4 things news sites should know before partnering with a local blog
For the last three years, I've been running the website Muni Diaries, where public transit riders in San Francisco submit stories that happened on the bus. Along the way, we have been approached by several large news organizations for content partnerships. This has become more and more common, as many news organizations don't have the staff or resources to cover hyperlocal news quickly and adequately anymore.
We’re grateful that our successes have led to partnerships, but I also recall many meetings where both bloggers and media organizations have left frustrated because of misunderstandings and mismatched expectations. Based on my experiences, I've come up with some tips on how news organizations can create meaningful collaborations with local blogs.
1. Ask your local blogs what they need.
In any good business partnership, both sides need to be able to articulate their needs. Asking directly is a good first step. Local websites have different needs, and you should know whether you can offer the right incentive before you approach them.
Don’t assume bloggers need remedial training. Most partnership meetings that we attend for Muni Diaries begin with offers of "journalism training" and the opportunity to "work in the newsroom." As former journalists now trying to build a small business on the content we create, it would be more valuable for us to learn about creative ways to generate revenue and manage the business aspects of publishing.
On the other hand, bloggers including Ken Aaron and Lynnette Fusilier at Neighborhood Notes in Portland, Ore., find journalism training and newsroom time very useful. Neighborhood Notes is a part of the Oregonian News Network, a network of local blogs that partner with the Oregonian. Aaron told me that the training he received from the Oregonian's news librarian on professional databases “got us up to speed on journalistic practices and research skills.”
So ask, don’t assume, what the needs of your partner blogs are, and be prepared to offer an incentive that fits. You should also be able to articulate what your news organization needs so that the partner blogs have a clear understanding of their role.
2. Be prepared to show specific mockups and plans.
Where will your partner blogs’ stories appear on your site? How many clicks until a reader arrives at the partner blog? Will you display an excerpt or just a headline from the partner blog? Will you talk with partner bloggers about story placement so you can figure out how to drive traffic to them?
These are the first questions that your partner blogs will ask, and you should be prepared to show mockups of how collaboration will look on your website. Or better yet, involve your partner blogs in discussions about how to integrate their content.
3. Understand the business of the Web.
Do you know the numbers of page views and unique visitors of your publication? Do you know the click-through rates of stories on your home page? Do you know what drives the most traffic to your partner sites? For TV and radio stations hoping to partner with local blogs, do you know if an on-air mention will lead to clicks on your partner’s blogs?
Offering a mention or a link to your partner blog is not enough. Understand your own website and be ready to share specific stats such as how much traffic you have driven to similar sites in the past.
Bloggers run their websites out of love for the community, but many bloggers are also entrepreneurs. “It really helps to know your partner blog well and know their business operation,” Cornelius Swart, J-Lab coordinator of The Oregonian News Network, said by phone. Approach your blogging partner as you would any other business and be ready to offer metrics that can help them understand the value proposition of being a partner and the potential for success.
4. Get support from your advertising and marketing departments.
Any time I walk into a collaboration meeting, I always want to know: How will you help promote this partnership and my content? But I have not seen any marketing plans for partnerships, and representatives from the advertising and marketing departments have never participated in the partnership meetings I've attended. A meaningful partnership with a local blog goes beyond content exchange; it incorporates cross promotion.
It's obvious how news organizations benefit from partnering with local blogs: they get to offer their audience more coverage on more topics. But publications need to experiment with the business aspects of such collaborations to make them sustainable, says Bob Payne, who runs the Seattle Times' News Partner Network.
In a phone interview, Payne said publications should ask themselves: “Can you walk over to the offices of your business, advertising, and marketing folks to get them to agree to support this effort in the same level we are going to support it on the news side?” You need both editorial and business-side buy-in to make the model mutually beneficial.
As local news coverage becomes more fragmented, there is a greater need for collaboration. By understanding the needs of local blogs and approaching these collaborations as an editorial and business partnership, we can ultimately make an impact on the business of journalism.