WellCommons: revolution under the radar

[A version of this appears on News Leadership 3.0, the Knight Digital Media Center blog on innovation, transformation and news leadership.]

Last week, WellCommons, a local health news site, part of the Lawrence Journal-World in Lawrence, KS, won Editor & Publisher’s EPPY award for “Best Community Service on a Media-Affiliated Website with under 250,000 unique monthly visitors”. Thank you, judges!

Since there wasn’t an article about the winners, just a list, I’ll explain why we nominated WellCommons and why I think it’s a proof-of-concept for nearly everything that Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis have been preaching.

We bulldozed the barriers between community and journalists. We tore down the wall between the newsroom and advertising. We jettisoned the old print advertising model. Reporters changed how they did their work. The role of journalism changed. We also established a solution-oriented environment and planned to add tools to further strengthen continuity and context.

Remember that phrase from the Clinton campaign? “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well, in the case of the wrenching transition that journalism’s going through…It’s the basic structure, stupid!

Much of journalism is stuck in the quicksand of trying preserve the print or TV or radio platform on a very different digital medium that has its own idiosyncrasies. The main difference between WellCommons and any other news site is that social media is baked into the DNA of its content management system. It IS a social media site.

As a friend put it: WellCommons “let the people in!” That changes everything. Everything! More than we realized.

The site launched in beta in April 2010; the 2.0 version was launched in March 2011. Here are the basics:

1. Anyone in the community can post content directly into the WellCommons news stream. That includes text, video, photos, graphics. People have to use their real names. There’s no editing by WellCommons staff, no moderation prior to publishing. Most of this content is further fed into the news stream on LJWorld, the news organization’s central site.

As Marilyn Hull, who runs LiveWell Lawrence, a local project of the Douglas County Community Foundation, noted: “…it puts us in the driver’s seat. I used to send news releases to the paper, and they seldom resulted in stories. Now, we don’t have editors deciding what is newsworthy. We get to post our news, and then our community can decide if it is worth reading.”

In other words, this structure efficiently captures “the long tail” of health news and information in Lawrence – the information that’s always useful to some part of the community but that reporters, who focus on content that reaches bigger chunks of the community, don’t have time to get to.

2. The site is built around groups rather than blogs. Why? One, groups solve communities’ problems. Two, this structure gives people two points of reference to judge the information — the person who posts the content and the group page to which they post the content.

3. We involve the community. Really. About four months prior to launch, an advisory group of 25 to 30 people met regularly with Lawrence Journal-World staff to provide input and review. Their suggestions figured heavily in how the site looks and functions. The group, comprising members that rotate on and off, continues to meet and provide great advice. Why not. It’s their site.

4. A new ad model. Yep, there are banner ads, but that’s not where the site derives most of its revenue. Most comes from sponsorship. Potentially, a good chunk can come from businesses that provide health products and services, many of which would never consider advertising in print or in LJWorld.com. Since they’re a vital part of the local health community (so says our community) businesses can set up their own group pages; they pay to do so. They participate just like the rest of the community – the content they post to their group pages shows up in the news stream. The site also has potential to derive significant revenues from events.

5. We integrated all parts of the news organization. Reporters, editors, advertising reps, marketing executives, technology developers and social media managers met weekly and communicated daily. We shared information about what we were doing and what events were coming up that we could work on together. The reporter gave the ad rep business leads, the marketing exec gave the reporter story leads. We cheered the ad reps for each business they signed up. Before I left the organization in September, we talked about including a community rep. Although our community advisory group meets a few times a year, and members of the community are encouraged (and do…often) tell us what they want from the site, it would be even more useful if someone sat in on our weekly meetings.

6. The plan: create a network of local niche sites. Our vision was to go with the flow of the developing digital news ecosystem — thousands of niche sites aggregated into networks. KUSports, Lawrence.com, WellCommons and SunflowerHorizons currently feed into LJWorld.com. In the grand scheme, we planned on using the same CMS and approach to create local business, outdoor recreation, and education niche sites. LJWorld would become the aggregator and focus breaking news. The staff to support such an organization is lean – one or two reporters per niche site, a small breaking news team, and a social media CMS that integrates the community.

