The concept of "going it alone" and "every man for himself" may have worked for traditional news organizations that viewed each other as pure competition, back when reporters used typewriters and a scoop required days of investigation before a story was written and to press. But the Internet has required a rapid quickening to news-making, where the time given for gathering and disseminating stories feels almost instantaneous.
Technology helps reporters to keep up, but a bigger problem now exists: being everywhere, all the time, as the Internet is, and as the public expects and helps stimulate through its own citizen-driven websites, blogs, forums and comment threads. It's become a matter of re-evaluating whether the traditional structure of division between news organizations has become outmoded by the model provided by the Internet, a horizontal system of communication that is networked and duly leveraged, where news sources might be able to, at some level, break from the historically competitive model and attempt to actually work together.
One seemingly successful example of this is the idea of a partnership between a traditional newspaper and citizen-driven websites and blogs. The Seattle Times has been experimenting with this exact kind of partnership for the last year and half, with results suggesting a trend to look to for other newspapers trying to remain competitive. This experiment may also serve to help legitimize citizen-driven efforts, by acknowledging that their work on the ground in their neighborhoods and communities provides a service by which newspapers can gain, in terms of genuine leads and stories, associated photos and video, and potentially other opportunities relating to advertising.
According to The Seattle Times, not only have these partnerships--34 in total--been useful, they are adding five more to the list: Northwest Asian Weekly; Northwest Vietnamese News; Public Data Ferret; Roosiehood: The Roosevelt Neighborhood Blog; and Seattle Bike Blog. The idea is basically to continue applying the model of a network, in mimicking the Internet itself, where The Seattle Times relies on a positive feedback loop between its paper and citizen-driven efforts to offer comprehensive, up-to-date news throughout the region.
What is interesting is that not only are partner sites, some of which are actually papers themselves, offering specific information pertaining to their respective beats in Seattle, now they are also relating to more niche readerships, seen in adding two partners that appeal to ethnic communities (Northwest Asian Weekly and Northwest Vietnamese News) and one that pertains to alternative culture (Seattle Bike Blog). These, in addition to the other partners, do not pose any direct competition to The Seattle Times but rather provide a treasure trove of leads and stories to which the paper might not otherwise have access.
The Seattle Times and five charter sites announced their involvement in this partnership pilot program in August 2009 as part of the Networked Journalism Project, as sponsored by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the American University School of Communication, which, in turn, is funded by the Knight Foundation. The idea was to see if these partnerships with citizen-driven websites and blogs could meet the anticipated payoff of sharing news tips and collaborating on news-gathering, stimulating co-links and co-promotions of stories to fill holes with coverage, and provide cross-advertising and marketing opportunities. Four other news organizations have participated nationally, including The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer.
According to Poynter, "All the neighborhood news sites in The Seattle Times partnership have grown large audiences, attracted dozens of advertisers and routinely break the big stories in our neighborhoods before the traditional media," says Next Door Media, one of the five original citizen-driven web partners, run by a husband and wife team who are veteran journalists and live in the area they cover. Next Door Media's neighborhood sites draw 850,000 page views a month, according to the company's website.
The neighborhood sites and blogs in The Seattle Times partnership all started within the past four years, but quickly built audiences by reporting on hyper-local news not routinely covered, states Poynter. They also provide forums for readers to post items and discuss issues. "Almost everything we do starts with people asking what we know about something," said Tracy Record, co-founder of West Seattle Blog, which reported 6 million page views in 2008. "Obviously, we have unique story ideas too, but so much is news that people just cannot and will not find anywhere else."
Without question, there are benefits on each side of the partnership. But at the end of the day it is a matter of building trust, thinks Jan Schaffer, J-Lab's executive director. She comments to Poynter, "In some cases, there has been a disdain [by traditional media] for hyper-local news sites, about how good and factual they are, and whether they adhere to 'big J' standards in covering the news." At the same time, "the [community news] sites care a lot about independence and do not want to be taken over."
We will see how far this trust carries and whether a partnership trend takes off.