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Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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Oct. 29, 2009, 11 a.m.

Omaha World-Herald, rethinking its product, buys hyperlocal WikiCity

The Omaha World-Herald Co. announced this week that it has purchased WikiCity, a hyperlocal site with local content for just more than 22,000 U.S. communities that I wrote about here in August.

WikiCity, which started in late 2008 and launched publicly this summer, is a bit like CitySearch with its telephone-book-like listings of restaurants and businesses and similar to BackFence with its aim to be a user-generated hyperlocal site. But it lets readers update their own communities pages, giving a bit of a Wikipedia feel.

When I wrote about it this summer, I noted that one of the best potential benefits of something like WikiCity would be to team up with local news organizations.

That, in essence, is what happened. The Omaha World-Herald Co.’s flagship publication is the Omaha World-Herald, with a 200,000 Sunday and a 160,000 daily circulation, said Joel Long, the company’s director of public relations. The privately held, employee-owned company owns 9 dailies in Nebraska and Iowa, 22 weeklies, and 23 other publications. Buying WikiCity “offers us a new an exciting opportunity of looking at other avenues of connecting with our readers,” Long told me.

Neither Long nor WikiCity’s founder Pat Lazure would reveal details of the purchases, except to say that Lazure will become president of the new World Interactive Group, which will run WikiCity. Lazure started WikiCity with his business partner, Rohit Keshwani, a pre-med undergrad at the University of Minnesota.

Long said company officials haven’t yet decided whether WikiCity will have a presence on the World-Herald website. Lazure said the idea is WikiCity will maintain its own brand, but readers might eventually be able to access it through the newspapers’ websites. He said advertising was the expected source of revenue for WikiCity.

What’s cool about this for the newspaper business is it’s an example of a newspaper redefining its role and product. This sale seems like a realization that the product isn’t news; it’s helping readers make sense of their world in every way possible. I think more newspapers will need to do this as their business continues to evolve.

It’s also an example of a tech-based company working with a news company, a combination that I believe will become more vital as time goes on. Technology has always gone hand in glove with gathering and disseminating news, from the days when technology meant lead type and a hand press.

Today, it’s an even more important connection. News organization cannot survive if they don’t understand and use the rapidly changing technologies. And to understand them well enough to be competitive, newspapers must include people from the technology field among their staffs.

As Lazure puts is: “What does this mean for newspapers? I think newspaper are looking to spread out and doing different verticals. I see WikiCity as one of those verticals to keep readers on their sites.” I know I’ll be watching to see whether this partnership works and what the rest of us can learn from it.

POSTED     Oct. 29, 2009, 11 a.m.
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