The Seattle Times recently took the unusual step of inviting editors from some neighborhood blogs to question mayoral candidates for a town hall-style debate organized by the newspaper and its news partner, KING-TV.
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The inclusion of the editors underscores a new partnership forged between the city's well-established newspaper and neighborhood news sites: West Seattle Blog, Next Door Media, CHS Capitol Hill Seattle and Rainier Valley Post.

"Seattle has become a hotbed for neighborhood and niche blogs," said Kathy Best, the Times' managing editor for digital news and innovation. "As we watched our own newsroom resources shrink, we began talking about how we could tap into that hyper-local community movement to create partnerships that would allow us to continue to offer quality coverage in key areas."

The Times recently added a fifth, topic-based site to the partnership: Local Health Guide/Seattle, founded by a Seattle doctor and journalist.

"We think our readers will benefit because we are offering them access to credible journalism on the neighborhood level that we couldn't otherwise provide," Best said. "We think the Times will benefit because we are able to push our content out in new, more strategic ways."

The Seattle partnership is part of a cross-country "Networked Journalism" project launched in August by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. Other news organizations participating are: The Miami Herald, The Charlotte Observer, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times and TucsonCitizen.com, a former newspaper that now is exclusively online.

Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the project will look at how traditional news organizations and hyper-local news sites may benefit from working together. The grant funds the partnerships and provides stipends for the independent news sites.

'Community-powered journalism'

In Seattle, the partnerships seem like a natural fit, given the city's demographics. As headquarters for Microsoft and Amazon, the city has a highly wired workforce, an active online community and distinctive neighborhoods with strong identities.

The Times already was considering ways to collaborate with community bloggers when J-Lab invited the newspaper to participate.

"The Times came to us as peers, recognizing our track record of quality community-powered journalism," said Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media, a Seattle network of neighborhood news sites that includes My Ballard. "That's a big contrast from newspapers that historically treat neighborhood blogs as something to leverage or lab experiments to duplicate."

"Almost everything we do starts with people asking what we know about something."
-Tracy Record, co-founder of West Seattle Blog
Each of the neighborhood news operations tapped for the pilot project is run by residents who live in the community they cover. Two of the four operations -- Next Door Media and West Seattle Blog -- were founded by veteran journalists with backgrounds in broadcast news.

"All the neighborhood news sites in the Times partnership have grown large audiences, attracted dozens of advertisers and routinely break the big stories in our neighborhoods before the traditional media," said Bergman, who founded Next Door Media with his wife, Kate Bergman.  Next Door Media's neighborhood sites draw 850,000 page views a month, according to the company's Web site.

The neighborhood blogs in the Times partnership all started within the past four years but quickly built audiences by reporting on micro-local news not routinely covered by traditional media. They also provide forums for readers to post items and discuss issues.

"Almost everything we do starts with people asking what we know about something," said Tracy Record, co-founder of West Seattle Blog, which reported 6 million page views in 2008. "Obviously, we have unique story ideas too, but so much is news that people just cannot and will not find anywhere else."

Positive first impressions

The yearlong pilot is just a few months old, but the Seattle partners already see some positive results.

Justin Carder, founder of CHS Capitol Hill Seattle, points to an informational graphic created in collaboration with the paper. After the Times ran a citywide map of voting results from the August primary, Carder contacted the paper to develop a graphic targeted on the Capitol Hill neighborhood. When Carder posted the graphic, he also linked readers to the Times' citywide map.

"The process to make that kind of collaboration happen wasn't in place" before the partnership formed, he said.

Another example of the new partnership involved breaking news in a Seattle neighborhood. When a wild cougar was trapped in a city park on a Sunday morning, Magnolia Voice -- one of Next Door Media's sites -- broke the story and alerted the Times.

Magnolia Voice was "out there at the first light of dawn, taking photos and providing coverage," said Bob Payne, director of communities for the Times' Web site.

"Almost immediately, they [the Times] posted a link on their site to MagnoliaVoice.com," Bergman said. "Once they gathered additional information, they replaced the link with their own story featuring one of our photos."
 
The Times and the community blogs each have resources that can benefit the other, Payne said. His news organization has staff and expertise to provide in-depth analysis; the community sites can dispatch reporters quickly to breaking neighborhood news.

"My mantra for the year-long project is that we have strengths and they have strengths," Payne said. "We need to find ways to capitalize on them."

Extending the lessons to other communities

J-Lab will issue a report at the end of the yearlong project that summarizes experiences and lessons that may be applied to future collaborations. The project's goals are broad, but it seeks to answer some basic questions: What are options for sharing content? How can community sites maintain independence while partnering with large news organizations? What is a successful partnership?

Jan Schaffer, J-Lab's executive director, sees opportunities for both major news organizations and independent news sites.

"It is clear to us that there are a lot of hyper-local news initiatives doing a fairly good job of covering geographic news," Schaffer said. "At the same time, many mainstream news organizations are not able to put as many feet on the street to do this kind of coverage anymore."

The independent news sites, for example, may gain exposure when the large news organization credits or links to them. The news organization may gain additional local content from tips, photos or coverage.

Schaffer said the partnerships offer both sides a chance to build trust by working together.

"In some cases, there has been a disdain [by traditional media] for hyper-local news sites, about how good and factual they are, and whether they adhere to 'big J' standards in covering the news," Schaffer said. At the same time, "the [community news] sites care a lot about independence and do not want to be taken over."

While the project aims to foster communication, the working relationships may differ with each partnership. "It is not our intent to dictate how these things should play out," Schaffer said. "Everyone should have a comfort level in their communities. We are here to aggregate the knowledge that comes out of it."