Block by Block 2010: Time for the next steps

It was an honor and a privilege to be one of the 125-odd local place-based sites to attend the first ever Block by Block ( #hashtag bxb2010). What could be better than sharing a room with other excited, passionate people running local web sites around the country and a handful of foundations interested in finding ways to support them?  There were even a few big company types–notably Yahoo’s Local editor, Anthony Moor, and Patch’s regional editorial director Tim Winsor, who came to express their interested and support.

All good, right?
Uh, not really,

24 hours after coming home and crashing for a day, and still excited about the great people I met and the valuable work we are doing, I kind of feel like I was at a poets’ convention, or a meeting of botanical explorers who find rare plants and write them up, saving our ecosystem because they’ve tracked a piece of lichen whose spot in the food chain keeps the Northern ice floes from melting any faster.

Folks, we have a movement, but we have no tangible support.

We have voices applauding our willingness to work long hours for little or no pay, cheerleading the good–and the news–we provide to our communities–but not organized to fund us (especially on the local level, where many community foundations have no clue), and certainly not yet focused on helping us get the health insurance and the business infrastructure that will make our local endeavors flourish.

As someone who’s worked on the web since before Mozilla launched back in the 90s, I have been involved with lots of speculative projects, and have done lots of things because they solved problems, hadn’t been done before, or just seemed worth doing, but I am worried that the few foundations that so graciously came to this conference–and who are so genuinely interested and engaged–aren’t enough to turn a gathering of admirers into a tangible movement to support new types of quality community and local media in the US.

I’m going to write about the cool people who were there and the useful things they said at some point, but I want to focus now, while the thoughts are clear, on what we need that we didn’t necessarily talk about:

What we need NOW is  a means to have knowledge-sharing and support for the 125 people in the room and the other 5,000 who didn’t know about or who couldn’t come to the conference.  After all, as my friend Lisa Wiliams,  CEO of Placeblogger,  says: In 2006, 1 in 8 Americans lived in a city with a placeblog — now the number is 1 in 2.

So, some suggestions as to what should be happening next so that there’s some real teeth behind the smiles of our 24 hour meeting:

1) Set up a list-serv for Local site operators to knowledge share.
Definition of members: You must own and operate a local site, commercial or non-profit, revenue under $3MM year (funding can be greater, if you are so lucky).

2) Set up a wiki for list-serv members to share templates, best practices, etc. with one another. Publishers can choose what to make public, but the focus here is establishing a peer group.

3) Fund a community manager part-time who can manage 1 and 2. A grad student would do, but how about a site operator who needs some support instead? Form a committee and let people apply.

4) Fund a survey and have some foundations take a tangible action:
 Do we know what the most pressing needs of local site operators are?
I’d say revenue, but I’d also venture most of the ones who are less than 3 years old and/or who are non-profits with less than $100,000 in funding  lack business and marketing team members.  

The action step from determining business infrastructure was an issue, for example,  could be to set up a fund addressed to this purpose that could even do micro-lending to support bringing sales & marketing folks on to sites that seem viable, if cash-strapped.

5) Create a incubator to support new news ventures that aren’t funded by wealthy patrons.
I spent a summer at Tech Stars, the venture incubator, and appreciated the portfolio management approach to VC investing which basically involved giving 10 companies some seed money ($10-15K), supporting them with skills building, and then providing further investment in the ones that seemed most promising.

Why don’t we have the foundations who want to support community media and civic engagement do the same thing?

How about a joint $5MM community news fund that can run an incubator program for local news and fund on an incremental basis?  Such a program would both help local sites, AND provide a much better ROI ran some of the spot grants seem to.

What else do YOU think we need to do to help local community operators flourish? Post in the comments or use the tag #byb2010next

