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April 8, 2010, noon

The future is…fliers? California Watch experiments with a hyper-hyper-hyperlocal distribution model

Last month, California Watch published a big story. “Shaky Ground,” higher ed reporter Erica Perez‘s investigation into seismic safety in the state’s public university system, found — among other things — that “nearly 180 public university buildings in California used by tens of thousands of people have been judged dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake.”

The Berkeley-based outfit accompanied the deep-dive investigation with a multimedia package that included maps of various UC campuses and an interactive history of earthquakes in California. They tweeted the story and sent it out on Facebook. They tailored versions of the story for publication in newspapers across the state, including The San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. They arranged appearances for Perez on KQED radio in San Francisco and on TV stations in San Francisco and LA.

But they wanted to do more. They wanted to reach members of their immediate, physical community — in particular, the Berkeley students who, every day, attend class in buildings that may be unsafe in an earthquake. (As Perez reported: “No public university in California has more seismically unsafe structures than UC Berkeley.”)

So, as a complement to the story’s web-savvy, multi-platform distribution strategy, the outlet added something decidedly low-tech: fliers. Yep, fliers: the paper-based, interpersonal-interaction-reliant, social-media-before-there-was-social-media method of getting the word out.

Mark S. Luckie — who, in addition to his role as the proprietor of 10,000 Words, is also a multimedia producer at California Watch — designed the fliers, and staffers posted them on kiosks around campus. They also e-mailed PDF versions of the fliers to student groups on campus so they could pass them along to their members.

And then, last week, California Watch editorial director Mark Katches stood outside of the outfit’s offices, on the heavily foot-trafficked stretch of Center Street between the Berkeley mass-transit station and the entrance to campus (it’s “this one concentrated little block,” he says, “where everyone gets off BART, and jams to campus and back”), handing out fliers and spreading the word about the earthquake-safety story and its findings.

“It seemed like a complete no-brainer,” Katches told me. The outlet has made a priority of finding new ways to engage readers (setting up temporary “bureaus” in local coffee shops, rewarding quality comments with iPods, and so on), and sometimes the newest ways are simply tailored spins on the old. As Katches put it in a blog post: “It’s all about getting stories into the hands of people who are impacted by our journalism the most — one at a time, if need be.”

The flier idea was the brainchild of Sarah Terry-Cobo, a freelance reporter at California Watch and a recent Berkeley j-school grad. The outlet’s staff was thinking about how to engage the Berkeley community (“when we published our story on March 18, we hadn’t realized — until it was too late — that our distribution came right at the start of the spring recess,” Katches notes). And, as Terry-Cobo puts it, “I just thought: fliers.”

Fliers on college campuses, she points out, don’t have the in-your-face-and-then-in-the-trash reputation they do in a lot of other places: On campuses, fliers are common. And since colleges tend to be fairly tight-knit communities, there’s a good chance people will want to know the information printed on them. “I just graduated from Cal last year,” Terry-Cobo says, “and I’m the type of person that would take a flier if it were handed to me.”

Which doesn’t mean everyone took the bait when Terry-Cobo did her own flier-ing last week. “I handed out between two and three dozen fliers, in the span of about 45 minutes,” she says. “And for every person that took the flier, there were four or five people who ignored me. And I was expecting that.” Then again, she points out: “Every two or three people you can get to engage makes up for the ten people who blow you off.”

Fliers certainly won’t have impact on the level of, say, a reporter’s appearance on local TV. Still, the core idea here — essentially, that the web is a means for a story, rather than its end point — is, in its way, scalable. Katches points to “Toxic Treats,” a story he oversaw several years ago while he was editor of the Orange County Register. The project, which traced unsafe lead levels in over 100 brands of candy, many of them made in Mexico, was an important piece of investigative journalism by any stretch — it was a 2005 Public Service Pulitzer finalist — but one plagued by a common symptom: The people most directly affected by its findings weren’t necessarily Register, or even newspaper, readers. “So we made a high-gloss, full-color poster, one side in English, the other side in Spanish,” Katches recalls. “And I’ll tell you: That was the enduring legacy of the project.”

For months after the series was published in the paper, Katches notes, “if not years after,” the posters remained hanging in libraries, medical centers, and similar gathering spots around Orange County — a “way to reach people who might not have read it in the paper.”

The flier strategy employs the same kind of logic: get readers, literally, where they are. And it’s also of a piece with the outlet’s fiscal goals. Though California Watch is a foundation-supported nonprofit, its plan for long-term financial stability involves individual reader support. For the outlet, then, “community engagement” isn’t merely a broad, buzzy goal; it’s a specific, and urgent, one. And reaching it will require a willingness to rethink not only editorial models, but distributive ones, as well. “I love the idea of trying to reach an audience in a different way,” Katches says. “And we’re going to try to think of other ways to do that.”

POSTED     April 8, 2010, noon
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