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The Evolution of WHYY’s NewsWorks Website

Christopher Ali

 We're pleased to present another guest post from Christopher Ali, doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Ali holds an MA in Media Studies from Concordia University in Montreal and his research interests include local and community media, broadcasting, and telecommunication policy in Canada and the United States.

 

On November 15, Philadelphia’s WHYY will debut its new local news portal, NewsWorks.org. A year in the making, NewsWorks will focus specifically on the Philadelphia and Delaware Valley regions, and, according to the station, will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the Web, and about Philly.”

In many ways, NewsWorks is similar to the CPB-funded Local Journalism Centers (LJCs), which link public broadcasting stations together to foster “multimedia coverage on focused topics of regional interest.” NewsWorks will also provide multimedia coverage, although it will be less single issue-specific. Rather, it will feature coverage of regional issues, including education and business; government and politics; health and science; and arts and culture. The project will also include a hyperlocal component, teaming community members with WHYY editors to produce content focused on seven neighborhoods of northwestern Philadelphia.

Speaking with Chris Satullo, WHYY’s Executive Director of News and Civic Dialogue (a title that illustrates the approach the station hopes to take with their reporting) illuminated the evolution of the challenges, and aspirations that this PBS and NPR-affiliated station has faced with this foray into local reporting.

Changing nature of the site

When the project was first announced, NewsWorks was meant to be a purely hyperlocal and participatory endeavor — a trial project, focused on seven zip codes in northwestern Philadelphia.

According to Satullo, the station saw the need to expand from this originally narrowly-defined mandate for two reasons. The first, he says, is economics, “Hyperlocal journalism does not pay for itself when you’re trying to do it in a nonprofit environment, where a major chunk of the revenue that you seek and get is from membership… the base is just not large enough.” The second shift had to do with coverage, as they found that the originally targeted communities already have a “rich civic life,” and a covered by weekly community print sources. In order to carve out a niche for itself, NewsWorks is capatalizing on being “part of a regional news operation with strong city-wide and City Hall reporting,” something that many of the community newspapers may not necessarily have.

To date, the project has generated a number of new positions at WHYY, including the hiring of three web developers, one editor for the hyperlocal pieces (in addition to two already at the station), a news blog “feeder,” and in the coming year, the addition of a “community media editor,” to conduct outreach to the community and work with community groups.

Hyperlocalism and community participation

The website features numerous opportunities for public participation, in particular in a section called “Sixth Square,” a daily participant-focused piece for all readers. The station frames this section as,

A moderated discussion area, seeded with a variety of prompts and features that give users multiple ways to comment, be creative or just have fun. Among them: Junto, a discussion area that will frame topics to encourage civil, knowledgeable posts; Props, a feature inviting compliments to people who have done good things; MindMap, a self-generated profile of person’s influences and tastes; Snarl, a blog where people can vent about their commute and seek tips on how best to get from point A to point B; Sleuth, where people can seek answers to local mysteries; and Sixes, where readers will try to sum up news events and trends in six words or less. Sixth Square invites readers to propose their own topics for any of these features.

Additionally, on every page, readers will be given opportunities for participation through ratings, comments, and the opportunity to propose the next day’s topic in the features section.

The hyperlocal aspect of NewsWorks will reside in a section of the website dedicated to these originally targeted areas. Called Community News, this section will include microsites dedicated to specific Philadelphia neighborhoods, with such features as:

Today in .., a rundown of events and updates in the neighborhoods; Eye on…, a Flickr photostream full of neighborhood photos, by NewsWorks photo correspondents and the public at large; a Police Blotter; a localized version of Sixth Square, and Watchdog, a trio of features (City Howl, It’s Our Money and Pol Watch) zeroing in on the performance of government and elected officials.

The impetus for these stories will come from members of the immediate community. In the spring of 2010, WHYY hosted seven community forums designed to gauge community interests and concerns, develop potential project ideas and recruit potential contributors. The community forums were well attended with over 120 participations, and were organized in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Project for Civic Engagement. The second stage of the pilot project occurred in the summer, when the station brought approximately 35 of these interested community members to their new “Public Media Commons” for two training sessions. NewsWorks editors have been working closely with these community media informants to help hone their skills.

What will the site look like?

 

In addition to the two sections already mentioned in this article —Community News, and Sixth Square — the NewsWorks site will also feature the following areas:

 

 

  • The Feed: An interactive news blog, continuously updated by WHYY news staff.
  • Karma and Civility:  A ratings system for stories, based on a “karma system” of thumbs up and down. 
  • Civic Atlas:  A mapping tool where people "can search for more than 10,000 regional civic assets (service providers, schools, day cares etc.), and plot trips to see which of those assets fall along the route.” 
  • Ben Bucks and Ben’s Ladder: “Every registered user will earn points from almost every activity on the site: reading a story, rating a story, commenting on a story, submitting an essay or photo etc. Each action will earn the user Ben Bucks; as they earn more Bucks, they move up Ben’s Ladder. . . At each new rung, the user gets new status and opportunities within the site.  They also can use their points to obtain offers, discounts and coupons from local merchants in a system called ‘Cake.’” 
  • Asked and Answered: A function giving readers the opportunity to ask questions about a news story. 
  • Stuff We Like: According to the station, this section will feature a daily listing of the most interesting, memorable stuff to be found on the Web, compiled both by WHYY staff and NewsWorks users themselves.” 
  • Blogs: According to the station, “NewsWorks will feature blogs by some of the top journalists in the region." 
  • Health and Science articles will also be written by WHYY’s health and science desk, as will arts and culture pieces by Peter Crimmins and Terry Gross, host of WHYY’s wildly popular NPR program, Fresh Air. Along side these will be interviews with prominent figures in Philadelphia’s world of arts and culture by Marty Moss-Coane and ArtBlog Radio - a set of podcast interviews with figures in the regional arts community. 
  • NPR News 
  • Delaware:  This will be a Delaware-specific version of The Feed

Challenges

Satullo noted several major challenges facing WHYY and NewsWorks. In addition to the complications of “building a news site from scratch,” and using only open source software, Satullo noted,

In a world of public media it takes a certain-sized newsroom, and a certain set of skills, and a certain approach, to learn the local newscasts on an NPR programming schedule. It takes broader skills, more people and a different mindset to produce a 24/7 news site for the region. So, an adjustment from having a small and very dedicated staff devoted to doing one kind of journalism on one platform – radio—and then turning them into a multimedia journalist working in a continuously updated website, is a real challenge, one we’re still going through.

Digital access and literacy among users  are the other major challenges, ones that are experienced by all organizations wanting to launch an online news platform for a community as socio-economically diverse as Philadelphia. This divide was illustrated by one of WHYY’s community forums held at a community digital media center. Here, one room featured WHYY proselytizing the value of NewsWorks, while in another room, community members were attending a regularly-scheduled class on how to use e-mail. While Satullo said that this is definitely a concern, he adds that this is a concern that is at some points overstated.

A “soft launch”

The station has done some promotion for the launch, first through a pre-launch event attended by almost 250 people, and second with a viral marketing campaign, again with Penn’s Civic Engagement Project.

In the end, however, what should we be expecting on November 15? Satullo was quick to note that this would be a “soft-launch” — a learning experience, allowing the station to work out the kinks, and gear up for a new, more elaborate phase in January. Two key events will take place in addition to the launch of the beta site. First, the current WHYY.org news portal will go dark and all news for the station will pass through NewsWorks.org. Second, WHYY’s NPR-affiliated radio station will start promoting NewsWorks.org for listeners wanting more information on featured stories. Said Satullo, “it’s more a strategy of a slow build.”