The Dallas Morning News recently launched an initiative to attract and engage with new audiences by focusing on areas and topics that its readers are passionate about. This initiative took the form of five “insider” online communities that congeal around three “passion areas” and two geographic locations. So far, the Morning News has recruited more than 50 contributors.
Keith Campbell is one of the project’s co-architects and also the digital print editor of neighborsgo, the Morning News’ user-generated, community-centric online and print platform. We caught up with him to get the scope of the new initiative. When planning discussions began last year, Keith said, “We had a cross-section of writers and editors who worked as a group to conceive the overall project. All of these folks had great ideas — some borne from their beats, some from their personal interests and experiences. We had dozens to consider.”
Keith shared with us how the Morning News tapped into the expertise of the community to decide its five topic areas, why these new blogs aren’t walled off from existing blogs, and why clear labeling and communication is crucial for contributor blogs.
Here’s what he had to say:
What inspired the Morning News to launch this project? What do you hope to accomplish with the program?
We’ve done a lot of research and believe that audiences organize around community. Whether it’s geographic or topical, we think there’s great potential in building online communities. We’ve seen other media outlets experiment with models somewhat similar to this, and we wanted to give it a go. We think that if we do this right, we’ll build audience engagement and deepen understanding of life in North Texas, both for our readers and for our journalists.
[pullquote align=”center”]Whether it’s geographic or topical, we think there’s great potential in building online communities[/pullquote]
Since launching in the spring, our print products [such as the daily paper, neighborsgo and Briefing] are reaping the benefits as well. For instance, a blog post titled “7 tactics to avoid when discussing gay marriage with your kids” appeared in Briefing, which is a free, home-delivered paper targeted to busy parents in North Texas.
Where do these blogs live on dallasnews.com?
From the start, we made the decision that these blogs should not be walled off from the rest of our blog offerings. In our minds it’s better to have all of the blogs be together. This will help increase awareness among our general readership.The three passion area blogs are Craft Beer and Cocktails, LGBTQ and Special Needs, and the two location centered blogs focus on Richardson and Frisco, which are two cities north of Dallas.
[pullquote align=”left”]In our minds it’s better to have all of the blogs be together. This will help increase awareness among our general readership[/pullquote]
We are making a distinction in our contributors bylines — using the term Insiders — to help distinguish them from our professional staff. In some cases, some of our staff members are contributing to the blogs as well. For instance, Metro reporter Marc Ramirez has an interest in craft beer, and you’ll see his posts on the craft beer blog from time to time. Di Hall, a designer/copy editor in neighborsgo, is a regular contributor to the special needs blog. We also have posted bios of all the contributors on each blog. They currently live on dallasnews.com.
We promote new blogs on both dallasnews.com and neighborsgo.com. We’ll also feature editor columns or short article about them in print. And we’ll continue to reverse-publish content [which means publish online content from these blogs in print] as a way to build brand awareness.
How does this project differ from the community journalism platform the Morning News already has with neighborsgo?
Our neighborsgo platform is definitely different. In that model, anyone can post photos, stories and news releases. For this project, we’ve recruited specific people, drawing on their expertise and influence in the communities we are highlighting. And unlike the neighborsgo contributors, those who provide content for this project are receiving some direction and guidance.
How did the Morning News determine the three “reader passion areas” (craft beer, special needs parenting and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues)?
Identifying the three “reader passion areas” was one of the most fun aspects of this project. We had so many possibilities to choose from.
For each contender, we developed a vetting process. That involved defining the community, identifying potential contributors, examining competition, and determining who would make up the blog readership. We also examined demographic trends related to each of the communities and saw great growth potential.
In addition to the three passion areas, the Morning News also selected two location-based blogs. Why did the Morning News pick Richardson and Frisco, which are both in North Dallas and partially in Collin County?
Both communities are vibrant ones that historically have been important to The Dallas Morning News. We’ve covered Richardson and Frisco for many years. And both have been highly engaged audiences with neighborsgo. We figured that we’d be able to use both communities as good proving grounds. If we found that the blogs weren’t successful there, odds were they wouldn’t be successful in any other geographic area.
Can you tell me about the application process for contributors? Do they need prior experience blogging? If not, are they given training? Are they getting paid?
Our contributors aren’t getting paid. But they are getting the benefit of greater reach for their work than they otherwise would achieve. They also are getting guidance from two Dallas Morning News journalists, who sign off on their posts before they are published. Both contributors are offering tips and suggestions on basic fundamentals and story ideas, but we’ve purposely set it up so that they are not making bonafide assignments.
[pullquote align=”right”]But they are getting the benefit of greater reach for their work than they otherwise would achieve[/pullquote]
On the geographic side, we tapped into the expertise of our Morning News writers in those communities. We asked them to recommend people who they came across when they were out and about. It was a good starting point. We found that in several cases, someone on that list would recommend someone else, often someone we weren’t aware of.
On the topical side, we identified key members of the communities we wanted to serve and tapped into their expertise. They were instrumental and identifying potential contributors. We also made use of staff writers’ expertise in these subject areas to identify people.
Are your bloggers considered to be activists? Or, how do you explain to readers that these contributors aren’t exactly journalists?
That’s a balancing act. We want our contributors to write with voice and with authority, based on their experience. But because their work is on our platform under our brand, it has to adhere to our ethical standards.
[pullquote align=”right”]Transparency is very important.[/pullquote]
The key has been upfront communication about our expectations and some guidance on the back end. We make it clear through the bios of the contributors that they’re not journalists in the traditional sense. Transparency is very important.
Author’s disclosure: Lisa Zimmermann worked at The Dallas Morning News in 2009-2010. Lisa did not work with Keith or on this particular project during her time there.