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Journalism + digital tools = 
Neighborhood benefits

By Patrick Barry

For six years, Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Chicago has been combining traditional journalism with digital tools to support neighborhood development. Our initial premise was that good reporting and writing about the neighborhoods would find an audience and deliver benefits to the communities we covered. We launched a single Web site in 2004 and now support an “ecosystem” of 21 Web sites—many run by the neighborhoods themselves—that attracts more than 26,000 visits per month.
Our work began because newspapers and TV stations didn’t do a good job covering the 16 neighborhoods in LISC’s New Communities Program. Some, like Englewood or Humboldt Park, showed up in headlines often enough, but usually connected with crime or poverty. Others like Auburn Gresham were virtually invisible to search engines like Google because there were few Web sites or stories to point to.

We were lucky to have long-term support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which shared our belief that communications would bring multiple benefits including new funding from other sources. With a budget that has ranged from $300,000 to $450,000 per year, we hired a team of part-time journalists and sent them out to the neighborhoods. Their first assignment was to serve as “scribes” on year-long planning processes in 10 neighborhoods, where they captured the local voice in detailed “quality-of-life” plans. Along with freelance photographers and multimedia specialists, they also developed backgrounders about the neighborhoods and began covering stories about the day-to-day work of improving communities.

More news, more outlets
We knew from the start that the Web would be our main tool of dissemination because it is cheaper than print, reaches an audience far beyond any mailing list, and provides a deep and searchable archive.

What we didn’t anticipate was how quickly our information stream would catch on and how demand and opportunities would grow. In the months after went live, readers found it, read the few articles we had produced, and began downloading maps, data sheets and other materials by the hundreds. We were filling an information void. And thanks to online search engines, we attracted a wide spectrum of readers: neighborhood residents, academics, city officials, community development practitioners, developers, job-seekers, youth and business owners.

That first Web site, with a small “section” for each neighborhood group, quickly proved inadequate. Our community partners recognized the power of the vivid photography, news stories and online calendars and directories, and began lobbying for their own Web sites. We worked with Webitects Inc. to design an inexpensive yet powerful “grassroots template” and helped eight groups launch Web sites in 2005. Several more have launched since then, and many of the neighborhood agencies have become strong innovators in the digital world.

What we’ve learned
As the newspaper industry collapses around us, the methods we’ve developed have become ever more important. By experimenting, copying from each other, and sharing ideas, we’ve found many low-cost tools that bring tremendous benefits to the neighborhoods. But we also face challenges that limit use of these tools and thus the potential gains. First, the good stuff:

  • Neighborhood-oriented news sites run by local organizations can become primary information resources. Top sites in our network attract 2,000 to 4,500 visits per month and have excellent visibility on Google.
  • Community groups have shown creativity and leadership in video production and the use of YouTube; photo sharing; e-newsletters; custom mapping; and social networking via Facebook and other sites.
  • Training in new-media skills (such as Web site creation and editing, photography, video and e-newsletters) brings rapid and lasting benefits.
  • The bad news is that it takes considerable resources to run a news operation, even a limited one focused on a single neighborhood or issue. There’s no way around this. Creating a good stream of neighborhood information requires:
  • A commitment from the top within the organization or local partnership to invest in communications.
  • A staff person or consultant, at least part time, with a storytelling instinct and the will to learn about reporting, writing, photography, editing and Web tools.
  • An organizing mentality that uses the news operation to support the objectives and strategies of the organization or neighborhood.
  • Money to do these things over a period of years, because it takes time to build skills, participate in trainings and find a rhythm.

Digital tools offer tremendous promise to support healthy communities. But the tools alone do nothing. Like the newsprint and presses they replace, they are merely a vehicle. If communities want to reap the benefits of the digital age, they must learn to collect, shape and disseminate information with a professional, journalistic approach.

Patrick Barry has been writing about Chicago neighborhoods for 28 years. He has written about urban issues for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Enterprise and many other publications. More recently, Barry created a journalism-based documentation program for LISC/Chicago’s New Communities Program (NCP), the nation’s largest demonstration of comprehensive community development. Barry developed the NCP “scribe” program over the past seven years, managing a team of 10 contracted writers, photographers, designers, videographers and a Web services provider. The NCP program has launched 14 new Web sites and a blog, Community Beat, that cover neighborhoods and community development.

Category: Essay


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