It’s hard building an online community from scratch. Will anyone show up? Will they come back? Will they be nice to each other?
A year ago, Philadelphia’s WHYY launched NewsWorks, a pro-am news site covering Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, with hyperlocal attention on northwest Philly. The station has recruited dozens of citizen contributors, freelancers, and WHYY reporters for the effort. It was the station’s first serious foray into online news and now, with a new $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, a test bed for innovation in public media.
Chris Satullo, the station’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me this week the site has enjoyed a lot of success. Traffic peaked in August, with 301,000 unique visitors and 1.9 million pageviews. In May, WHYY created a NewsWorks radio show driven by the web-based reporting — “maybe a first for public broadcasting,” he said — and dropped it in a high-profile afternoon drive-time slot. A reporting partnership with the Philadelphia Public School Notebook yielded investigative reporting that got school officials fired.
Satullo is not shy about what failed, either. We like to follow up on new ventures in journalism, so I’ll include excerpts from Megan Garber’s November 2010 story and “reply” with lessons learned from a year of NewsWorks, email style.
On 11/16/10 10:00 AM, “Garber, Megan” wrote:
>> NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it.
Satullo said NewsWorks never drew the volume of user-generated content he had hoped for. About 30 people are recurring contributors, Satullo estimates, though some of them fairly infrequently. Still, that’s bigger than WHYY’s staff of full-time reporters. And these contributors are trained and paid — between $50 and $150, sometimes more for enterprise stories or multimedia packages.
“Instead of having a free-for-all at a Star Wars bar, we ended up having a ghost town with tumbleweeds.”
“We pay people, and that’s why we feel we can demand better work from them, more phone calls, more writing, higher quality,” he said.
Satullo has begun teaching a series of day-long workshops for prospective contributors, which he calls Correspondents U. The first course last summer attracted about 40 people, he said, a quarter of whom stuck around. The workshop opened with a rundown of basic journalism ethics (“which was news to a lot of the people in the room”). Satullo and senior reporter Dave Davies taught the basics of community reporting and news writing. The students learned to shoot video, shoot stills, and record audio in the field.
That’s a serious investment in total strangers, but it pays off. Satullo said he is grooming three or four extra-talented outside contributors to become future staff reporters.
>> The site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space…provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate.
It never took off, so Sixth Square is being scrapped. People don’t come to discussion portals anymore — they use social media to discover, discuss, and share news. “In the time it takes to plan and launch a website, the world can change,” Satullo said. “Twitter and Facebook essentially took over that role for a vast number of people.” And starting discussions on Twitter and Facebook rarely generated pageviews for the NewsWorks website, he said.
Taking Sixth Square’s place is Speak Easy, due to launch this week, which will be more blog than landing page. (See also: the evolution of The Slatest.) The blog will have a dedicated host who will serve both as curator and conversation-starter. “We’re trying to make it more engaging and more personal by putting a name and face and personality on it,” Satullo said.
Redesigned story pages will do a better job engaging first-time visitors, since most of the site’s traffic comes from referrals, search, and social media, he said. “We lavish a lot of attention on the designs or makeup of the home page and other landing pages, and they’re not really where the action’s occurring. It’s at the story page.”
>> Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc….Users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.
Satullo said the commenting system was so good at keeping out trolls and flamers that hardly anyone commented. They overcorrected for the problem. “So instead of having a free-for-all at a Star Wars bar, we ended up having a ghost town with tumbleweeds going down Main Street. It’s not that we don’t have any comments, but it’s nowhere near as robust as we hoped for.”
The Speak Easy blog will bring a new comments system with no registration wall, and blog host Eric Walter will serve as sergeant-at-arms until the community (hopefully) becomes too big to manage. When that happens, Satullo plans to recruit volunteers from community superusers.
With three years of funding from CPB, and a new Knight grant to build NewsWorks 2.0, Satullo says he is consulting “big brains” for questions about the future of the site: How does NewsWorks turn a user into a contributor? Into a paying member? How can reporters do data visualization in a city with a strong open-government movement? And how can other public radio stations replicate NewsWorks in their markets?
Photo by Mike Hollander used under a Creative Commons license.