The Problem in Depth
With websites such as CNN.com becoming the first stop for eager news seekers, print publications feel the pressure to keep up in a world obsessed with instant information. Many newspapers, both national and local, are going digital in hopes of engaging loyal readers and attracting new ones. The Dallas Morning News jumped on the digital bandwagon to do just this, but it wanted to take engaging its readers one step further by creating a social media site that would not only provide immediate access to important local news but also make reporting the news an interactive experience.
Four years ago, The Dallas Morning News created neighborsgo, a newspaper that published stories written by community members. Originally, neighborsgo had an email-only submission process, in which citizens sent news and correlating media to the editors in hopes of seeing their submissions in print. Community members quickly caught the citizen journalism fever. But with success also came technological problems for the neighborsgo staff. Oscar Martinez, managing editor for neighborsgo, explains: “Too many people were interested, and we were doing it entirely through email. One of the worst things that happened [was], if an editor was absent or sick, contributors would get a bounce-back email. It was a huge roadblock to communication.” Scores of submissions flooded editors’ inboxes, creating a content bottleneck, which crashed servers and caused emails to bounce.
Both thrilled and daunted by its success, neighborsgo started looking for an alternative method for content submission that would emphasize community-generated news. “We decided to launch a site that would do two things: It would facilitate contributions from community, and it would really get into those communities more, so we would have more of [a] community presence,” says Martinez. With the rise of websites such as Facebook and MySpace, a social networking site seemed to be the perfect fit. And so began the search for a company that would facilitate these goals for neighborsgo.
Startup company Small World Labs heeded the call from neighborsgo. The company used its technology platform to set up a customized social networking site that would double as a news site, neighborsgo.com. Michael Wilson, CEO of Small World Labs, explains that when neighborsgo first came to Small World Labs, the publication was looking for a “more interactive experience online.” Upon initial contact, Small World Labs sat down with neighborsgo creators and surveyed their goals and desires. “We went through process, discussed who the target audience was, [and] looked at the business goals, which were increasing advertising revenues and decreasing costs as it relates to hyperlocale and neighborhood journalism. While technology is a necessary component, the true driver for success is the strategy and process used to determine the right type of community,” explains Wilson.
Along with the goal of setting up a distinctive and reputable source that people could rely on for news, neighborsgo had a bigger vision of uniting community members by giving them a place to form relationships and express their ideas. “Oscar wanted to do something different. He didn’t just want comments on existing news articles. He wanted to create a new space where readers could create the content,” says Wilson. Martinez adds, “We had certain print products available, and we wanted to complement that with a tool for people to communicate with each other in a safe place and share experiences.”
Small World Labs understood this desire and set up a variety of social networking features that would accomplish these goals for neighborsgo.com—including blogs for discussion, ratings and reviews, a business directory, individual address books, calendar reminders, and a filter search engine so users could easily pinpoint information they were interested in. With this engine, a search can be filtered by a specific topic, such as sports, or a specific neighborhood. On top of these features, users have the ability to easily post stories along with pictures and videos to the site. “If you are on neighborsgo.com, you can byline an article, add pictures [or] videos, enter into topic-driven discussions, or start a discussion around news,” says Wilson.
The stories posted on neighborsgo.com range from high school sports coverage to community government to problems plaguing a neighborhood, such as unruly wildlife. Neighborsgo editors scan the site daily for interesting news and then choose stories for the weekly print edition. If a story is chosen for print, the original contributor gets the byline.
As with most social networking sites, if a member wants to submit a story, he or she has to start by setting up a user profile. For Martinez, the purpose behind the user profile is not just for fun; it is to ensure reliable news reporting. “Just like with every other Web 2.0 operation, we want accountability. You can say what you want, but we want to make sure it is you who is saying it.” Oftentimes, editors can use this background information to contact users whose stories have been chosen for print. Wilson adds that they also serve another purpose: “Attaching the author to the content created helps readers put in context what they are reading. They think that the author really is an expert, and that is how a community is really made.”
Both Martinez and Wilson admit that getting started was not always smooth sailing. Martinez explains, “There were a lot of issues in trying to get things to work—for their servers to communicate with our servers, etc. It took a lot of trial and error.” During these unexpected problems, Small World Labs was there to sort things out. “We work closely with clients and have weekly sessions around what is happening with community,” says Wilson. After a few months of fine-tuning important features, the site was running smoothly and gaining momentum as both a social networking site and a community news source.
Right now, neighborsgo.com covers 39 communities and has approximately 14,000 registered members, with more than 100 consistent contributors. With a combined circulation of 250,000 copies, it prints 18 editions every week, which are broken up by ZIP code. Neighborsgo is delivered with the Friday edition of The Dallas Morning News and usually ranges in size from 20 to 28 pages. With an approximate post rate of 75–100 items a day on neighborsgo.com, filling these pages is not a problem. In fact, Martinez believes it is the neighborsgo.com process of “reverse publishing,” or extracting posted news from the website for print, that drives so much traffic to the site. “If newspapers were dead, we wouldn’t have the success we’ve had. People still like seeing validation in print,” he says. Wilson agrees, but he sees greater economic benefits as well. “I view neighborsgo as enabling the long tail of journalism. Previously, there were only a set number of articles to be written about what is happening in the Dallas area. There is a limited number based on production cost. If you deploy something like neighborsgo.com, it reduces the cost of information creation to almost zero.”
According to Martinez, working with Small World Labs was a growing experience for neighborsgo. “We follow the idea that we don’t want to waste people’s time online. We wanted to be really clear about what we are trying to do with the site,” he says. “[Small World Labs] really helped us calibrate and filter the nature of what we were trying to get across.”
The slogan for neighborsgo.com is “Post online. Get in print,” and this invitation has continued to ignite positive user reactions. According to Martinez, people still love the idea of posting the news that is important to them the moment it happens and receiving instant feedback from other community members. “The idea of the immediacy that people feel really encourages conversation,” he says.
Looking forward, Small World Labs hopes to capitalize on this sense of immediacy by introducing mobile uploads. Beyond its technological goals, neighborsgo also hopes to now concentrate on the quality of the news it prints from the site, as finding enough submissions to fill its weekly paper is a diminishing problem. Since the editors are responsible for scanning the site daily for relevant news, neighborsgo wants to keep these editors involved with the community by encouraging them to join the online conversation as well.
By inviting citizens to create the news, neighborsgo can now produce a plethora of stories that previously went unnoticed. As Wilson says, “Now there is more content and information being created that The Dallas Morning News couldn’t do before.” If communication is key, with the help of Small World Labs, neighborsgo has picked the lock.