let us know that our numbers for their site were too low. In fact, according to their site traffic measures, they have over 40,000 readers a month to newcity.com and chicagoweekly.com. As our researcher pointed out, compete.com often underestimates traffic numbers, especially for smaller sites. Newcity also uses a service called Quantcast to track site visits. Quantcast allows people to use code on their web site to get a more accurate measure, as well as insights about site visitor demographics. Some sites have it, but others don’t, which is why we used Compete despite its limitations.

We don’t know how to solve the site traffic problem yet, but it’s possible we’ll ask for traffic numbers next year if we attempt to rank sites again. Or, maybe a service will emerge that accurately tracks site traffic for smaller blogs and hyperlocal sites, as well as the big outlets like the Chicago Tribune online.

We appreciate everyone’s responses to the NEW News report. The online ecosystem continues to change rapidly, and your feedback helps us keep up!

What kind of news do we want?

One reason there has not been much posted here over the past 10 weeks or so is that we’ve been busy pulling together a report on the state of local online news in Chicago, The NEW News: Journalism We Want and Need for The Chicago Community Trust. It’s not about how to pay for local news, but why we pay for it–and about who’s doing what online in Chicago.

It’s the first time anyone we know of has tried to assemble a report quite like it, that combines a directory of who’s doing what, some thoughts about where local print and online news is actually at in terms of coverage, and some thoughts on the kind of news we want. Some key thoughts:

  • There’s less local news in the newspaper, these days, but no guarantee that online news publications will do any better.
  • Online news publications will need to adopt some of the characteristics of local news—include news vetted by editors, copy editors, etc., select stories that both entertain and inform their audiences, and perhaps most importantly that they create a forum for one conversation, a universal feature that is hard to arrive at on the Internet, which drives us toward so many unique, small, even idiosyncratic news sources.
  • Assembling such a report in such a short period of time (we surveyed producers of more than 80 online news publications, looked for trends in local news coverage in the Tribune and Sun-Times over 20 years—mostly, it’s declined, and conducted focus groups with nonprofit community leaders) was a job of work.

Our main goal was to add a different note to the conversation about how to save news… for audiences that are able to hear it. It will be too bad if the folks we respect and admire in metropolitan newsrooms are unable to take it in or get much benefit from the research.

One columnist’s take
Shame on me for not living up to my own spokesperson training rules: I spent two hours explaining all this to Phil Rosenthal, Tribune media columnist, explaining what we did and did not find about local online news in Chicago, to wind up reading a column this morning in which he says he thinks the whole project was waste of time. Now why am I surprised?

Obviously you can read his column here, and draw your own conclusions, but he seems to have wound up feeling that everything is fine in the news business so why don’t we just keep things the way they are. Hello? Shouldn’t have to explain to the media columnist, why the status quo is unworkable (our study does not focus on the news business’ money problems but they are obviously a sign that things need to change).

Find out for yourself… download your own copy here.

old news about the news

Pew released the audience numbers for Internet, Print, and TV in December 2008.

Pew released the audience numbers for Internet, Print, and TV in December 2008.

In case you’re always late to parties, like me, a little graphic that explains what you already know if you obsessively ask folks (as we often do, in the course of our workshops), “did you read a newspaper today? listen to the radio? go online for news” etc. etc.

No, it does not say print is dead–though that would make a better blog post (or headline), wouldn’t it? But it does say that the Internet is where huge chunks of audience are. Read the rest of this entry »

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