7. Changing the conversation of health. WellCommons takes a community-based approach to health reporting. Most health sites focus on personal health — what individuals can do to improve their own or their families’ health. But at a local level, health is a community issue. Our kids are supposed to eat healthy food, but if school lunch programs provide mac-and-cheese, French fries and few vegetables, then improving kids’ nutrition is a community issue. We’re all supposed to exercise, but if a community doesn’t have enough safe places to walk, jog, bike and play outdoors, then creating those facilities is the responsibility of the community. Over the last two years, the basic conversation about health has shifted toward a community solution-oriented approach. And there’s a lot more conversation. Our goal was 10 posts a day, with half coming from the community.

Here are 10 headlines from two days in December. All are generated by the local health community – 6 from LJWorld/WellCommons reporters, 4 from members of the WellCommons community, including Kansas Health Service.

Kansas overall health ranking drops

VIDEO: event to celebrate growth, new partnerships, transformed lives

Spring girls family-based sexuality education class now enrolling

Did you get a flu shot this year?

Kansas Medicaid makeover part of a nationwide trend

Kansas ranks last in making progress on children’s health insurance

For Santa Bob, giving keeps him going

Health officials urge residents to get flu shot before holidays hit

Energy Bites, Two Ways

Classic heart attack symptoms often absent in women

In doing a cursory look at other local news organization health sites — if they even have a local health site — it’s a veritable desert compared with the Manhattan of WellCommons.

8. WellCommons ain’t finished. To achieve context and continuity, it needs topic pages (community- and reporter-curated, with timelines). To achieve another level of solution-oriented content, it needs a goals application for community groups (e.g., the localvore community wants to facilitate the planting of 100 new vegetable gardens). For just plain ease, it needs a calendar system in which people can follow each other’s calendars. And of course it needs a mobile app.

What we learned from creating WellCommons, is that journalism’s role in this new digital medium is to create a safe place and a trusted source for the community to solve its problems. The Lawrence community is telling us that we’re making a good start with WellCommons. That’s a good thing.

Based on my experience with WellCommons, I returned to California in October to lay the foundation to set up a network of local health sites, and to set up a national news network focused on child trauma prevention and trauma-informed care; the focus of that network is ACEsTooHigh.com.   


The new watchword? Deconvergence — it’s time to separate digital from print

A couple of years ago, when the Seattle Post-Intelligence stopped publishing its newspaper, I suggested that the Seattle Times had a real opportunity to make a serious move into the emerging digital news ecosystem:

First, create geographic-based community sites: Put a pod of jurnos in each of the neighborhoods of Seattle that have a population of about 50,000 people, give or take a few thou. Each pod includes at least two reporters, an ad salesperson, and a community manager. Partner with strong sites that already cover neighborhoods well.  Today, I’d amend that to one jurno and one ad salesperson, and go for neighborhoods with smaller populations. The Times hasn’t done much in this arena except join J-Lab’s Networked Journalism project, in which it provides links to posts from 40 Seattle-area sites. But those links are not on the home page…you have to dip two layers down to find them. [CORRECTION: They ARE on the home page....I completely missed the five links out of the approximately 100 that are on the home page. See Kathy Best's comment, below, that noted the error. My apologies. However, I stand by my next statement, because I believe that integration means that the content from the sites is integrated throughout the Seattle Times site, including the home page, i.e., treated as if they were part of a news organization  network.] That’s not really developing an integrated network; it’s patting them on the head.

