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J-Lab’s ten key takeaways for community news orgs

November 18, 2010

J-Lab’s Executive Director, Jan Schaffer, offers a rich set of “lessons from funding five years of community news start-ups” in the report “New Voices: What Works” (embedded below). If you’re pressed for time, it will be worth your while to scroll further down to the list of “ten key takeaways”. You may also be interested in J-Lab’s recommendations for community news sites and their supporters.

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J-Lab’s Ten Key Takeaways for Community News Orgs

Engagement is key: Robust and frequent content begets more content and whets the interest of potential contributors. The sites that have engaged their communities in multiple ways show the most promise.

Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise: Citizen journalism math is working out this way: Fewer than one in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors. Even then, they may be “regular” for only a short period of time. Projects that expected to generate content by training a corps of citizen journalists had to develop alternative plans for stories or they struggled with little compelling content.

Sweat equity counts for a lot: Projects built on the grit and passion of a particular founder or corps of founders have created the most robust models for short- and long-term sustainability.

Community news sites are not a business yet: While many all-volunteer sites are showing great promise for sustainability, other site founders want to develop their sites as a sustainable business that can pay staff or contributors.

Social media is game changing: Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools are ushering in a New Age for Community News, creating robust recruiting, marketing, distribution, collaboration, reporting and funding opportunities.

Technology can be a blessing and a curse: Community news sites would not exist without the tech tools for building easy websites and creating digital content. However, efforts to build custom websites led to frequent and lengthy delays and repeated advice to start simply.

Legacy news outlets are not yet in the game: Projects that counted on partnerships with legacy news outlets ultimately found it best to go it alone as newsroom cutbacks left editors with no time to partner. Once launched, though, the New Voices projects found that partners came knocking.

The academic calendar is not good enough: University-led projects built with student journalists need to operate year-round to avoid losing momentum and community trust. They hold great promise but must surmount great hurdles.

Youth media should be supplemental: Projects that sought to train middle or high school students to report on news in their community produced infrequent content and fell prey to high trainer turnover and a need for great supervision. They should be secondary or tertiary, not primary, generators of content.

Community radio needs help: While showing promise as community news outlets, community radio as well as cable access television stations need additional support and stable project leadership to deliver daily newscasts.

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