Tools for hyperlocal news sites

NYU hosted a mini-conference about hyperlocal newspapers last weekend. It was framed in three parts: community, money, and tools; and while the first two were broad discussions, the third felt cut off to me. We had a mostly fair sharing of examples of tools, but missed out on discussion about some of the other agenda points.

During the morning I started listing what I thought were best practices for community sites, and what can work for hyperlocals. I want to share those features here and some further thoughts about points we did discuss.

Features

Some recommendations:

  • put moderation in the hands of the community, "flag this as inappropriate"
  • comment voting tools, "bubble up quality comments"
  • don't recreate social networks, piggyback on existing ones
  • allow account creation so people can feel ownership over their identify and content - Jay Rosen brought this up as well
  • permission tiers, allow community to further moderate, create content - reward enthusiasts
  • own your content and community - (Dave Winer adds publishing and distribution)

There are many more, what have you found to be some best practices?

Scaling

Some of these are not always required, or can be employed based on the size and growth of your audience. For instance, if you don't receive a lot of article comments you'll be fine moderating against spam using services like Akismet and Mollom and moderating non-spam comments yourself. When you have hundreds of comments on individual posts alone the costs to handle that with an editorial staff is high. You could instead entrust your community to do the moderation, an active and passionate community wants to maintain high quality.

Barriers

A big point of the tools section was decreasing the barriers to participate, but the focus was on the barriers for content and user participation only, what about tool barriers? Jay Rosen and some others demoed The Local's new Submit a Pitch system that includes a form for registered users to propose a story idea. Higher-privileged accounts, such as editors or moderators, approve pitches and those that are approved are listed on the site for content writers to develop. It's great for lowering the barriers for contributors, but it's not new and it's proprietary (unless they contribute it back, and I assume it's not just small alterations to an existing WP plugin).

Does my hyperlocal site compete with them? I can't see how.

I think it's in our mutual interest to see each other excel, to share best practices and lend our tools. Why are we all rebuilding the same features here? There are great arguments for how we tackle the big picture, self-hosted, OSS, SaaS and all-in-one solutions, but don't put your time into paths already paved. User-submitted content, moderator-controlled workflow … we've solved those problems! If it needs tailoring to your community then by all means, do so, but let's not spend 15 minutes talking about how you built your molehill.

Hyperlocal platforms

On the subject of not reinventing the wheel, we are starting to package our experience and best practices. Some examples:

There must be other movements here, perhaps something with WordPress? What platform are you using?

Content authoring and mobile

After demoing the Submit a Pitch tool, someone asked how it'd work for mobile use - content entry and approval workflow. There was some side conversation about form factor, the love of physical keyboards and annoyance of digital ones, but no great answer. A lot of it depends on your users and your system, but I think there are two key points to consider when making it work well on mobile devices:

  1. First, consider whether you even need to solve it with your site. For example, if your use cases for mobile only include a little information, a few sentences or just points to write up in detail later, consider whether you can dictate into your mobile devices and let a Voice-to-Text transcription service handle the consumption and storage problem. Don't think only about HTML and forms.
  2. If you need more information and control, boil the experience down to only the essential parts. Make it fast and easy to use. Reduce the barriers in authentication, identification, submission, and storage.

Maps

Someone asked whether maps can tell stories (the post-mortem of InJersey concluded maps are nothing more than eye-candy right now. Thankfully the Ushahidi platform was offered as an example. Yes, maps can tell stories; like all things it just depends on how you use them.

Some examples:

Washington D.C. based Development Seed is exploring this space so very well right now. If you have data and location, there's a story to be told about it.

Third-party tools

A few other tools that were brought up.

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