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.
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.