On its face, Neighbors Main Line looks like a lot of hyperlocal sites. Produced by the Philadelphia Media Network — home to The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com — it covers the Main Line, the well-off area west of town. It features stories from PMN properties (most from two part-time reporters) along with a mix of aggregated Main Line-related content from sites national and local. “It says, ‘I know I can get everything on Philly.com and I don’t have to go to three different sites,'” said Daniel Victor, who oversaw development of the site.
But a strip at the top of Neighbors Main Line is another example of the push toward transparency — see The Guardian opening up its news budgets, or The Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project. The strip every day alerts readers to “What We’re Working On,” three brief descriptions of what the reporters are working along with contact information. Victor said it made sense as a practical way of fixing a common problem, the need for new sources and ineffective methods of letting readers contribute. “A problem we have in reporting is by the time readers realize they can contribute to a story it’s already too late to contribute,” he said.
Of course, newspapers have long asked for reader input before stories are published, even pre-web, but the Philly strip institutionalizes the request for reader knowledge. Asking readers to contribute to reporting also seems to be a kind of “two birds” proposition; by asking the audience to help on stories, reporters gain more sources and the readers get a sense of involvement in the paper. In that way the payoff for “What We’re Working On,” Victor says, comes from the tips as well as planting the idea of contributing in a reader’s head. (Victor recently announced he’s leaving Philly to become the new social media editor for ProPublica.)
Victor said a willingness to open your reporting to the public is only one part of the equation. The other is taking the right approach and crafting the right message to the audience. “I think the key is understanding the motivation with why they share information,” he said. “Very rarely it’s because they like the reporter.”
While there was some initial unease about the site’s approach to aggregation and openness, Victor said it fit in well with the Philadelphia Media Network’s efforts to reorient itself as digital company (a good example being its ambitious tablet plans). And it’s clear the structure of the Neighbors site offers a kind of efficiency — through aggregation and minimal staff — that is appealing to news managers. The Main Line site may be a bit of a test case for Philly.com, Victor said. If the site can register a decent amount of engagement, page views and attract advertisers, it would make sense to duplicate it in other areas. Victor said this kind of model would make sense, not just because of the value to newsrooms, but also the information value to the audiences. “The big shift we have to make is instead of thinking of readers sharing information with us, it’s sharing information with each other,” Victor said.