Second, topic-based sites: Do a serious competitive analysis of topic-based beats. Abandon the beats that others own (How’s MaxPreps doing in the Seattle area?) Or partner with them, if you’ve got a strong piece of their action. Build out the beats you still own. Education? Transportation? Environment? Health? And create another pod of jurnos for each of those sites. Reporters, ad salesperson, community manager. Today, I’d add issue-based sites. E.g., in addition to a basic health site, a robust sub-section on health reform. When David Boardman, the Seattle Times’ executive editor, stopped by my office while he was in town last week, I showed him our local health site WellCommons. He commented that he thought that a health niche site wouldn’t work in Seattle, because there are hundreds of good health sites already. But I think it’s a perfect opportunity for the Seattle Times to serve as aggregator and curator, as well as begin the necessary transformation to social journalism. Even when we started WellCommons in Lawrence, KS, I thought developing a regional social journalism health site would be much easier in a larger metro area. (We’re above 100K page views a month now…not too shabby for a population base of 115,000 in Lawrence & Douglas County.)

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Here’s a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network.

Third, I envisioned the Times still putting out a newspaper, but suggested that, eventually, it might not appear every day.

Today, I say: Deconverge. Spin off print from digital. Separate management. Separate P&L. Separate buildings. Separate ad and content staff.

A year ago, you never would have heard me suggest that. Clinging to a fatal optimism, I still believed that newspaper culture could grow and change.

But I began heading in the deconvergence direction last year, when we began talking about developing a digital news network. The person to lead that network would need experience in digital ad networks, digital news, mobile and social media, we said. And nobody that person hired would need to come from a print background. We conceived of it as separate, because we didn’t want to “saddle” the organization with the print culture, we said. Hmmm. The word “saddle” should have been a big light in the sky.

My tipping point was on a particular frustrating day, when I watched, for the second time, Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert’s presentation to Borrell Associates Local Mobile Advertising conference last September. At the end of the presentation, Gordon Borrell asked Gilbert if he was optimistic about the newspaper industry. “No,” he said. “Not at all.” He paused. “Am I optimistic that there is a path to doing it (making a transition)? Absolutely.”

Gilbert, who has studied companies and industries in transition at Harvard Business School, pointed out this fascinating and very scary fact: of the companies comprising any industry affected by disruptive technologies, only 9 percent survive. And 100 percent of those 9 percent follow a particular pattern. A key is investing in the future. “Do you want to ride this thing down? Or do you want to invest for the future?” he asked.
The cold reality is this: you can’t have  these two different cultures in the same organization anymore. They set up camps. They expend energy fighting each other for the same resources instead of toward creative efforts to improve their organizations. That’s what led to the demise of TBD.com.

Slide from Clark Gilbert presentation

Gilbert provided a list of what the 9 percent of surviving companies do. In case you can’t make out the text in the slide, the items are:

  • Separate physical location
  • Separate P&L
  • Separate direct sales
  • Separate content, product, and technology teams
  • Separate management structures

Does this mean that news organizations could have/should have spun off digital several years ago? Maybe. But it’s likely that approach would have resulted in a rapid disappearance and even more shrinkage of print-based journalism organizations that had served their communities for more than 100 years. Traditional newspaper culture — and tv culture for that matter — still had too strong a hold for organizations to invest as they should have in digital. And, as they started the first big downhill financial slide, the traditional culture would have been likely to set digital free as an entity that did not have the history with the community or the long-held trust, and settled for riding print down. Instead, here we are in 2011 where most traditional news organizations have laid off staff to preserve profits, merged digital and print newsrooms, and many are beginning to develop digital sales staff to capture appropriate ad revenues.

But now, if they don’t spin off the digital versions of themselves, invest in their future, and let print find its own level, they’ll die and take everyone in their organizations down with them.

So, following Gilbert’s list, they can separate the organizations’ P&L, sales staff, tech staff, management and put them in different physical locations. But the crux of the situation is: What to do about content? The tables have turned. For digital to thrive, and print to continue to be profitable while continuing to shrink and find its place in the new news ecosystem, we now have to repurpose web content to print. Print can’t afford the same compliment of writers and photographers parallel to those in the digital organization.

