In Janowo, an 850-person village in north eastern Poland, on a Monday last month, a dozen people - mostly teenagers or over 40s - were gathering in a multi-activity meeting hall. They were listening to Igor Hrywna, a journalist at Gazeta Olsztynska, the dominant newspaper in this "Warmia-Mazury voivodship" (Varmia-Masuria). That day he left his base in the regional capital of Olsztyn to meet this group for the third time in one month. With his assistance, they are learning how to contribute to the recently launched hyperlocal website janowo.wm.pl, covering the 3,000 people "gmina" (commune) centered on Janowo, one of the smallest of the region.
"There are fewer than 120 broadband Internet subscribers today. Our goal by the end of the year is to have at least 6000 unique users", explains Hrywna, who supervises Gazeta Olsztynska's commune portals. "To achieve this, we are organizing two to three hour long training sessions for citizen journalists. I also learn from them!" The training for citizen journalists always begins with the easiest things, like sending pictures with a short description. It includes how to search and browse in the website, how to write, and how to be accurate.
Gazeta Olsztynska's hyperlocal websites like Janowo's are typically 80% filled by local citizens, with user generated content (UGC) mostly on social events. Staff journalists provide the rest, through their assistance and through their own written and edited pieces. "Small communities know what kind of information they need. That is why we base our portals on civil journalism supported by our professional knowledge. The goal is to have the so far marginalized villages really exist in the social cyberspace," comments editor-in-chief Ewa Bartnikowska.
During the Janowo training session, a retired music teacher, Janina Sadowska, who has been a reader of the regional daily for a long time, explained that she was there for two reasons. "First, it is a natural prolongation of my habit of sending readers' comments to the editor. Second, I am at the head of a women's club, and we want to have a presence in our gmina's website."
The young aspiring journalists, between 12 and 18 years old, came from a nearby agricultural school. One of them was filming the reunion with a small camera, planning to post some sequences in the website. Another one, Przemyslaw Ciesielski, 18, explained in clear English: "We don't buy newspapers, but we are interested in news."
For Jarek Tokarczyk, the president of Edytor, Gazeta Olsztynska's publishing house, the involvement of the young in his online projects is critical, because "they already know the Internet, which is accessible at school, even in the most remote villages; through them we can also reach their parents for other publications." Bartnikowska added: "It is very important for us to have roots in print, even though we go at the lowest geographic or smallest community levels only online. This strategy for localism is also only possible if we have social and not only media projects."
Edytor is already managing 35 such hyperlocal websites, as a way to get closer also to small advertisers. In the villages, the biggest companies are often the bakery which employs only eight persons, or the hairdresser with a staff of four. "We want to reach the places where print is not profitable, asking our advertising salespersons to monetize potential markets which have been ignored until now. For this purpose we also train our print representatives to understand the web, setting online revenue goals for each of them," explains Tokarczyk. "We know that the number of Internet users in the country and small towns is going to grow. We have to do it now because tomorrow will be too late." This "deep in localities" strategy is timely with new legislation to be implemented in the coming weeks, for broadband access everywhere in Poland. There are also local governments elections in September, which will boost the interest for hyperlocal news.
Gazeta Olsztynska and its separate edition Dziennik Elblaski, covering an area integrated only ten years ago into the region, have a quasi-monopoly in Varmia-Masuria, one of Poland's 17 voivodships. National daily Gazeta Wyborcza has local editions, but they are read principally in the biggest cities like Olsztyn, where they have a weaker position. In addition to the Internet portals, Edytor controls 21 hyperlocal weekly freesheets, which encompass numerous news areas, social to e-commerce activities. Each has its online version, is available as a supplement of the daily, and corresponds more or less to a county ("powiat").
