Open communication is juice that runs networked journalism

A peek under the hood of  two Networked Journalism projects reveals inklings toward the future.  First, the legacy and indie newsrooms are satisfied with the “journalism” sum created by the partnerships and agree that it is greater than its parts.  Second, the key to the revenue equation resides in discovering how to appropriately measure and give full weight to contributions by the indie newsrooms.

It appears the “juice” in the equation is willingness to collaborate.

News brands are some of the strongest brands that exist.  Because of that   a partnership is like a scale that’s overweighted to one side. The legacy newsrooms have the weight of long-time readership and the greater capacity to look at issues from a top level. The independent online newsrooms have shoe leather equity at the local level, and the ability to report significantly from the grass roots. The task ahead is to figure out how to fairly measure this mixture of intangible social value, balance the scale, and translate it into more earnings for all.

It’s been two and half years since the Seattle Times networked journalism project was launched. Since then, the Seattle Times has learned that the partnership derives potency from open communication and willingness to collaborate.

“When a newspaper buys New York Times stories, they are buying a piece of the Times’ brand equity,” said Bob Payne, a site producer on staff with the Seattle Times. But really, what quantitative measure do they have from readers saying that it is the right thing to do? They do it because it feels like the right thing to do, he said.

Payne is heartened by a recent J-Lab survey that found website readers appreciated the Seattle Times News Partner Network.

“We were pleased with the results of the survey in terms of public awareness of the blog network,” Payne said. “It found that there was a kind of appreciation that the Seattle Times knows there is larger news ecosystem out there.

“People are interested in their ecosystem,” he said. “There are lots of good blogs in the Seattle area and having the network shows that  we want to present more info to folks.”

From the indie online perspective, Qcitymetro is a content partner with the Charlotte Observer  as part of the Charlotte News Alliance

Glenn H. Burkins, Editor and Publisher,  said he’s found benefits in his relationship with a large legacy organization —  and also some drawbacks.

For instance,  recently, the Charlotte Observer included Qcitymetro in a Knight Foundation grant.  “I ended up getting $3000 to produce content covering the arts,” Burkins said. “That was one of the big ways the relationship has helped.”

He said the Charlotte Observer treated them in the application,  as in all dealings, as an equal partner.

Another  obvious benefit is that Qcitymetro gets traffic from the paper’s links.

Facebook used to be one of Qcitymetro’s biggest sources of referring traffic, but now it’s the Charlotte Observer.  And that’s been a good development.

“A lot of African American readers have found us through the Charlotte Observer,” Burkins said.  “I probably would not have been able to afford the exposure that I have gotten if I had had to go out and buy ads. “

As to drawbacks,“When you do crack that big story, they might take it and put it on their site,” Burkins said.

“That’s just part of the deal,” Burkins said.  “I get to take some of their content as well. “ The Charlotte Observer has many content partners and they are spotlighted  at the bottom of the page, which drives traffic.

But frequently Qcitymetro’s coverage is a cue to the Charlotte Observer that a story is important.

One of Qcitymetro’s biggest stories was its reporting on a prominent preacher and his wife  and their indictment for  tax evasion.

“What the O.J. Simpson case did for Court TV? That was what that trial did for us,” Burkins says. It was Qcitymetro’s story; The Charlotte Observer didn’t have a reporter in the courtroom.

“I think they underestimated how big that story would become in the community,” Burkins said.  On a day when a story like that breaks,  the site can pick up 10,000 readers.

Although Qcitymetro doesn’t get any revenue from the Charlotte Observer, Burkins said that the partnership is an added talking point when he visits advertisers. “There’s no direct correlation but it doesn’t hurt,” he says.

Sometimes Qcitymetro’s stories will run in the paper edition, and sometimes they’ll run online. “I would rather have it online,” he said. “In the paper I don’t know if anyone notices the bylines. Even if they do, they may not be motivated to see who we are.

Burkins is looking forward to partnering on the upcoming Democratic National Convention. “It will be a big deal for us,” he said.

Qcitymetro has a full-time staff of one — Burkins — and a couple of part-timers as well as stringers and freelancers.

After three years of operation, the site is making money. One of the bright spots for 2012 is underwriting from BlueCross Blue Shield to sponsor a health page. “They ponied up for producing the page and then some,” he said. “We have a similar arrangement with the Charlotte area transit system.”

Burkins’ been winging the sponsorship structures, and he has learned that it’s most  important to absolutely cover the cost of producing the page.

“I told BCBS what my vision was to produce the page and why. Then I went to them with a proposal, “ he said. They liked it and the page will be starting up soon.

“The health care industry is one of the few industries growing in this country,” he said. “We are also selling ad spots on that page that will be lucrative.”

The  best news is Qcitymetro can hire a freelancer at a fair market rate to update the page once a week, thanks to the underwriting.

In Seattle, it’s been two and half years since the networked journalism project was launched. Since then, the Seattle Times has learned that the partnership derives potency from open communication and willingness to collaborate.

The network started with fewer than ten sites and has now expanded to include 46 indy online sites.

“From a strictly journalism and content perspective, the partnership has been very successful,” Payne said. “We are in it for the long run.” By being able to link to site partners, the Seattle Times has been able to fill coverage gaps in the entire region, he said.

Although a paper or broadcast station doesn’t need a partnership to link to local blogs, that kind of arrangement doesn’t open channels of conversation. Open channels, Payne said,  can lead to more comprehensive coverage.

Benefits include exchanging news tips, exchanging resources like photos and other content and loose collaboration on packages with an hyperlocal angle, Payne said.

“There’s that kind of communication and it is a step beyond just putting links on your new site,” Payne said. “The communication is good. We are sending more traffic than ever off our site to these local sites.”

It’s led to some collaborative news projects, including one called “Invisible Families” that looked at homeless families in the Seattle area.

The situation is less rosy from the business side.

Last year, the Seattle Times launched and then closed an ad network called B-Local,  whose four partners included the paper, King 5 as the TV partner, the neighborhood news network and an ad agency.

“This project was folded last year. It was not very successful, “ Payne said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying.”

Conventional wisdom is  that it’s challenging to set a price for advertising that the local pizza parlor can afford to pay and that will be  profitable when split among so many media partners.  It’s also difficult to sell the ads across different blogs hosted on separate platforms.

It could also be that legacy media is so busy keeping its own advertising boats afloat that sales can’t really focus on the whole picture.

“I’ve told J-Lab that they should invest in grant projects  to focus just on the business side, not on the content side,” Payne said.

Payne works in the Seattle Times newsroom and spends 10% to 20% of his time managing the blog network. “We are trying to evolve the newsroom,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be a web guy who is paying attention to these blogs.”

The Seattle Times  is planning to better integrate the network so, for instance, the paper’s neighborhood reporter will follow the neighborhood blogs more closely. “We know what we do well,” Payne said.  “Our partnership is not competitive, it’s complementary.”

Even as these experiments progress, the  long days of news gathering and publishing haven’t shortened.

“Things are going well,” Qcitymetro’s Burkins says. But still, “it is an incredible amount of work.”

“I still have days when I wake up and want to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. But they are fewer than they were a year ago and I believe they will be fewer still when this year ends.”

Learn more about these and other Networked Journalism projects at J-Lab. 

Sally Duros is a social journalist working toward the next generation of successful, credible online newsrooms. Connect with her on  and on twitter at saduros..

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