Business information written specifically for newspaper advertising departments

Way Beyond News

Grassroots editorials at America East
Unlike JSHN and Vermont Flooding, newspapers do have to make a profit. You can do this by joining together comprehensive news coverage from the bottom up with local businesses that are invested in solving community problems.

In the fall of 2011, Hurricane Irene hit the Jersey Shore, resulting in chaos and destruction. Although devastating, this natural disaster became the catalyst for a brand new news source, the Twitter and Facebook feed, @JSHurricaneNews (JSHN). This news feed, originally used to document the developments in evacuation and safety efforts of the community, has turned into something much more than a source for avoiding isolated natural disasters. ­­JSHN has become a to-the-minute community network dedicated to the news that most impacts community members; from traffic jams to amber alerts, JSHN is there. Today, JSHN has 262 Twitter followers, over 27,000 Facebook likes and almost 3,000 people talking about it. In its bio, it describes itself as a “A bottom-up, two-way news outlet, JSHN is news for the people, by the people. JSHN covers weather emergencies, major breaking news, traffic incidents, and Silver/Amber Alerts. JSHN is also a community resource (events, missing dogs, etc.).”

Around the same time, and with a similar function as JSHN, a Facebook page called Vermont Flooding aimed to do the same thing. When the weather from Hurricane Irene contributed to mass flooding, resulting in roads and houses being washed away, the state came together to help out the small pockets of communities that were destroyed. Vermont Flooding began as a photo-sharing page so locals could see what others were going through. However, when it became apparent that the situation was not going to resolve itself, people began posting contributions to the relief effort, such as horses that could bring supplies from town to town. People came together to help each other out, because they could connect and contribute to the news in a real and tangible way.

Neither of these news sources are funded by an organization, nor are they institutional in anyway. Both are contingent on community engagement and trusted relationships, and rely on people to share what they see and elaborations are made based on what the next person can confirm. Also, both are outperforming their local news outlets by leaps and bounds in terms of getting news that is trustworthy and effective to community members.

A session presented by Elaine Clisham and Ed Efchak at the America East Conference, called “Way Beyond News,” illustrated how social media news campaigns — like the ones discussed above, which focus on the community pool of knowledge and experience — were out-performing other local news sources in both speed and efficacy. Both presenters argued that legacy news providers have created a framework for news coverage that isn’t necessarily as functional as it needs to be. This framework and its shortcomings, Clisham and Efchak argue, gave the impetus needed for local citizens to form their own news networks that cover events in the community when they happen, long before local news channels catch wind of it.

Trust, they argue, is the main reason that many people feel the need to form their own micro-news sources that allow their neighbors to contribute to the process. “People trust their neighbors,” Efchak says, “they also perceive that newspapers don’t trust people.”

These social media news sources are obviously shaking up the editorial process. Their ability to gain the same, if not higher, level of popularity with their local community suggests that they are also a more effective source of important and immediate information. Although these news sources do not have advertisements, or even ad departments, they are drawing eyeballs away from local papers and ads to a different type of news coverage. They are not the enemy, however, but can show newspapers the way the community wants its news, illuminating a path for newspapers to follow.

What differentiates news sources like JSHN and Vermont Flooding from traditional news sources? Well, for starters, they are community member based. People can post something they see, and it its up for the community following that post to verify its authenticity through further discussion. Traditional news sources don’t work like that (and, in all honesty, probably shouldn’t), but they can begin to re-evaluate the way they see community members, and seeing them as news sources, not just news readers. Newspapers can also develop a product using a similar model, which is powered by community members, but facilitated by the newspaper.

Developing this product would take a great deal of commitment from all departments of the newspaper. They would have to work together to create a multi-dimensional news source that will use community interaction in all capacities.

Where to Begin: Start by talking across departments about how to implement this type of news source, because when it comes down to it, newspapers have to start seeing themselves as a united front, not fractured departments. Doing this will allow all aspects of the newspaper’s security to be involved, and will allow for an honest solution without resentment or finger pointing.

• Use the most popular and accessible social media. Facebook and Twitter are good choices, since they have a large presence and their interfaces encourage sharing with easy navigability.

• Assign a small team to the role of managing and updating your hyperlocal, user-generated feed. Although you will want much of the content to be community based, you will also want your team to post as well as manage inappropriate or inaccurate contributions.

• Launch at an event, or even begin with posts that reference stories that would rarely make it into the paper. Although JSHN and Vermont Flooding came out of a real need for immediate hyperlocal news, think about a way to launch that wouldn’t require a natural disaster. For example, if your team sees a poster for a lost cat, post it. If your team sees an Amber alert, post it. Post anything that will show your commitment to news pieces of all shapes and sizes.

How to Keep It Going: It is crucial that this feed is not used to promote the newspaper, or even the newspaper’s articles. The fact that the newspaper will sponsor this feed should be the only push it takes community members to get involved, but it should not be used to sell itself.

• Cover all news. No matter whether or not you deem the news on this feed important, be indiscriminate about what is cataloged, and only police “trolling” or harassment.

• In the event that a crisis or problem gets solved, celebrate it on the feed. If a missing child is found, or a lost pet is recovered, celebrate it and commend the community for coming together to help each other out.

How to Profit From It: Although the goal of this news feed is not necessarily to make money, but to mimic the community contribution paradigm of JSHN and Vermont Flooding and therefore promote multiple ways of contributing to and receiving news, this does not mean that it cannot be profitable.

• The key to creating a profitable community news source is to align local businesses with events to ensure that advertising will be perceived as helpful.

• Talk to local businesses about a retainer package when they advertise in the paper or online. Start small, and ask them if they would like to advertise along side a news story that is directly related to their product or service. For example, talk to animal shelters about sponsoring threads or posting advertisements when a dog or cat gets lost. Or, ask carpet cleaners to advertise or sponsor news threads about area flooding. Doing this not only allows the advertiser to showcase their business on a completely different forum, but also allows them to advertise when they can be the most helpful in solving problems for community members.

Unlike JSHN and Vermont Flooding, newspapers do have to make a profit. You can do this by joining together comprehensive news coverage from the bottom up with local businesses that are invested in solving community problems. This community news paradigm isn’t difficult to adapt because it allows community members to be partially responsible for the news, it spreads like wildfire and move eyeballs to your advertisers so they will be viewed as trustworthy and helpful. 


Presentation by Elaine Clisham and Ed Efchak can be found here: