Talkin’ about….WellCommons

For the last year, I’ve been head-down in development. My (poor neglected) blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts have seen few words, photos, graphs or video. However, now my head’s finally up, and it’s time to talk about what much of that last year has been about: WellCommons, the new local health site that we at the Lawrence Journal-World recently launched.

OMG! It doesn't look like a news web site!

It combines social media and journalism. We think it’s what journalism looks like in a social media world. It’s a little WordPress, a little Ning, a little Facebook, a little Twitter, all embedded in a safe place and a trusted source, which is what journalism is supposed to be for a community (in addition to the watchdog role). It’s unlike anything in the digital news arena, as far as we know. We launched it in beta at the end of February, it went “official” in April, and we are now continuing to nurture it and watch it grow.

Several aspects of WellCommons and Ellington Community are unique:

The site resolves the “signal to noise” complaint about the web. In other words, its architecture helps people assess the reliability of content.

One ingredient of WellCommons’ secret sauce is that it is built around groups that all function the same way, whether started by a reporter or a community member. The other is that all participants use their real names.

This is how WellCommons works: Anyone can start a group (as long as it’s related to health). If you start a group, you put your content into “news” and “resources”. People who join your group put their content into the “commons” section. Participants are able to judge the quality of the information, depending on if it’s in a group’s news or resources section (content posted by the group “owner”) or the commons section (where anybody can post), and by knowing who posted the information.

Anyone who contributes to the site — reporter or member of the community alike — does so in the same way, through a public-facing web-based interface. Participants can also follow and message each other within the site, repost, and send posts to Facebook and Twitter.

WellCommons’ approach to health reporting is community-based and solution-oriented. 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. For example, we’re all supposed to get regular checkups. But does everyone in a community have access to good health care? Our kids are supposed to eat healthy food, but do school lunch programs provide that? We’re all supposed to exercise, but does a community have enough safe places to walk, jog, bike and play outdoors?

The site provides a new advertising model. We believe businesses that provide health products and services are a vital part of the community, and should be included. Businesses can start their own group pages; they pay to do so. They have direct access to and conversations with members of the community. They can buy display ads, which, at the moment, look like traditional display ads. Eventually, those ads themselves will become social media-enabled, with content that the business can change.

We put the site together with continual input from the local health community. About 40 people — from nonprofits and the local hospital, physicians, health advocates, people who were uninsured, locavores, etc. — met regularly with the news organization’s working group, and still meet quarterly.

That’s enough for the moment. In subsequent posts, I’ll cover more of the thinking and development that went into Ellington Community and WellCommons, including comments from folks who are using it, and will answer the burning questions: Why did this happen at the Lawrence Journal-World? and…How does the Reynolds Journalism Institute fit in?

I’ll also look at the long list of changes and additions we have planned. That list is long: adding databases and resources, a goals app, allowing people to post photos from their computers (right now they have to post a Flickr url), adding topics pages (yes, Web shells!), quizzes, letting people sign on with their Facebook or Twitter accounts, etc. We’ll also be adding another jurno (we have one amazing one now — Karrey Britt), so that we have the bandwidth to do indepth and investigative stories.

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Journalism, journalists, j-schools and the new era

At LJWorld.com, we’ve created a new health site called WellCommons. It’s a very different way for a news organization to serve its community, because it uses the tools of the Web to integrate community and journalism. More on this in another post.

How our community will change the structure and function of WellCommons, and, by default, its new content management system, remains to be seen — it’s barely a month old. However, I think this structure is on the right path to serving the needs of the Lawrence/Douglas County health community in a modern way.

That’s why this blog post by Chris Lynch on his Lynch Blog was so interesting: He thinks that most journalism schools will close  because they’re teaching for the past, not the future. Others have said that, but his take on it and the discussion in the comments are worth a review.

I don’t agree with his concept of The Reader Elite — Webworld just isn’t organized that way. It’s organized into overlapping cells of topic areas. And if that topic area relates to someone’s profession, then that person is likely to pay for the information. You don’t have to look far to see examples of that in the journals that serve the energy, environmental law and technology, financial, scientific, etc., communities.

Where people are struggling with the idea of pay walls and paid content is in the kind of coverage traditionally provided by newspapers, television and public radio. Paying for noncontextual information is mostly a pipe dream in Webworld.

However, people might pay for an investigative piece if it’s in context of continuing coverage of that community. So, for example, continuing local health coverage might be supported by advertising from businesses that provide products and services for that community. However, investigating corruption in a state physicians’ review board might require three months of two people’s time. That’s something that you’d want to pay people expert in the field to do, and, if it’s important enough to the community, they might donate to that project. A contextual SpotUs, so to speak.

Dan Gillmor on J-schools

Check out this post from Dan Gillmor, on the future of journalism education. He provides a great list of suggestions, and every J-school in the country would serve their students well by adopting the list. There’s something that he didn’t mention, though: How do you move a faculty entrenched in legacy media to change to adopt a modern approach?

Academia has four significant characteristics that bode against any journalism school that has been around for more than 5 years adopting Gillmor’s suggestions:

— Tenure, a valuable protection for academic freedom, has been used by many journalism faculty to erect barriers against embracing change.

— A dean manages tenured faculty members, but s/he’s not really their boss — they can, do and have dug their heels in, even though it obviously slows their schools from adapting to the tremendous changes that are occurring in journalism.

— Most J-schools, especially those that are tax-supported, operate with a business model that isolates them from the market forces that are changing journalism.

— Most J-school faculty come from legacy media and have little experience in niche news development or in entrepreneurial journalism, the two largest trends in journalism today.

One solution: Every J-school faculty member is given a 6-month sabbatical to work in a niche news organization — site or network — that is NOT part of a legacy news organization. That would give faculty much of the experience and insight they need to understand what changes need to be made and why they need to be made quickly.

Yikes.

The other words I was starting to put in this headline: unrepresentative, half the story, less than half the story, and the whole story of Baltimore. How can I begin to characterize the research done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as reported in the LATimes article “Most original new reporting comes from traditional sources, study finds”?

PEJ, a nonpartisan project funded by the Pew Research Center, studied news reporting from 53 sources for three days in Baltimore, and followed six key stories for a week, in an effort to understand how the “ecosystem” of news operates in an age when new media is expanding and older outlets are losing resources.

Do this same research in West Seattle, and you’d find, well, a different story. Do this same research in Montclair, N.J., home of Baristanet, and the results might also be different.  And what about topic-based reporting. Isn’t The Body doing a better job on AIDS reporting than any newspaper? Isn’t Kaiser Health News doing a better job of health reporting than any daily?

There are quite a few headlines proclaiming that real news comes from newspapers as a result of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study, “How News Happens: The Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City”. The study’s worth reading — it’s very interesting. I think the researchers answered the first question in this graph in their introduction extremely well:

How, in other words, does the modern news “ecosystem” of a large American city work? And if newspapers were to die—to the extent that we can infer from the current landscape—what would that imply for what citizens would know and not know about where they live?

But I don’t think that this research can answer the second. Yet. The system’s in too much flux to come to any conclusion. Perhaps a better research area to study might be the communities that Patch.com has expanded into. As NYC and NJ metros have been shrinking, vacuums have been created that offer opportunities that organizations like Patch and others are filling.

I also think that until the transition settles out that there will be a tendency toward better local coverage and worse coverage of health, science, environmental, state government, entertainment, transportation, and justice, as the metros have been laying off their specialty reporters. However, I’m betting that topic-based regional niche news sites will eventually take up the slack and do a better job than the metros did, just because jurnos and the community can do more in the Web medium.

What would I do if I were the Project’s researchers? Pick a geographic area that does have strong local sites doing original reporting that are within the reach of a metro daily and take snapshots over the next three years. That might get at the whole story and point out holes that need to be filled.

Clone John Paton!

Jeff Jarvis did a fabulous interview with John Paton, who’s the new CEO of the Journal Register Company, which publishes 19 daily newspapers and more than 100 weeklies. Paton led ImpreMedia from legacy newspaper company to digital news company. Here’s a tease:

The result was in less than two years we went from 9 products on two platforms (print and crappy publications sites full of shovelware) to nearly 100 products on 7 platforms – with about 45% less costs.

It sounds as if he wants to use the same strategy for the Journal Register’s newspapers. This guy’s definitely worth watching. There he is in this thumbnail, named Editor & Publisher’s Publisher of the Year for 2009….just before E&P died.

10 things every jurno should know

John Thompson at Journalism.co.uk says jurnos need to know these 10 things. He’s hit it RIGHT on the head. The only two things I’d add:

Context — with links, resources, etc…..a matrix for your news/info….nothing stands alone. He gets close to that with point No. 3:

3. You are a curator. Like it or not, part of your role will eventually be to aggregate content (but not indiscriminately). You will need to gather, interpret and archive material from around the web using tools like Publish2, Delicious and StumbleUpon. As Publish2 puts it: “Help your readers get news from social media. More signal. Less noise.”

The other thing that jurnos should know is that they need to be solution-oriented — that doesn’t mean the jurno provides a solution to a problem, it means that the jurno doesn’t mention a problem without pointing out what’s being done about it, or how some other people in a different community solved it.

This says it all

Silicon Alley Insider’s chart of the day.