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May 4, 2009, 10:17 a.m.

Complete Community Connection: more reinvention in Cedar Rapids

You can’t really call it a blog post when the printout stretches to 33 single-spaced pages, but it’s highly recommended reading:   Steve Buttry, the “information content conductor” of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has published “A blueprint for the Complete Community Connection” as a nine-parter on his blog.  More conveniently, you can download the whole thing at Scribd (very simple registration required.)

In his previous incarnation at the American Press Institute, Buttry worked on the Newspaper Next project, which urged newspapers to adopt disruptive innovation as a strategy, rather than being disruptively innovated against.  (Newspaper Next is now apparently dormant — why is it that various efforts to start up innovation engines to help the industry peter out after a while?)  Buttry came up with the first version of the Complete Community Connection concept (C3 for short) at API; Gazette Communications, willing to try out-of the-box ideas (perhaps because it is led by an executive with a non-news background, Chuck Peters), has become the laboratory for testing his ideas.

In a nutshell, C3 envisions that Gazette, or any company adopting the concept, will become what I would call “community glue”:

Our company will provide an interactive, well-organized, easily searched, ever-growing, always updated wealth of community news,  information and opportunities on multiple platforms. We need to become the connection to everything people and businesses need to know and do to live and do business in Eastern Iowa. We need to change from producing new material for one-day consumption in the print product or half-hour consumption in the broadcast product to producing new content for this growing community network of information and opportunities.

Ultimately, in Buttry’s view, this includes finding ways to “connect the business with the customer and collect the money, taking a reasonable cut for ourselves.”  He outlines a number of “community content opportunities”:

  • Driving: Instead of trying to play in the space already dominated by automotive verticals and Craigslist, C3 suggests focusing on “the daily and weekly jobs that can help drivers and car owners regularly over time.”  This includes gas price mapping, traffic text alerts, databases on bridge inspections, parking offenders and gas pump inspections, a pothole map, snowstorm plowing maps, and more.
  • Home: Here too, there are well-entrenched dominant verticals, but there is room for “answerbases” on things like property taxes, real estate transactions, mortgage foreclosures, delinquencies andratings of contractors; as well as listings of hyperlocal events and neighborhood blogs.
  • Conversation: This gets into the overdue immersion of newspapers in social networking, which I’ve touched on frequently in the past.   Buttry urges the use of blogs, Facebook Connect, discussion leaders to turn commenting into conversation, and rewards for high-value contributors.
  • Calendar: A great calendar system is central to the idea of facilitating transactions like reservations and ticket sales.
  • Local Knowledge: In Buttry’s vision, this entails a “place where people of our communities and perhaps across Iowa turn for answers to their questions about this state and its communities: databases, community resources, services, history, unique aspects of local life (attractions, institutions and events) and a user-generated encyclopedia of local knowledge.”  He provides details on how each of these could be turned into reality.
  • Personal content opportunities: These include expanded user-contributed content areas for births, milestones, school, graduations, college life, military service, weddings, parenthood, divorce, jobs, health, pets, food, interests, retirement and other stages of life.

There’s more.  Much more.  As I said, go read.

The challenge in all of this, I think, is to bring readers who have moved from print to the Web back into the connected community they were always part of in the days of almost universal newspaper readership.  Online, readers have dispersed themselves across a huge multiplicity of interests, certainly more than any single publishing platform can service.  Web readers create their own network of sources for news, information and entertainment.  We thought of that paper on the stoop as “my newspaper,” but we resist the idea of “my online portal” to serve our local and regional needs.  Buttry recognizes this challenge by including in C3 a robust local search function and by actively incorporating outbound hyperlinks.  If properly conducted, this should result in the creation of an online local network of readers, businesses and organizations of which Gazette forms the hub.

POSTED     May 4, 2009, 10:17 a.m.
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