In the digital news organization, jurnos just focus on building and managing their communities, their web and mobile coverage. In the print organization, a distribution desk repurposes digital content for print. Maybe a couple of print-centric staff writers provide Sunday feature stories, but that depends on who the print audience is and what they want. Oh, yeah — it’s important to know who your print audience is, and who your online community is. Spend the money for good market analyses of newspaper and digital sites.

Also, make print a little more digital — more graphics, more photos, don’t force narrative into coverage that doesn’t need it (city council meetings, school closings, etc.) — so that the information that jurnos provide in their digital posts can appear the same in print.

btw, the opposite of converge is diverge. But I didn’t think that “diverge” encompasses the flavor of the situation traditional organizations find themselves in. Hence, deconvergence. Of course, unconvergence would work. Disconvergence could be a word that describes the current dissonant nature of convergence. Any other suggestions?

Five reasons why TBD.com died

Five telling developments probably contributed to the end of TBD.com as we knew it.

Some folks are saying TBD’s demise is because hyperlocal sites don’t work. TBD.com’s cutbacks and reorganization have less to do with whether a “hyperlocal” approach is doable  and more to do with the necessary elements required of an organization to achieve something like this.

(btw, I HATE the world hyperlocal. Yes, I was guilty of using it for a while. Then, I realized that journalists were using the term to describe people — often journalists — who were covering communities of 10,000 to 50,000. Ho. Small towns. Most of those small towns have had honest-to-god newspapers for decades. Do you call the reporters at those small dailies and weeklies hyper-local journalists? No, you call them journalists.)

On to the five reasons….

1. The abrupt departure of editor Jim Brady three months after TBD.com launched. When the top guy leaves, it’s likely there’s been a critical change in commitment or approach at the top. In this case, at least one obvious change was the commitment to three-to-five years of growth and development that Robert Allbritton, chief executive of Allbritton Communications, which owns TBD.com, had pledged, and is definitely required when growing a digital news organization. According to Paul Farhi, who wrote the Washington Post article on TBD.com’s demise, it had great traffic for a startup.

In January, just five months after its debut, it attracted 1.5 million unique visitors, nearly double its December total of 838,000 and far surpassing November’s total, 715,000, the internal figures show.

2. Ad sales done by WJLA staff. If you’re making an investment in a digital operation, it has to be a complete investment, i.e., there has to be a robust digital sales staff, too.

3. Not enough organizational separation between WJLA and TBO.com. In Farhi’s article, there was this telling statement:

“One WJLA employee described the relationship between the TV station and the Web site’s managers as “palpable resistance and mutual contempt.””

Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Company and Deseret Digital Media, will tell you that you have to separate digital from traditional, otherwise traditional will drag digital down culturally and operationally. If both groups fight for the same resources, it’s likely that the traditional group has more political clout and will win, which means both lose.

4. Not niche enough. The organization was still too mass-media oriented, and, thus, staff-heavy. Sports coverage? Existing local news organizations plus CBS, ESPN, and SBNation provide blanket coverage now. Should that have been in the mix? I don’t know how the traffic to the topics played out, but an assessment of what wasn’t being covered well, identifying where the opportunities are, and building communities around those topics probably would have helped.

5. Abandoning commitment to community engagement. The new TBD.com has pulled the plug on their terrific efforts to build a community of bloggers, also showing that the cultural and organizational weight still resides in the traditional we-talk-you-listen TV news. Oh, my. That’s so 1999.

Another niche network launches

Former BusinessWeek and Fast Company editor John Byrne launched Poets & Quants, the first of about a dozen sites. The company calls it “the go-to place for serious applicants to the best MBA programs in the world.” Here’s an article about it in Webnewser, itself part of the WebMediaBrands network, which publishes mediabistro.com. Talk about a niche!

According to the article, the next site C-Change plans to launch is “Slingshots for David”, which the company says will “provide the tools, advice and inspiration to help entrepreneurs develop disruptive business models to slay the Goliaths in business.” C-Change Media‘s site is John Byrne’s blog.

