Idea for small town media, part 2 of 4: Content, sources and buy-in

In my last post I outlined the mission of my community journalism project. This project takes a tool (social media) and places it in an environment with little to no existing conversation.

In case you missed it, here’s the mission again:

To create an online forum to offer a conversation about the existing diverse passions and stories of a small community.

Sure, sounds good – but content is king. So what would be discussed and who would discuss it?

Here’s the deal: People love to discuss their communities – which is part of the reason people are willing to put up with crappy news. It’s the reason social media has exploded. And it’s all because ultimately, life is a social event.

In small communities, there are a few core, physical social nodes. They vary, but typical ones are the church, the school and the tavern. Local government, businesses and social clubs are common also.

By identifying the existing social networks, we can then identify the sources of the content – the “agents of conversation.” Agents could include: The mayor, the school superintendent, the basketball coach, a local pastor, a local business owner… the list goes on. But the real criteria is that it’s people who are contributing and participating in the community. They’re people whom traditional media would be targeting anyways.

Again – this is not good ol’ hard-hitting journalism. But it is an opportunity for an existing community to better communicate what is happening in their lives.

Imagine:

  • The mayor directly speaking on upcoming local initiatives, everything from raising the sales tax to pay for pothole improvements to his thoughts on the county’s new lake proposal.
  • The basketball coach discussing how parents and fans can get involved to help the team. Or doing his or her own game re-caps.
  • The school principal or superintendent speaking on new teacher hires, changes in the state’s educational system or addressing consolidation fears.

And in the true sense of social media, the conversations are two-way. A dialogue is born.

That point leads to my final thought on this post: Community buy- in.

My theory on buy-in is something I was taught repeatedly in my Sigma Chi leadership days –

People support what they help create.

And man is it true. Let them in, give away ownership, embrace critique and celebrate participation. It works in business, it works in social organizations, it works in communities – everywhere.

By putting the conversation in the hands of those it directly affects, you’ve spread out ownership. And by spreading ownership, you’ve spread the commitment.

My next post will be on layout and presentation. Soon, I’d like to draw up a simple step-by-step on how to set up a WordPress blog template on your very own domain.

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4 Comments

Filed under Journalism

4 responses to “Idea for small town media, part 2 of 4: Content, sources and buy-in

  1. Particularly since I just moved back to a relatively small town (and grew up in a town of about 400 people), I’m intrigued by your idea and can’t wait to hear more. I’m still just getting a feel for L-Town, but I already know that it could benefit from the sort of plan you propose.

    I wonder, though, how you get buy-in from the community. How do you raise awareness of the project and get people (many of whom might not be aware of or care about online social networks and may not even spend all that much time online) to regularly visit the site and contribute in meaningful ways, so that people get to the point where they will take ownership?

    And, as is a challenge with many news sites, social networks, blogs, and the like, what safeguards, if any, do you put in place to protect people from using it as a forum for angry comments, hate speech, and the like—when things disintegrate and the useful dialog gets lost in the fray, what do you do?

    Just two questions to consider as you post more … Can’t wait!

  2. Thanks for the good Q’s!

    You’ve raised some good points (which I’ll go ahead and paraphrase), here’s my first stab at them:

    1) Are you sure small-town folk will care to use this? Will they even have access to it? Will they know what to do with it?

    I thought about the issues with using new technology, and I simply decided what we’re really talking about here is a very simple thing: It’s a Web site, it has authors, it’s updated frequently, you can type a comment, etc. Anyone that can open a browser and type in an address can take advantage of the site.

    I don’t have specific numbers off hand, but rural and remote Internet use and availability has gone up tremendously since my small town days, and it’s a number that will only go higher. When it comes to in-towners, if you have cable TV you probably have the Internet.

    As for wanting to use it – that’s where the “agents of conversation” selection is key. I’d start small and focus on getting the people at the top on board first – the local leaders, school officials, business owners, etc. If you can get a few of these types on board early and putting out consistent content, they’ll pull others and the community at large.

    Also – another option in buy-in is to offer community benefits for use. Adspace could be sold (talk about a specific audience!) and the revenue could go to a local cause. People in small towns are always raising money for community centers, daycare facilities, school improvements, etc.

    Finally – remember that any small physical community actually represents a global network of people who once called that place home. The early adopters might actually be people who don’t live in these communities anymore, yet for some reason or another have an interest in it.

    2) How do you handle and protect against abuse?

    At this point, I’m not sure.

    One option is to filter and constrain the conversation. You could hold all comments and make it hard for people to abuse one another (while also make it difficult to communicate in friendly ways).

    The Register requires everyone to create a profile in order to engage in the conversation – but that’s out of my technical scope.

    But at this point, I don’t have a good answer for preventing abuse.

    I think regardless of the systems used to protect the atmosphere of such a community, it can’t be emphasized enough that you’re engaging with your neighbors. I think that’s something that’s often lost among big forums (like the DM Reg, the Huffington Post, YouTube).

    I hope this gives a little more structure to the idea. Thanks for the good questions and the encouraging words!

  3. jimthomsen

    My question is this: Who’s going to speak on the things nobody wants to speak about?

    Who’s going to talk about the port director that steered a $2 million contract to his brother-in-law?

    Who’s going to talk about the mayor’s arrest for indecent liberties with an underage girl?

    Who’s going to talk about the state-champion high-school basketball coach who illegally induced out-of-town athletes to transfer to his school?

    Who’s going to talk about the get-tough-on-crime Superior Court judge’s arrest for DUI?

    Who’s going to talk about the area’s largest employer and its unwillingness to clean up toxic spills into the local river?

    And who’s going to get the information that gives these people a factual foundation from which to speak?

  4. Pingback: Idea for community media, part 3 of 4: How to build it « The Rally Flag

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