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April 14, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

Politico parent’s new local news site prepares for launch with audience and conversation at the forefront

The new D.C. local news site from Politico parent Allbritton still doesn’t yet have a name, an official launch date (“June-ish,” I hear), or a solid staff of reporters in place. But by the end of the week, it’ll have the first five members of a seven-person “engagement” team hired.

The site — the subject of much speculation and hope among local-online types — is supposed to do for local news what Politico did for politics and pit the former owners of the old Washington Star against the incumbent Washington Post. It’s being launched by Jim Brady, a former web czar at the Post and consultant to the Guardian. Brady recently brought on Steve Buttry, the longtime journalist and social-media strategist, to put together a team of four “community hosts,” plus a social media producer and a mobile producer. Buttry has officially hired Jeff Sonderman of the Scranton Times Tribune, who blogs at News Futurist, and Lisa Rowan of Vocus, who blogs about vintage shops in the D.C. area, to fill two of the community host positions. He’s almost ready to announce the remaining two. The two producer jobs, staffed by people with smart ideas for social media and mobile (although most likely not developers themselves), will be filled before launch day, Buttry told me.

I asked Buttry what he hopes his “community hosts” will do. He says the title, which he readily admits pocketing from John Temple of Peer News, captures it: The hosts will create a place where users can have a lively experience. They’ll foster conversation and get readers involved and invested in the content. Their main focus will be on buildinging relationships with existing local bloggers, recruiting new ones, and building out a local audience around their work. They’ll also get readers involved in generating content — whether it’s livetweeting from a breaking-news event or cell-phone photos of a baseball game — as well as in-person events.

Buttry deflected my observation that the site might be moving more quickly on the engagement side than the more traditional reporting side. Buttry said it was just a matter of timing; he was hired before the site’s editor, Erik Wemple, the former editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper, who is in the process of hiring his team of journalists now. In all, the site will have a staff of 50, which includes reporters, editors, the engagement team, and the business side.

Even if reporter and editor hires are right around the corner, it’s still a reflection of the significance audience engagement is being given that their team is being assembled so early on. Buttry said that the site can’t be a success without engagement at the forefront, the business model is based on a dedicated readership that is checking in on the conversation throughout the day. “We want to have a strong start to that network at launch,” he told me.

The concept isn’t unique. Other newsroom positions are cropping up around the country hoping to help deepen engagement with a publication’s audience. Megan recently reported on the Voice of San Diego’s new “engagement editor” position, which was created to spark, frame, and guide discussions. The job is also part PR: Engagement jobs are about getting the word out, increasing traffic, and getting stories noticed, a job that might have once belonged to someone on the marketing side of the business.

Buttry differentiated his hosts from the work of the company’s communications department, saying that the hosts will be integrated into the newsroom. He can envision breaking-news stories that require a reporter at the scene and a host back in the newsroom, perhaps sifting through tweets to add directly to a story page, or acting as a social-media source for the reporter.

“The multitasking and specialization has always been part of newsrooms,” Buttry explained. “This is just what it looks like in 2010.”

POSTED     April 14, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
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