Interesting side-note: if you Google PoetsandQuants, everything BUT the site comes up. First on the list is its Facebook site. Byrne vociferously complained about that last week.

WellCommons recognized in Knight-Batten Awards

Because he summarized it so well, here’s the post that LJWorld.com assistant director of media strategies Jonathan Kealing put on WellCommons, the local health site that we officially launched in April, a couple of days ago:

WellCommons was honored Monday as a “notable entry” in the annual Knight-Batten Awards competition.

Though WellCommons wasn’t among the top seven entrants, the site was among 30 others that were singled out for praise by the panel of judges.

Taking top honors was an effort by the Sunlight Foundation to add data and context to the coverage of a government event — coverage of the health reform summit — to make it more consumable for the audience.

ProPublica, 48HR Magazine, The Obameter from the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2 News Exchange and The Takeaway took the next level of awards.

The Knight-Batten Awards reward news and information efforts that create opportunities to involve citizens in public issues and supply opportunities for participation.

Another “Village Soup” site in Wareham, MA

I just added WarehamVillageSoup.com to the growing list of niche news sites and networks on Jurnos Wik.

Anne Eisenmenger, founder and publisher of one of the affiliates of the Village Soup network, sends this info in a 7/12/10 email:

“The first out-of-Maine licensee of Village Soup, we have simultaneously worked to “reinvent” the community newspaper. We think we have done that with Wareham Week, a tight-and-bright professionally written, free local tab — with distribution that has grown from 4,000 in January to more than 7,000 today, just in the 8,600-household town of Wareham. (By contrast, the circulation of the paid GateHouse competitor is probably 3,000 and falling.)”

After six months, they’re “flirting” with a financial break-even point.

The list of web-only news sites is huge, and I’m sure not all are on the list. If you include all the sites that are part of the networks, which are at the bottom of the list, we’re approaching 5,000 sites. Most cover business, tech, sports and entertainment, but a significant growing number are health, environment, state government and politics, and geographic-based community sites.

Who sez journalism’s dying?

Another local news network

………with great ambition is growing in the counties north of New York City.

MainStreetConnect.com is, according to an email sent by an account director at TrylonSMR:

“Main Street Connect is a national community news company started by CEO/editor/publisher Carll Tucker, the former editor and publisher of Trader Publications, a community news company which formerly produced The Patent Trader. Main Street specializes in hyperlocal news sites, but rather than the approach of companies like Patch.com (launch sites, hire local reporters, spend millions), Main Street is set up for local entrepreneurs to become affiliates of the company. With an initial investment (and after qualifying), Main Street helps affiliates set up their sites and work with them to launch profitable, hyperlocal news outlets that can attract local advertisers. Rather than use a “one size fits all” model, these sites grow organically from people who actually live there.”

As of today, 7/3/10, MainStreetConnect has 10 sites: TheDailyNorwalk.com, TheDailyWestport.com, TheDailyWilton.com, TheDailyWeston.com, TheDailyNewCanaan.com, TheDailyGreenwich.com, TheDailyDarien.com, TheDailyFairfield.com, TheDailyStamford.com, TheDailyEaston.com.

For more information, see publisher Carll Tucker’s post last month on the genesis and plans for MainStreetConnect. He began with an idea just 13 months ago. He’s starting in Westchester, Duchess and Putnam counties, north of NYC. According to Tucker’s post, “We expect to have dozens more sites around the country by year end, and thousands, yes, thousands, in two years.”

Tucker describes a staff of more than 40 staff members — mostly ex-newspaper people — and there’s some posting across the sites — e.g., the opinion section of each is nearly the same.

Rather than hiring local staff, as AOL’s Patch does, MainStreetConnect looks for partners. This is how they describe it:

Main Street Connect provides local partners all the tools, working capital, and guidance they require to build profitable high-quality community news sites. Main Street Connect Partners have the opportunity to strengthen their communities while earning a good living and building value. Please submit the NDA below to learn more about joining the MSC Network or click here to contact us with questions. We want to hear from you.

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