How Community Journalism Works

A whitepaper exploring the potential of community journalism on the Internet.

Executive Summary

In his book How Music Works, composer and musician David Byrne explores the history of music through the lens of performance venues and, over the last hundred or so years, the medium by which it’s stored and transmitted. His message is that the art and practice of music conforms to the nature of the container or medium within which it’s experienced.

An example he gives is the big band era, which flourished in nightclubs. The only instruments that could be heard above the yelling and laughter and general clamor were pianos and drums and brass instruments, played vigorously.

Then one day, the electric guitar was born and music moved into a new space.

Like music, journalism is shaped by the container in which it’s experienced, and for hundreds of years that’s been the newspaper—literally, the news printed and distributed on paper. When broadcast technology was developed, radio and television newscasts were and still mostly remain people reading or talking about the newspaper over the air.

Journalism is also shaped by the mode of presentation, which is broadcast whether on paper or over the radio or television airwaves. The nature of the medium prohibited interactivity and so journalism has always been produced for an audience.

That all started to change when the Internet was invented, but the journalism industry, or rather, the journalism publishing industry, has been slow to embrace and explore its own version of the electric guitar.

Community Journalism

Before considering the Internet as a content container or publishing medium, let’s first describe what we want to publish, which is local community journalism.

Community is here defined as:

  • People linked by geographic proximity or jurisdiction
  • People linked by shared interest
  • People linked by shared purpose
  • People linked by shared experience

Journalism is here defined as:

  • Providing an account

While the dictionary definition of journalism narrows the practice to writing, it’s commonly accepted that journalism occupies many forms and formats spanning analog and digital mediums.

Thus, an account of the community may be published as writing, a podcast, a picture, a video, a hologram or a computer program, to name but a few options.

Big Problems

As an industry, community journalism faces existential challenges related to unsustainable business models and the rapacious practices of corporate owners. 

The response to those particular problems has been positive:

  • An explosion of new tiny newsrooms
  • A supporting professional network (LION)
  • Philanthropic and “social responsibility” funding
  • Individual member subscriptions 
  • Internet native technology platforms adapted for smaller newsrooms

The Good News

There’s a lot of good news in the response to the “crisis in local journalism.” 

Journalists are becoming entrepreneurial and starting newsrooms in their communities and trying out different business models to become sustainable, ongoing operations.

Unencumbered by a legacy paper product, these newsrooms are going all digital and running newsrooms on laptops from coffee shops or coworking couches, and they’re branching out to newsletters and podcasts and indie websites.

Three Questions

It’s good that as the legacy journalism industry withers under the tender mercies of Alden Capital, a thousand tiny newsrooms set sail. But…  A newsletter is still broadcast to an audience. A podcast is still broadcast to an audience. A WordPress NewsPack website is still broadcast to an audience. 

The Internet is an interactive medium and broadcasting content to an audience doesn’t leverage interactivity.

The Internet is not merely a streaming transmission medium like radio and television, it’s also an on-demand, random access storage mechanism.

The Internet is not a static content presentation surface like a page or a screen or a speaker for a printed sequence of words or a sequence of sound and images. The Internet is a dynamic view in which accumulated content may be reorganized and reconfigured to add value.

So our three questions are:

  • How can we make community journalism interactive?
  • How can we make community journalism leverage random access storage?
  • How can we make community journalism more valuable as it gains depth?

Interactive

If community journalism is “providing an account of the community,” then interactive community journalism is the community interacting with the account and participating in the making and shaping of the account.

This may be accomplished by:

  • Including community members in the journalism workflow
  • Including member engagement products in the journalism

Random Access Storage

Before the Internet, there was no storage attached to the transmission medium, so the nature of journalism was configured to stream. Wanting to go back and reference something from the past could literally involve “rewinding the tape” (if you recorded it) or digging through a stack of newspapers in the garage.

The Internet is a transmission medium and a random access database.

