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Weak links: In the emerging network of local news start ups, flow matters

by: Michele McLellan |

June 30, 2011

Weak links: In the emerging network of local news start ups, flow matters

A new report for The Chicago Community Trust analyzes news flows in Chicago and provides a thought-provoking analysis of the city’s emerging news ecosystem and the roles of key information providers and sharers. It also shows the potential power of Web savvy community news start ups and nontraditional information providers as a new news environment takes shape.

In the national, often web-ideology-driven debate about value on the Web, news aggregators often take a big hit as parasites on organizations doing the expensive work of actually producing original content. Any aggregator who takes advantage - by stealing significant chunks of material from other sites and/or by failing to credit and link back to the original - deserve our disdain and more. After all, content producers (many of whom are professional journalists) need a paycheck just like the rest of us.

But the aggregators who play fair deserve another look. At least on the ground on the local news start up scene, where I spend most of my time, aggregators have a valuable role to play in an increasingly diffuse news ecosystem. In a world where news is abundant but traditional bundles are dissolving, smart curation (which we used to call editing) and thoughtful selection and outbound linking is a service that stands alongside creating content. Right now, it is vital both to information consumers as well as producers, including many journalists who are desperately trying to get their work in front of people now that corporate-owned news organizations have shed them by the thousands.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my home base, Chicago, where feisty news start ups like Gapers Block, Windy Citizen and dozens of others, frequently link to the best content on other, lesser known sites.

As Andrew Huff, editor and publisher of Gapers Block told me this week in an e-mail:

Having grown out of the weblog community rather than the traditional media community, we’ve had a philosophy from the beginning that linking is the coin of the realm on the web. We link to other websites because that’s what makes the Internet work—if you can’t trust your readers to come back to you after you point them to valuable information, you may be doing something wrong.

Linking is the focus of a new report from The Chicago Community Trust, which for the past several years has conducted significant research projects aimed at better understanding and supporting information flows and the role of online news start ups in the larger news ecosystem. The Trust uses this research to inform its grant making in the local news network.

This latest report is “Linking Audiences to News - A Network Analysis of Chicago Websites,” (pdf) by Rich Gordon, professor of digital media at Medill and Zachary Johnson, CEO of Syndio Social.

Together with last year’s News That Matters, a survey to determine how news Chicago residents actually define their information needs, the Trust research is a refreshing departure from more traditional research frames that focus on institutional providers of information without fully connecting them to what consumers actually receive and what they say they need.

(Disclosure: I am an advisor to the Trust’s Community News Matters project as a Knight Foundation Circuit Rider. I reviewed and critiqued survey instruments for News That Matters but have not otherwise involved in the project research or the network analysis. I am a member of the Community News Matters advisory committee. My opinions about the report are my own.)

My own take after reading the new report - Traditional news organizations are still dominant producers of original local news and owners of the largest distribution platforms, but public institutions and micro local news start ups can become significant contributors in an emerging news ecosystem by producing content and linking to outside content that may be of interest to their users.

In the dynamic local news environment, it’s impossible to predict the shape of things to come. But this report clearly signals the emergence of institutional information sources (the local transportation agency, the museum) and micro local news start ups as key players.

We are very much in the early stages of the journey into the digital future. As the report emphasizes, many micro local news sites are isolated - few people know about them and see their work. This is because fellow small operators may link to their work, but the big distribution platforms - Chicago Tribune chief among them - are stingy with their outbound links.

Of more than 400 news and information websites in the study, eight in 10 receive few if any links from other sites. “This means that no matter how good their content, these sites are unlikely to be found by users.” Meanwhile, four in 10 sites do not link to other sites. “This means they are not helping their audiences find relevant content published by other Chicago area Web publishers.”

The report also notes the increasing importance to the information flow of organizations and institutions that can now reach their audiences through their own websites rather than having to go through traditional media. “These institutions, such as the region’s mass transit systems and local museums, operate some of the most widely linked-to websites in the region.”

Sites that receive a lot of links include major sources of original news reporting such as chicagotribune.com as well as online-only publications such as gapersblock.com and chicagoist.com. But traditional media do not reciprocate: “Websites operated by traditional media tend not to link out to other sites. The sites most likely to link out are organizations and institutions, as well as online-only publications, such as gapersblock.com.”

I’m not going to go into a detailed catalog of the report findings. I encourage you to read it in full, especially if you are an online research geek, because the methodology provides a fascinating look at different aspects of online networks.

It does illustrate that in the digital age, you don’t have to be a big player to begin to have a big impact.

Gapers Block, exemplifies the value that accrues to a small organization that understands both its audience and its potential power in the larger network.

Gapers Block is a scrappy eight-year-old for-profit site that mixes original content produced mainly by volunteers who like to write with aggregation of links to other content. Huff, the publisher, says it attracts 80,000 to 100,000 unique visitors a month, a nice draw for a small site but a fraction the traffic of a traditional metro player like the Tribune.

In the new study, however, Gapers Block stands out with high rankings both as an “authority” site - which means it is often linked to by others in the broad network. Interestingly, Chicago Tribune is the only legacy outlet in the top 10 - most of the sources are institutional like transitchicago.org and mcachicago.org.

Gapers Block is also a top “hub” - which the report defines as a site that sends traffic to other local sites with heavy use of links - while Tribune doesn’t figure in the top 10 of this list at all. Most of the top 10 are either institutional sites or start ups.

The finding underscores the cultural unwillingness of many legacy news organizations to fully embrace the Web and the value to their users of linking from their stories to related news and information. The report indicates that at the time of the study, only the traditional organizations have the reach necessary to foster healthier information flows and only the smaller start ups and institutional sites have the willingness to send there users wherever their information needs can be best served.

I think this will require a fundamental re-framing of the price of admission for foundation or other support of news providers in the emerging ecosystem - one that unfortunately may require leaving more (but not all, I hope) traditional news organizations even farther behind on the highway to the future.

For example, the report recommends that the Trust promote link-sharing partnerships between traditional media and new news sites. That’s a great concept, and the Sacramento Bee, among other traditional organizations, appear to be developing effective, reciprocal networks.

But I’d like to see broad-based evidence that these partnerships actually work for all the partners and very granular best practices for making them work. They need to be formed as genuine partnerships - rather than sources of free content or foundation grants for the large and struggling traditional organizations that are restrictive in linking back to the small sites, which we’ve seen in some cases (one example).

In Chicago, at least, I wonder if a loose network of micro local start ups that like Gapers Block, which has already demonstrated Web savvy and the ability to attract a loyal following, might be a better place to look for the beginnings of a true online community news hub. It may be effective to help them build their traffic through tech, community outreach and social media support.

Alternatively (or in tandem), I of course would like to see more traditional news organizations raise their hands and say they see the benefits of more generous linking to their users, their mission and their future. What do you think? Where does your organization fit in? What are your best practices for being a good citizen in the digital network?

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Knight also helped fund the Chicago Community Trust’s Chicago News Matters initiative.

By Michele McLellan, 06/30/11 at 6:17 am

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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