By Raechal Leone
Newspaper journalists, take note: Those hyperlocal news websites in your market might not see themselves as your competition as much as they see themselves as vehicles for filling gaps in news coverage.
"We've added another layer to the news," said Christopher Grotke, co-founder of iBrattleboro.com, a site that relies on residents to write the news about Brattleboro, Vt.
Grotke was one of a dozen or so speakers at a workshop on citizen journalism offered Tuesday by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. The CitMedia session, which opened the Associated Press Managing Editors national conference, drew about 60 people from newspapers, websites and journalism schools.
The lineup included Rob Curley, vice president of product development for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, who gave suggestions on how newspaper journalists can incorporate hyperlocal content into their own websites.
Curley explained some of the work that went into LoudounExtra.com, a site within washingtonpost.com that focuses on Loudoun County, Va., and its 250,000 residents.
Staffers called each of the county's estimated 450 restaurants with a list of 20 questions to create the site's detailed restaurant profiles, he said.
They tried to visit each of the churches in the county to create overviews.
The result, Curley said, is a site where users will find a frequently updated stream of local news stories and photos. They'll also find information that's useful any time, like an interactive community calendar, podcasts of some local church services, video, photos and stats from high school football games and more.
The site is an offspring of the three types of hyperlocal news sites that Curley said he sees most often: ones that leverage searchable public records databases and reports filed by mobile journalists and forums; ones that boast community publishing tools, such as Bluffton Today.com; and ones started by former traditional journalists.
Besides Curley, speakers at the workshop included some former mainstream journalists who are now either working with residents on websites or running their own local news sites. Among them: Debbie Galant, a former New York Times columnist who runs Baristanet in New Jersey. Others had no journalism background.
Grotke, who fits into the latter category, said he and fellow Web developer Lise LePage started iBrattleboro.com as a virtual town Main Street because they were concerned about consolidation in the media and the state of media in general.
They found an open-source content-management system to run their site, which offers the "unfiltered, unvarnished voices of real people," LePage said.
Since launching iBrattleboro.com in 2003, they've seen reporters from the local newspapers following and developing tips from the content written by residents, they said. The site feeds the newspapers the raw material, and the local papers cover some topics in-depth, they said.
"We are your plankton," Grotke said.
The site now has an assignment desk where residents can sign up to cover specific stories and beats.
Readers must register on the site to file their stories or comment on those filed by others. In a town of about 12,000 people, the site now has more than 1,500 registered users and has produced close to 7,500 stories, the founders said.
Contributors sometimes meet outside the virtual world, for picnics or happy hours, and once toured a local water treatment plant.
Town officials, who were initially unhappy someone was paying such close attention to their every move, are posting news directly to the site, LePage said.
In another example, Suzanne McBride, director of news reporting and writing for the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago, showed a site she and students are producing to cover Chicago-area communities - many of which, she said, rarely show up on the radar of the large local dailies.
"We went in thinking we'll cover the neighborhoods, because so many stories go untold," McBride said.
The fledgling site, CreatingCommunityConnections.org, attracts about 300 to 400 visitors a week, McBride said, and has created a buzz in the neighborhoods.
Schaffer said the people behind the "bridge media" sites who were surveyed tended to say they were successful, even if they were not making money and didn't have a lot of traffic.
They were successful, they responded, because they were providing information not available elsewhere and creating an opportunity for dialogue.