Janowo, for instance, is attached to the local newsroom based in Nidzica and covering a 35,000 people powiat. Weekly Gazeta Nidzicka's editor-in-chief Jerzy Grala is assisted by four reporters and three sales representatives. The portal nidzica.wm.pl is updated at least twice a day, and links to and sometimes feeds the central newspaper's website gazetaolsztynska.wm.pl. It is enriched by content provided by its communal websites, including janowo.wm.pl, which is updated a few times a week. Grala also posts occasional on his blog grala.wm.pl, which is easily accessible from his newsroom's portal.
There are 25 regional dailies in Poland in total, Edytor being an exception as an independent group. Most others are controlled either by Polskapresse (owned by Germany's Verlagsgruppe Passau) or Media Regionalne (owned by Great Britain's Mecom). The Varmia-Masuria voivodship is one of the less populated, with 1.4 million inhabitants, out of a total population of 38 million in the coutry (plus about 6 millions Poles living abroad). The region has a particularly high unemployment rate, exceeding 19% versus less than 12% on average nationally.
Given this context, Gazeta Olsztynska's intense efforts to develop online activities and "deep localism" are unusual. "We have over 30 equipped multimedia journalists covering the region, who already produce around 600 pieces of different information every month. With the contributions of the mobilized civil journalists, we expect to double within one year the level of 500,000 unique visitors we got last month," explains Bartnikowska.
Edytor is multiplying editorial and marketing projects, both in print and online, including 200 different supplements and freesheets, family service and obituary websites, a schools of excellence campaign (proposing pupils to write about their schools), celebration contests requiring payment via SMS, special publications promoting the natural wonders of the region and its lakes. "The wm.pl suffix that we use online [for "Warmia-Mazury"] is the most important brand here. We want to be a regional Google!" Tokarczyk says.
Another illustration of Edytor's focus on "hyperlocalities" are its Nowe Miasto operations. In this 11000 people town - or large village - about 85 kilometers far from Olsztyn, it publishes weekly Gazeta Nowomiejska, covering a population four times bigger. Its online hyperlocal news endeavours are already one year old, as shown in the "gminas" listed at the bottom of portal nowemiasto.wm.pl. Unlike in Nidzica, the newsroom is not based on a main central square, but its position may be more strategic. Gazeta Nowomiejska is located on a street in front of the church where, for deeply catholic Poland, mass sermons easily hit the headlines and a significant part of social life relates to religious activities. "The priest sometimes promotes our portal during the mass," says chief editor Stanislaw Ulatowski, also a local celebrity as a print journalism veteran.
His deputy, Lukasz Paczkowski, is a young online and multimedia reporter and Internet geek, who manages his blog paczkowski.wm.pl, which is also displayed in the front page of Gazeta Nowomiejska's portal. "We start updating the website before 10 am, when most people open their computer, until 8.30pm", he says. His partnership with Ulatowski also illustrates the complementary cross-promotion between the platforms. "The photo galleries encourage user generated content" comments Paczkowski. "Our online correspondents are very helpful, because our staff cannot be everywhere in the county, and they are more likely to create communes' portals. Then we print the most newsworthy pieces in the weekly."
To extend his team's expertise, Tokarczyk has built a partnership with the promoters of the C3 concept ("Complete Community Connection"), Chuck Peters and Steve Buttry in the United States (the former is the CEO of Iowa's Gazette Communications, and the latter just left this paper to be the director of community engagement at a high-profile, Washington DC based digital start-up). In spite of being based in a remote region of central Europe, Edytor is being very pro-active in looking for ideas directly provided by the world's top experts in its fields of coverage.
Along with the hyperlocal websites, the Gazeta Olsztynska team has also launched numerous thematic portals about students, community centers, and even an "ethnic" group recently. Website ukraincy.wm.pl is dedicated to the 60,000 strong Ukrainian community, made of descendents or survivors of the group displaced by force to this part of Poland in 1947. It is benefitting from and promoting the revival of their language and religion (Greek Orthodox). "Our aim is to have half of the community visit the portal at least once a month by the end of this year. It will be 100% UGC, and fun," says Hrywna, who is also Polish-Ukrainian.