My first half day at ONA12 — actually the pre-convention sessions sponsored by J-Lab — and I already heard information I had long been hoping for. Bob Payne of the Seattle Times and Bruce Koon of public radio’s KQED talked about their sites’ partnerships with local blogs (they range from neighborhood news to topic blogs, such as a blog just about beer). The Seattle Times’ is the one I have been most interested in hearing about since my own background is on the print side, and Payne says it has proven valuable to the Times both from a newsgathering standpoint and from a community-engagement standpoint. Koon had similar reports of success, but I’ll focus on the Times. There are 55 blogs in the Seattle area that are signed up (there is a memorandum of understanding, but it’s hardly a formal process) as partners. Essentially it’s a link swap: The partners agree to let the Times post their headlines, and those link directly to the sites. Editors at the Times choose which headlines they want to use on their site, so they can skip any story they don’t like. And each week, the Times prints in the paper a one-page collection of the best of what they have seen on the partner sites. Actively curating these sites each day has led the Times to stories it might have otherwise missed, and a survey has shown that the partnership gives people in the community a more positive feeling about the Times. Seems like a win-win.
The objections I have heard from print editors to exploring this kind of community generally are fears about the reliability of the information on blogs, fears of liability, and wanting to keep away from the open advocacy of some local blogs. Payne said most of that is mitigated by the fact of having just a link to an external site. The Times doesn’t host any of the stories itself. Plus, there are editors reviewing each story before the link is posted, so they can pass judgment on each story’s reliability, but stories are not held to the same standards as staff — they aren’t supposed to be. If a story is important enough, the Times will assign a staffer to follow up. And as for the advocacy, the sites in the partnership that practice that — such as one for a group that writes about bicycle-related interests — are very transparent about it. In addition, the partnerships can be dropped by either party at any time, so if a group suddenly changes its approach there is an easy avenue to end the partnership.
Since news staffs are smaller than ever and will not ever get back to where they were, and since there are more community blogs than ever making more information easily available, this kind of relationship is one that would benefit any size news organization. It builds links in the community, and it helps the news organization put itself at the hub of the community conversation.