A hyperlocal project the Seattle Times is taking part in, is already showing results, writes Linda Hersey for Poynter. The "Networked Journalism" program was introduced across the country by American University's J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and has united the Times with five neighbourhood blogs and news sites: West Seattle Blog, Next Door Media, CHS Capitol Hill Seattle, Rainier Valley Post and Local Health Guide/Seattle.
"Seattle has become a hotbed for neighborhood and niche blogs," said Kathy Best, the Times' managing editor for digital news and innovation. "As we watched our own newsroom resources shrink, we began talking about how we could tap into that hyper-local community movement to create partnerships that would allow us to continue to offer quality coverage in key areas."
Executive editor of the Seattle Times, David Boardman said the paper had already begun considering collaborating with local blogs, when J-Lab approached them to take part in the project in August. Boardman said the organisation just helped to 'kick-start' the initiative.
Executive director of J-Lab, Jan Schaffer said: "It is clear to us that there are a lot of hyper-local news initiatives doing a fairly good job of covering geographic news... At the same time, many mainstream news organizations are not able to put as many feet on the street to do this kind of coverage anymore." Schaffer said that J-Lab thought the blogs could be a good candidate to fill the gap.
The local blogs working with the Times were all created within the last four years and quickly developed large audiences. Each of the blogs are run by people who reside in the community they are covering, and two of the four publications were founded by veteran journalists with backgrounds in broadcast news.
"The Times came to us as peers, recognizing our track record of quality community-powered journalism," said Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media. "That's a big contrast from newspapers that historically treat neighborhood blogs as something to leverage or lab experiments to duplicate."
Bergman, who launched his first site, My Ballad, with his wife in 2007, did not initially start the blog as a business venture. The Bergmans said they missed having their local news source and were trying to fill the gap for others. The success of My Ballard, which receives 60,000 unique visitors a month, encouraged them to branch out and create news sites in other communities.
"Our goal at Next Door Media is to create a sustainable model of community-powered neighborhood journalism," says Bergman. "Without it, we'll suffer the same fate that's taking newspapers apart at the seams."
In theory, boths sides benefit: Local blogs and independent news sites gain greater exposure via links from larger news organisation. At the same times the larger news organisation gets access to additional local content that they might not have the resources to obtain otherwise.
Bob Payne, director of communities for the Times' website, gave an example of when the partnership had worked particularly well: A wild cougar was trapped in a city park on a Sunday morning, and Magnolia Voice, one of Next Door Media's sites, broke the story and alerted the Times.
Magnolia Voice was "out there at the first light of dawn, taking photos and providing coverage," said Payne.
"Almost immediately, they [the Times] posted a link on their site to MagnoliaVoice.com," Bergman said. "Once they gathered additional information, they replaced the link with their own story featuring one of our photos."
Payne said that both the neighbourhood blogs and the Times had resources that could be shared and used to benefit one another: The Times has the staff and expertise to provide in-depth analysis and the community websites have reporters on the ground ready to cover breaking local news.
"My mantra for the year-long project is that we have strengths and they have strengths," Payne said. "We need to find ways to capitalize on them."
The results to-date of the project look promising for networked journalism as a way to fill the community news void that currently exists. Suffering heavily from the recession, larger publications inititally thought local news was something they could cut back on. Nevetherless, many news organisations are now coming to realise the value- both financial and moral- in retaining these segments and are beginning to reinvest in local news.
Networked journalism and collaboration with community blogs is one way to go about this without incurring further costs in economically harsh times for the news industry. It is a method that is being looked at by many with not only the publications part of the J-Lab initiative taking part, but the Guardian also recently announcing its search for local bloggers.