Big Idea: Plugging In to Our Micro Communities

Mark Bickel, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press: Plugging in to our micro communities

The mission: To develop new information products and to manage them for new and existing audiences. Take a news peg and create an online community.

Inspired by: ASNE Webinar in April called “Journalism, Audience and Advertising on the Web,” led by Anthony Moor, deputy manager/Interactive at The Dallas Morning News. Took some of his ideas and have attempted to apply them on our site.

• Big Idea is called “Plug In.” We feel it is a next step for community journalism here in Southwest Florida and perhaps for other newspapers looking to make a stronger connection with their readers and take a big step toward leaving behind the concept of readers feeling as if they are on the receiving end of a monologue. Think of it as “collaborative filtering” to edit the news. The concept is evolving.

• The first “Plug In” page appeared in April. We were covering a big story in our market about homes that were built with Chinese drywall, which was causing a long list of health and financial issues for many of our homeowners. It became more apparent to us that one of our bigger stories needed a place on our Web site that went beyond the typical Web page with story chat or a forum link. In fact, why not create a page that was a much the readers’ page as it was our page?

• Can we still be town criers? Not anymore. Social networks have become the “modern town square” where information is exchanged, other Web sites are recommended and a the place where news organizations and their readers can collaboratively edit the news. We need to empower the readers in these micro communities and provide the platform for them to share and exchange information, to ask their important questions to us and to other readers, and to even let us know how effective we are at covering a particular issue and what we can do to do even better.

• Three key points: (1) News is shifting from being a product — the Web site — to becoming an always-on service — help me get something done. (2) News Web sites are no longer final destinations. (3) User-generated content doesn’t replace the story; it becomes part of the news gathering process.

• Be transparent. Let readers know up front that there is a role in this for them. It doesn’t work without them. There may be nothing more powerful than giving the readers the keys to the car, so to speak, and telling them “You can help drive, too.”

• Also: Update often, link out, brand the expertise (Plug In).

• “Plug In” has also been used for breaking news (swine flu scare), public service (hunger crisis) and coping (Economy: road to recovery,  our most successful page to date). Pages can be successful if: INTERACTIVE (polls), by LINKING to other sources on the topic (as well as Gannett’s Content One), adding DOCUMENTS, and MINING COMMENTS for sources and information. We also use Cover it Live for chats and have produced video packages for the page.

• LINK: news-press.com/roadtorecovery

• Potential for brand recognition is strong across all platforms.

• Where can we go from here?
–Build a Web page that will feature links to all of the “Plug In” pages.
–Also under consideration is developing a 30-minute live streaming video show that would be “Plug In” based and be produced once a week on news-press.com. There could be advertising revenue from that.
–We want to do this on a bigger scale with our education page.
–Add social network extensions (Twitter, Facebook)
–Work with marketing — Can we get some promotional dollars behind this?
–Work with reporters who need to buy in and be active participants on the page

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