Digital First Media is known for welcoming the crowd into the editorial process. Now, it plans to bring the editorial process into the crowd with roadworthy newsmobiles, which will take to the streets this summer and fall. Digital First's Director of Community Engagement and Social Media, Steve Buttry, set the wheels in motion for these and other community newsroom projects by crowdsourcing ideas from the staff of its 75 daily and about 250 weekly newspapers across the United States. Of the 30 proposals submitted, thirteen have now been approved. The selected projects— featuring four "mobile community media labs"— are due to start rolling out at the end of the month. Editors Weblog has asked Buttry to elaborate upon the thinking behind these initiatives, and the rules of community engagement.
What sort of challenge did you extend to Digital First’s newsrooms? This year we invited newsrooms to make proposals for community newsroom projects. We were challenging them to come up with a project that would reach out to [their] community in a way that would fit that particular community.
What were some of the best ideas put forth? We certainly like the idea of reaching out through mobile community media labs, as we call these vans. We’ve got four projects that will be launching vans over the next couple of months. One of them will be launching this month almost for sure— we haven’t quite nailed down the details— and then the others will launch in August, September, or October at the latest.
What happens in these vans? What do they look like, and where do they go? Whether it’s a van or an SUV or a truck, we’re in each case trying to find the right vehicle to basically take journalists out into the community with some laptops, iPads, and iPhones for community use, and some WiFi for the community to use. Sometimes we’ll be covering news events, sometimes we’ll be recruiting bloggers or teaching classes within the community, so it’ll be a variety of ways to engage with the community from those mobile newsrooms.
What do you expect the community to use the equipment for? We might have a reporter reporting on this event, but we might invite the community to come and blog about it or tweet about it or post it on their Facebook pages. [We would] ask for coverage, and we would curate some of that coverage. We’re hoping the journalists doing these projects will be creative in their use of it.
What do you mean by "recruiting bloggers"? We will recruit bloggers to our blog network. All of the Journal Register Company newsrooms [have blog networks], and we’re working on getting blog networks going throughout Media News, the second company that we’re running. This will certainly be part of that.
How do your newsrooms vet bloggers? We’ll read their blogs and talk to them. We don’t present them as professional journalists— unless they are. We encourage them to disclose who they are and what their connections are. They’re not going to necessarily be independent reporters, because they’re blogging about what they care about. But as long as they’re transparent about it we see value in what they’re doing and we’re happy to give them a voice in the community.
Have you had any problems with their posts? I have not heard of problems with the bloggers. I’ll tell you a story. This is not from Digital First Media; it’s actually from when I was at TBD with Jim Brady— who is the editor in chief of Digital First— before we came to Digital First. We were having a media event with a fair amount of fanfare and coverage, and the reporter from a major newspaper (which I won’t identify) asked: “How can you trust these bloggers to get the facts right?” I said, these bloggers care about what they’re doing. Bloggers have an ethic of transparently correcting their facts. When they make errors, they correct them. Most of them use their real names. They have their names associated with these things, and they care about protecting their good names and getting their facts right. And so that was the answer that I gave.
Now what was interesting was that this reporter made an error in fact in his story that went online in the evening, before the print edition would come out. And I called it to his attention immediately. It was not a big error, except that every error is big. He had misidentified a role of somebody, and nobody took offense to that, but it was just factually wrong, and he had not verified that fact with any of the three of us who could have told him it was wrong; he apparently just assumed something. So I emailed this reporter immediately calling to his attention that he had made an error in fact and asking that he correct it for the print edition, and to correct it online. And he didn’t. In either case.
I tell this story not to say that, okay because somebody from traditional, professional media cares that little about corrections and accuracy that all traditional media are careless. They’re not. We are not. I consider myself part of traditional media. But to make the point that accuracy is an issue in all media, and certainly if you’re going to have a network with bloggers, you have to tell them how important you regard accuracy. Someone who is consistently making errors and failing to correct them, and failing to improve— we would exclude them from our blog. But we haven’t had that problem yet, because just like most newspapers we’re very committed to getting the facts right, as most bloggers also are, despite some errors that come up. It hasn’t been a significant issue for us.
Several of the community newsroom projects involve training courses. What kinds of training do you offer? We’ve done some [courses on] fact checking and accuracy training, search engine optimization, basic blogging practices, and some writing workshops. The range varies and we do different things in different newsrooms. Frankly not all of the classes are aimed toward bloggers. In Torrington, the most popular class is a genealogy class that somebody from the community teaches. So they’re just making their space available, and people are coming in and taking a genealogy course, and using our archives in their research, if their family members are from the community. We teach a lot of things in each newsroom, based on what the specialties and skills of the people in each newsroom are, and what topics the community asks for us to teach.
Is one purpose of the community newsroom projects to increase awareness of your brand and, ultimately, readership? Absolutely. We’re hoping to better the community but this is also in self-interest. We think that we will be a stronger brand in the community, both with our new digital brands, whether that’s a website or mobile apps or our social platforms, and with our traditional print products. This kind of engagement will help us be a trusted source for them. They will want to come to us when they hear of news. When they hear a siren and wonder what’s going on in their community, we want them to think of us.
Are they helping you reach a younger demographic? I think so. Certainly the audience on a news website is older than the average digital audience, but it’s younger than the average newspaper audience. The audience on social media is a younger audience— although that audience is growing older as people my age start using social media— and the mobile app audience is a younger audience, and we’re growing significantly in those areas. To claim that we’ve got strong brand identity with them would I think be premature, but we’re certainly building our younger audience.
As someone who directs community engagement for a living, what does the concept mean to you? Community engagement is joining, leading, hosting, and empowering the community conversation in ways that improve our journalism.
What is the most fun thing about your job? I visit newsrooms and work with journalists who are optimistic about the future of journalism, and of the news business. I’ve encountered way too much pessimism in my career and in our company, I’m not saying there isn’t any pessimism– it is part of our DNA as journalists to be skeptical, and we still need to prove ourselves to some of our staff, but we have a lot of journalists working for our company who share my optimism for the future, and it is just exciting to be working with them. It’s exciting to be hiring journalists and talking to them about new and interesting ways of doing journalism.
This interview has been edited.
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