Reese News Lab has long been known as a place where media students learn how to apply design thinking to the challenge of developing new products that are desirable, sustainable and feasible. For the last three years, with funding from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, the Lab has turned much of its attention to the special challenges of using its approach to innovation to help fill the unmet information needs of communities. This semester, we’re launching our latest product in Chatham County as a laboratory where local news publishers can watch us learn from our successes and failures as we attempt to put our words about innovation into action.
We’re launching OurChatham, a news service that aims to serve people who live, work and play in one of North Carolina’s most dynamic counties. Chatham faces an impending population explosion that is being driven by a massive mixed-use development that abuts one of the state’s wealthiest zip codes as well as the opening of a chicken processing plant in one of the state’s most Hispanic towns. Despite that growth and for a variety of reasons, we heard people across the diverse county saying they aren’t getting enough of the type of news they want from the weekly newspaper, local radio stations, online discussion boards and Raleigh news outlets. This made it the perfect place to stage an innovation challenge for students working in the Lab: develop an idea for a product that fills the unmet information needs of the county.
With OurChatham, we’re also going to bake the principles of lean product development and design thinking into the editorial process from the beginning. This summer we began testing a minimum viable product – an email newsletter that curates links to any existing news about the county we can find.
We’ve hired Hearken to help us make sure that we listen to our audience at the front of the story development process. So the first thing you’re going to see on our site when we launch this month is a solicitation for Chatham-centric questions from our audience. As an example of the questions we’ve received so far, one person wants to know “what they are going to build on the land up past the Carolina Brewery near Lowes and if they will connect a road to Chatham Forest up near the water tower.” Another wants to know “there a group working towards a dog tethering ordinance” in the county.
Students from the UNC School of Media & Journalism will be reporting out the stories. And when they do, we’re going to write and design the stories in ways that research from The Trust Project and others indicates will help us build loyalty and engagement.
Today, OurChatham has almost no audience or content. Everyone in Chatham County is at the top of our audience conversion funnel. Our first priority is identifying and reaching the people in the county who are both curious enough to ask a question and influential enough to share the answer with others. My best guess, based on the research I’ve read about curiosity and influence, is that there are about 4,000 people like that among the county’s 58,000 adults.
While we’re also collecting questions we’ll be collecting email addresses, names and zip codes of people who ask questions and those who sign up for our email newsletter. Email has proven to be an important driver of audiences through the conversion funnel. It’s also an important part tool for gathering data we can use in our iterative design of the OurChatham product.
In Reese News Lab, we teach students to develop an empathy map of their potential customers. These maps encourage us not just to listen to what a customer says they want, but also to watch the behaviors that might indicate what needs they might be unwilling or unable to articulate. By using email as our primary distribution tool, we can learn more about whether people are really reading those stories they say they want. We can use machine learning techniques to develop clusters of our audience to understand how we might design different experiences for different needs.
While initial funding for the project is coming from the Reese News Lab and the Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media, OurChatham must ultimately be self-sustaining with revenue from the community it serves. I’m giving it a deadline of June 2020. This deadline helps make the project real for the local news publishers for whom we’re building this demonstration garden. OurChatham will face the same pressures that any local news startup would face, and I want to focus our sustainability efforts on building value for the people in Chatham who say they have unmet information needs.
What good does all this do for publishers in other communities? I’d like OurChatham to be a kind of living bibliography of the best tools and best research being done by the broad and diverse approaches of people across the country looking for ways to sustain local journalism. At the very least, it will make us more credible when we say “you should try this.”
OurChatham aims to collaborate with incumbent newsrooms where possible. As just one example, we’ll make at least many of the stories we do available to other local news outlets similar to the way ProPublica encourages newsrooms to “steal our stories.” As we look at different ways to achieve sustainability, we might later look at membership programs for both newsrooms and community members.
The one big difference between OurChatham and most local newsrooms is that I have access to students who are pursuing the kind of experiential, entrepreneurial journalism education they’ll get by working with this project. But that’s part of the experiment, too — can we design an editorial process that makes it easy for relatively inexperienced reporters to regularly flow in and out of the community while also providing sufficient value for the audience? Report for America is helping change the way we see journalism from a profession to a public service no more or less needed than teachers, firefighters or health care providers. I hope we will learn how to efficiently deploy into our nation’s news deserts more smart, energetic, creative young people who see journalism as an honorable public service.
Right now the staff of OurChatham is myself working part-time on the project, senior Alexis Allston, who is studying journalism and entrepreneurship, senior Brian Shurney, who is studying journalism and computer science and Kirk Bado, my graduate assistant. Faculty and staff who live in Chatham County, like Paul Cuadros and Louise Spieler, are also helping with the project. I’ll be hiring probably four more students to work on reporting and community engagement, as well as a part-time professional audience development manager and a part-time editor to help coach the reporting. I hope to have all those folks in place by November 1.
That initial group will be producing one original explanatory story a week that we will distribute in email that will also have curated links to community information and conversation from other sources, including social media. We’ll soon be hosting events in Chatham County patterned after CityBureau’s “public newsroom”. By next summer I hope to be recruiting volunteers in the community who will collaborate with us by summarizing public meetings, gathering permit filings and entering data from public records — ingredients for building new products.
Here are the (mostly free and open-source) tools we’re using now (or imagine will be using soon):
- Google Analytics
- Google Alerts
- Metrics for News
See a tool you’d like to help us plant in our demonstration garden? Let me know.
Along the way, I’ll be writing regularly about what we’re doing – what’s working and what’s not. As I do, I’ll look to you to help spot flaws, ask questions and prod us to help make sure that whatever we do in Chatham is at least partially replicable not in booming cities but in sprawling suburbs and quiet towns that make up most of America’s news deserts.