Before I start my final project, I thought I’d share a link talking about ProPublica’s Pulitzer Prize win. It’s the first time in history an outlet has won the coveted award for something that hasn’t appeared on a printed page. I think this should serve as a bit of encouragement. ProPublica is still producing great journalism in our changing world. They’re just doing things differently than what we’re used to – and it’s working. It’s a reason to be optimistic.
On to my final project:
My Greater Saint John
Saint John, New Brunswick is the second-largest city in the province with a population of 68, 043 as of 2006 (Statistics Canada). A deep, dense fog hangs over the city for most of the year, especially in July. Our city politics are more exciting and heated than you’d expect from a small city and we dump our sewage into our harbour. We’re working on that. You also can’t really drink the water and we’re kind of working on that too.
What’s unique about Saint John’s sense of community is how different each community within the city is. The uptown core is where its heart is. If you’re looking for restaurants, boutiques or bars, or if you want to see the historic City Market, this is where you go. It’s also the area where you’re most likely to find the thousands of tourists who flood the city from cruise ships in the summer and fall.
Not far from the uptown lie several of Saint John’s five priority neighbourhoods. Waterloo village, the south end, the old north end, the lower west side and Crescent Valley all have high poverty rates and each neighbourhood battles its own demons. Only a few years ago, vandals set fire to the newly built community police station in the old north end. But things have changed in the old north end since then and they’ve got a group of residents, calling themselves ONE change, who are giving a good lesson on how to build a community from scratch. Similar grassroots groups exist in the rest of the priority neighbourhoods too.
A short drive from Crescent Valley will take you to Millidgeville, another Saint John neighbourhood that couldn’t be any more different from its neighbour Crescent Valley. Millidgeville is where you’ll find the hospital and the university and it’s a pocket of middle-class families living the suburban life. Similar pockets of suburbia can be found on the west and east sides.
With all of this in mind, it’s hard to label Saint John or put it under a category. Life is different from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and My Greater SJ is going to take this into account. My news site is going to be hyper local. Community reporting is crucial to democracy and I don’t think our society can function without it. My Greater SJ would tell stories people in the community care about in order to build community awareness and togetherness. We would have quality feature stories that are interactive and have compelling characters.
I also don’t think it’s possible to create a media outlet in Saint John without including at least some of the outlying neighbourhoods. Residents of Rothesay, Quispamsis, Hampton and Grand Bay-Westfield commute into the city every day. Taxed or not for the roads they drive on and the services they use, they’re still a part of Saint John.
What it will look like
The design will be simplistic and easy to navigate so people of all ages and at various points of familiarity with the internet can find what they’re looking for. The homepage will be interactive with a black background and a video on the front page explaining what the web site is for people who haven’t visited before. New users will be able to select their neighbourhood and customize what they want to see from there. Allowing users to have a customized experience will make for even deeper ties with my My Greater SJ. I like the way Every Block, another community news site, has created a community experience, but they still don’t generate their own content, from what I can see on their homepage.
Video and interactive features are going to be important to this outlet but I want to maintain a simple organization. For big city issues, like an election or drinking water, a specific page will be created with everything tagged as associated with the subject, kind of like CNN does.
What we would cover
Because the site is hyper local, I think it’s important for us to deliver stories that come out of each of these neighbourhoods. This is crucial to us maintaining a sense of community.
I really like the concept of Open File, a community news site operating in Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo, Calgary, Hamilton, Vancouver and soon, Montreal. Open File allows its readers to create a file about a story and then Open File will assign a freelance reporter to cover the story. I would like to do something similar but I’m not sure I would require people to sign up for an account to open a file. This restricts people with the technological know-how or even the time to create an account from suggesting story ideas.
With this in mind, I don’t think we can neglect the big stories, like city drinking water, municipal issues, etc. but I think the challenge will be to find unique angles to the stories. The aim isn’t to duplicate what any other outlets are covering but rather to generate fresh story ideas. I would like to focus on community features more than breaking news but I wouldn’t ignore breaking news.
We also need to be providing the common sense information people look for. People want to know what the weather is like, what events are going on in their community, what the winning lottery numbers are and most importantly, who died this week. All of this information would be on My Greater SJ, but users can pick and choose which of that information they want to see. This is what iSaintJohn, a community website with all of this kind of information, an aggregated feed of news from Saint John and message boards, tried to accomplish, I think. But their website is from another decade and they aren’t generating any of their own content – that would be the difference between them and us.