This can be leveraged by:

  • Including directories and catalogs of local community information as products 
  • Including long shelf life/evergreen educational products in the workflow
  • Including measurement and data products in the workflow
  • Indexing/tagging content for optimized access

Depth

Storage gives community journalism depth through the accumulation of content over time. Random access makes it easy to find items in the accumulated content. Items can be combined with other items for presentation in dynamic views which adapt and change over time with the evolving combinations of accumulated content.

This can be leveraged by:

  • Clustering of related indexed/tagged content in views
  • Tracking change over time
  • Including knowledge base products in the journalism workflow

NewsOS

The laboratory in which we explore the answer to the three questions is our purpose-built content management system, NewsOS.

Because NewsOS is a digital community journalism platform, content is primarily organized by geographic area and topic of interest.  Everything is stored in a database, and all of the items in the database may be dynamically “tagged” to each other as a means of defining different kinds of relationships between items.

NewsOS currently supports four general categories of journalism workflow:

  • Telemetry/Data
  • Directory
  • Editorial
  • Engagement

Telemetry/Data Product

A large amount of actionable information of interest to the community is produced by a variety of public and private entities and made available for free over the Internet.

Caltrans maintains a huge network of real-time remote sensors and traffic cameras, and makes it all available for free in a variety of machine-readable formats.

Likewise, the California Highway Patrol publishes their dispatch incidents in real time as machine-readable information.

Our federal tax dollars ensure access to machine-readable real-time weather data.

NewsOS maintains background processes which automatically import and update weather, traffic and other information from sources on the Internet.

Directory Product

Our community researchers create directories of local community groups, government entities and public facilities tagged by topic and location.

Directory listings include entity name, address and other contact information, a description of the function or services provided by the entity, and links to the entity website and social media.

Government directory listings include elected and appointed bodies and profiles and contact information of elected representatives and appointed officials.

A directory of public facilities includes the name, location, description and facility type. Facilities can be viewed by tag or type in a list format or in a map format. 

Our community researchers also update the calendar database with government meetings and other events.

Editorial Product

Our writers and editors have a wide variety of editorial tools at their disposal:

  • Resource Lists—for organizing and pointing to information resources on the Internet
  • FAQs—for answering frequently asked questions
  • Explainers—for evergreen explanations about how something works
  • Trackers–portals for collecting and organizing information about civic processes unfolding over time
  • Live Blog–updated situation reports on breaking events
  • Signal Boosters—to amplify content produced by other newsrooms

Engagement Product

California Local members are encouraged to both engage with the journalism as well as participate in the process of providing an account of their community.

Engagement opportunities include:

  • Participation of facilitated online discussions
  • Contributing a personal history to an archive of experiences around landmark events or issues in the community
  • Participation in polls and surveys
  • Publishing of milestones (birth/death/marriage/graduation/etc)
  • Contributing to a Q&A style knowledge base
  • Participation in online ideation/roadmap processes
  • Contributing photos to public photo albums
  • Contributing a Letter to The Editor for publication and discussion
  • Contributing feedback about errors or information to fill gaps in the directories
  • Contributing weather data or other sensor telemetry to the database

About California Local

California Local is a social and civic engagement tool that produces community journalism for the digital age. We’ve created a virtual world where people can discover more about their towns, cities and fellow citizens.

We deliver reliable news, community information, positive conversation and voices not heard elsewhere. We actively work to promote local news organizations by surfacing their stories on our website and encouraging dialog with their readers. 

Our proprietary platform, NewsOS (patent-pending), is optimized as a forum for constructive conversations about both the physical places where our members and visitors live, and the communities of interest they create online. 

Because California Local tags its content with relevant topics, our site helps visitors find information about the issues they care about and connect them with like-minded people and groups. 

On California Local, visitors and members can connect with local advocacy groups, charitable organizations and service clubs. Without leaving California Local, people can join, donate to, or volunteer with hundreds of groups. 

California Local’s experienced journalists deliver carefully edited news and information that cuts through rampant disinformation. Our moderated forums and discussions create a space for honest and civil discourse. 

Our database puts people in touch with their elected representatives and community leaders—we encourage not just talk but action. We are explicitly committed to helping create positive change.