Creating a ‘virtual space’ for community news

Credit: Flickr / jonathanschertzer

The inewsource “virtual space” idea started with a simple goal: get more eyeballs on inewsource content. But as we started to play around with a strategy, the goal became much more ambitious.

I’ve long believed that as traditional media has shrunk, people seeking information valuable to their lives have thronged to the niches – whether it’s a subject area or a geography – to find what they need. In our case, we’re talking about community news providers serving particular areas: neighborhoods, cities, housing developments, the places people live, work and go to school. This includes the range from traditional community newspapers to online community natives.

Why not team up with the micro local publishers to get our work out there?

It was a good, basic idea, but as we thought about how to approach the community news outlets, we realized it made even more sense to build a network that encouraged conversation in, out and across. In other words, we would create a “virtual space” — using social media and the back-end of the inewsource website — for local publishers to access, discuss, promote and share content.

So far, we’ve identified about 90 community news organizations that create content in San Diego and Imperial counties, the stretch of the southwest border from the Pacific Ocean to Arizona. We are sure there are a lot more.

We’ve been chipping away at this idea for three years and have a pretty detailed plan for developing it. Overall, it’s going to require a combination of social network skills, plain old social skills and a lot of organizational savvy. Time will tell whether we can make this happen.

One thing is certain: There is a market for inewsource work. Some community editors have asked us about it. Especially if the work can be localized — down to a micro level.

Data-Driven

Ours certainly can. While most of what inewsource does is deep-dive, long-term investigative work, one of our priorities is data. It gives our reporting a precision and credibility you don’t have otherwise, and we already share the data in tables and maps that people can dig into.

We’ve created a lot of amazing content over the years that has lived quietly on our website. This needs to change. For example, we got three years of special tax data, cleaned it, mapped it and analyzed it in 2013. Our reporting zeroed in on one school district, how the tax was assessed and spent. With the help of eagle-eyed taxpayers, we identified discrepancies.

People are actually getting tax refunds and their assessment adjusted. Well, that map has similar data for neighborhoods and school districts all over San Diego County. We’d love to have some close community scrutiny of data in those areas, and the local news outlets can do that. So can their readers. It would engage people into action, and provide valuable, relevant content for them.

The goal of this project is to build audience, to create a kind of distribution program that makes the most of our content and the content generated by the community and neighborhood news outlets. From the inewsource standpoint, we will give our partners access to our projects, data, visualizations, video, all kinds of content ahead of publication so they can access it and either link to it or localize it for their followers. Our partners will be getting quality content for their audiences and greater social media engagement — through us and others — for their content.

We have high hopes for this idea, and we’re glad the folks at INN do too. As we move into phase one — finding a project manager who will launch our social media campaign — we’ll keep you posted.

This column originally appeared on PBS Idea Lab and has been republished with permission.