Latest Comments

  1. Tracy @ WSB says:

    Yeah, that pretty much hits the nail on the head.
    Although I’d turn the “support for new news ventures” a little bit sideways – I want to see support for EXISTING NOT-SO-NEW BUT SORT OF SUCCEEDING ones. The newbies tend to get the money, at least more than us oldbies. There don’t seem to be any grants for which I can apply to help my doing-well-but-still-on-the-edge-really venture – I have been flunked in Knight News Challenge twice, although my proposals, since there was no way to propose HELP US GROW OUR SOMEWHAT SUCCESSFUL MAIN ENTERPRISE!, had to do with a plan to help our noncommercial tiny side site for an adjacent community serve the underserved. But I digress.
    I also would like to see peer support/commiseration/brainstorming, which could maybe be done via list/group IF it’s somewhat secure, about the very real problems that go beyond “can I make money” and “can I get sleep” – there can be harassment, ostracization, hostility, among others. It came up very briefly at BXB. It came up again the past two days in a thread on the JTM list regarding a site operator who’s got Patch coming to town – he is by no means the only here-comes-Patch-to-replicate-me operator I’ve heard from who is dealing with the added challenge that, because they (as far as I know) aren’t afraid to tell the truth about what’s up in their town, they don’t have support from key local leaders, who are all too happy to see some corporate site come marching in, thinking it’ll be whitewashier.
    In our area, thank goodness, we are lucky enough to have a great working relationship with local leaders from community group chairs to the Chamber of Commerce (which named us its Business of the Year a few months ago). But we have had other types of challenges, which I know also ring true for many, including outright, public hostility from one or more old-media outlets and others who apparently feel threatened. (In the early going, we had to spend big bucks on a cease-and-desist letter to someone who defamed us in an e-mail blast that went to hundreds. It was an early sign of our community support that we heard about it from dozens of recipients who forwarded it to us immediately saying WTH?)
    And separate from that, some of us have even experienced harassment that has required filing reports with police. When the phrase “suicide hotline” came up in my small-group breakout in the aftersession on Saturday, it wasn’t from me, but brought back the memory of people threatening violence against me and my family simply because they didn’t agree with decisions made regarding enforcement of site rules. That sort of thing can be even more crippling than “hey, can I make the mortgage?” Some of us have found each other in mini-support groups in backchannels, but this kind of support on a wider basis, if possible, can really help.
    Maybe we even set up smaller regional support groups. Who knows. But thanks for writing the honest “OK, it’s great we celebrated this, but the reality is we’re still all out there walking our respective tightropes.” I suggested in the aftergathering that for starters, it would be great to have a declaration that there is value in having independent community news organizations – in other words, recognizing what would be lost if we didn’t. Nobody spoke up for old media’s long-ago semi-integrity before it was corporatized. Maybe it’s not too late to save our nascent movement.

  2. Barry Parr says:

    We don’t need more foundation support for community news sites. There are enough of us that I don’t know how any foundation could choose among them, or that they could really make things move faster.
    I’d like to see foundations support better tools for community sites: Advertising, calendars, identity services, feed aggregation and management, database integration, and more. Everyblock was a great idea, but open-sourcing the code without open-sourcing the platform is a dead end.
    Some of this stuff is available in the commercial realm, but it’s too expensive or it’s not designed for journalistic applications. I’d love to see more resources devoted to developing a tool kit for independent journalist/publishers.

  3. Roger Gafke says:

    Susan, I write to suggest an immediate way to address your list of next steps.
    I invite you and your colleagues to use the Reynolds Journalism Institute Collaboratory as a communications network to build on the work at the BxB meeting last week.
    As you know, your colleague Amy Garhan has helped us establish this social network of online journalists. We are providing the admin and IT suppport. We have an attached wiki. The Collaboratory also enables members to set up sub-groups to focus on specific issues. The Collaboratory provides an inventory of member’s Tweets and displays recommendations members have for other Web content.
    The collaboratory is there for the using. Here is the address:
    http://www.rjicollaboratory.org/
    Also, thank you for your thoughtful comments throughout the meeting in Chicago and for your skillful moderating of the sessions you lead.
    Roger

  4. Chuck Welch says:

    Susan,
    BxB2010 was a high for me. It was a rush meeting so many people stumbling and soaring through and over the same problems I was having. Though I left BxB2010 on a high, I was cautious. Those kind of motivational speaker highs never last long for me.
    I participated in the break out session on creating a group of hyperlocal publishers. We debated creating a caucus in ONA or going out on our own. I’m not sure we settled on one answer. We talked about starting a list-serv for hyperlocal publishers.
    In the “what do I wish someone would create” section of the wrap-up, I intended to ask for a site where hyperlocal publishers could share tools, tips, and ideas….or a list-serv…or a wiki.
    I didn’t get the chance, so I cam home and created them myself.
    While we’re waiting for a foundation or grad student to run such a site…I invite everyone to http://AllNewsisLocal.com. It isn’t much yet. Tonight I’ll start finding links to pertinent content. Also, you’ll find the wiki at http://allnewsislocal.com/wiki and the list-serv at http://groups.google.com/group/all-news-is-local
    They’re all bare-bones right now. They’ll grow only if people find a need, but the tools are out there if people would like to share.

  5. Ben Ilfeld says:

    I believe the first step is a community manager. There are a lot of disperate conversations and we need someone to lay out a map.
    Good community managers listen first and engage second. That process should begin asap and we have so much content and conversation from bxb that we have a great starting place.

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