Community Development: The Challenge of Building Integrated Teams for Local News Innovation

This was originally posted on the Local Fourth blog as part of my participation in a community media innovation project at the Medill School of Journalism.

I’m really excited that our project is working in the domain of local online-first news. Recent discussions at the Block by Block conference and analysis of best practices from recipients of the Knight Foundation-funded New Voices grants show that local news is a vibrant space for people trying to both innovate and meet the needs of their communities. But some of my interest is personal – local is what made me interested in journalism.

Prior to starting at Medill, I had been involved in a community project that engaged around prisons and literacy and was closely following debates around a proposed expansion of the county jail in Bloomington, Ind. Going to heated community meetings and also noticing apathy in other parts of the community made me recognize that information gaps and how issues are framed within a community can mediate who participates in community decision making and how they participate. Moving to Chicago with two school-aged roommates made me realize how, despite lots of news coverage of Chicago Public Schools, understanding how the system worked and how to navigate it was no easy task. At some point, the need for local news and information comes colliding into one’s life.

I’m also excited because this innovation project will have the unprecedented opportunity of working with four other classmates with a software development background. Though we’ve been immersing ourselves in reporting, audience insight, media business models and other parts of the Medill curriculum, we’ve also been anticipating the opportunity to do some coding. This gives our team a unique potential to build a working prototype or even a deliverable product rather than mock-ups. However, matching this capacity for innovation with the strengths of other parts of our team and matching our entire team’s abilities with the information needs of Chicago-area communities is not a simple task. We’re in the third week of working together as a team and while I started the week interviewing Evanston residents and looking at spreadsheets of interview responses collected by our entire team, my attention quickly jumped to imagining ideas for new online information platforms.

Our team is broken out into sub-teams including ones exploring audience insight, industry practices and needs, revenue opportunities, local business needs and technology development. Though its clear from hearing stories from online local news practitioners that attention to audience, revenue and technology are all crucial, even in our team, its hard to see how you connect the dots. We start our days with meetings and use shared Google docs to keep everyone on the same page with research findings, but as we move from research to implementation I think it will be one of our greatest challenges to make sure that each sub-teams focus is an important consideration for the others. The best idea I’ve heard so far was for team leaders to encourage different mixes of team members to have lunch together to create a less formal exchange of ideas and priorities.

Equally challenging is keeping community needs in mind when trying to code something new and cool.  Not every information important information need wants new technology. As Gary Wolf wrote in a Wired article about Craiglist, “In a design straight from the earliest days of the Web, miscellaneous posts compete for attention on page after page of blue links, undifferentiated by tags or ratings or even usernames.” Still, Wolf pointed out the site dominates in terms of traffic for people seeking dates, jobs and apartments. One account from our research described an Evanston neighborhood’s popular online news source as a mailing list, started when one neighbor went door-to-door encouraging neighbors to sign on. Many others were happy with getting information about their community from word of mouth.

When I interviewed EveryBlock creator Adrian Holovaty for a class assignment over the summer he said one of the “juicy” technical problems he was pondering was more social than technical: how to get a critical mass of people in a neighborhood to engage around EveryBlock. Even for a media organization that’s acknowledged as new and cool and innovating around technical problems, audience still remains a challenging problem space.

Negotiating these different priorities isn’t easy, and its likely to be sometimes frustrating. But this is also what makes news and information such an exciting space for a developer. Throughout the brief development cycle, I’ll be blogging not only about the coding problems we’ll be facing, but also the context of the code – both in terms of the team and the community.