In a small city like Saint John, I think it’s crucial that any type of news site has obituaries or stories on prominent people who have died. These are stories people will want to read and they’re stories that risk getting lost in the decline of newspapers.
Community – Maintaining a sense of it and reflecting its values
Allowing people to choose what we cover should make it easier for us to reflect the community’s interests and values in our reporting. I would want freelancers who are in the neighbourhoods they’re covering in order to maintain a sense of community. It’s easy to get lazy and I want my reporters on the streets talking to people. Those are the types of people I would look to hire – curious people who are a part of the communities they’re covering and are interested in these neighbourhoods.
Innovation and interactivity
Users will be able to create an account and then log-in on their second visit, where we’ll remember what they liked. We’ll also let them connect with their Facebook and Twitter accounts. If they’re connected, they can comment on stories, which adds a sense of legitimacy to online commenting while maintaining that feeling of interactivity that commenting provides.
As I mentioned before, this site is going to be highly interactive and will allow users to have input on what is covered. It won’t just be a feed of aggregated news from other outlets. I believe that if the average person can see themselves reflected in reporting, they’ll feel more a part of it. It will also be innovative, making use of social media.
An iPad app and apps for smart phones like Blackberries, iPhones and Androids will be necessary so that people can view the site and read the news everywhere they are. In the future, Mashable.com says more people are going to be using these devices to access their news, so it’s really important that this is a part of developing this outlet. This is going to be expensive from the get-go, but I think it’s crucial to My Greater SJ being a trailblazer and staying ahead of the game five years from now.
Video will be a crucial part of the website. The local TV networks’ newscasts attempt to cover the entire province or region in an hour or so each night. There isn’t really anyone producing a lot of video stories about things going on in these neighbourhoods – only the big news is getting covered. I would want to integrate video and audio into almost all posts to provide for a multi-media experience.
In class, we’ve talked about the problems of reporters live tweeting at events. Does this take their attention away from focusing on covering the story and observing what is going on around them? Perhaps it does, but I would want my reporters to have a presence on Twitter and be posting pictures when they’re covering breaking news.
As with any online-only outlet, where the idea is to have stories up rather quickly, we would need to decide how important speed is versus how important it is to cover breaking news. Twitter would be the place where breaking news is covered and any stories produced about what happened later on that would go on the website would be fact-checked more thoroughly.
Watching videos from the Washington Post’s onBeing project in class, I realized how much we like simple stories about average people. I think these stories matter even more in community reporting and I would encourage my reporters to find the human element in every story they do. This also comes back to my promise to have obituaries on this site – people like reading about other people, especially if they know them. For the sake of community connectivity, we would cover stories about people that other outlets might not see as news, putting people in the spotlight who otherwise would be on the sidelines. This would help our readers feel connected with their community and give outsiders a chance to understand the community’s people better.
Employees and finding the money to pay them
This is the tough part. It’s easy to have all of these pipe dreams and fresh ideas, but the toughest thing is finding the right people and finding a way to pay these people. The news site would need some start up cash to get off the ground in order to develop the website, the iPad and phone apps and hire a few editors. Open File uses freelancers which may be the most cost-effective way of paying reporters. To sustain it after the launch, we would seek out local businesses to advertise with us. But the ad they buy won’t just be a box on the web page for people to scroll past. Their brand will be represented on all of our platforms in an interactive way that involves social media. Our ads wouldn’t just provide a bit of information about the company and a logo. We would allow our readers to interact with the company, keeping with My Greater SJ’s commitment to interactivity.
Finally, Wikipedia has been successful at making public pleas and actually receiving enough donations to keep the website going. A lot of musicians have done the same thing through websites like Bandcamp, where you can pay what you want for a product you like. The most popular example might be Radiohead, a popular band that released a pay what you want album to great success. People pay for things they like and value. Our website would be more than a news source, it would be a community service. I think the appetite for alternative media in Saint John is strong enough that we could keep the site going, at least for a little while.
Building a sense of community is crucial to having a healthy city. In a city like Saint John, which has a lot of poverty and a lot of neighbourhoods where a big portion of residents aren’t making it to the polls, community matters. The aim of this news site wouldn’t be to turn a profit or to win awards. It would be successful if people in the community build a sense of trust with the reporters and see themselves reflected in our work. The aim would be to build community while also providing a one-stop shop for news and community information.
With no one to answer to, My Greater SJ would try to answer the tough questions and hold people accountable, but regular people would have a place in every story possible. It would be challenging to get off the ground, but if it can build a foothold in some of these neighbourhoods and develop relationships with those people, I think it has the potential to be successful, if it can be financially sustained.