What we learned in our first effort to create a community commentary site

For the past year, KPCC has taken part in an experiment with a Facebook application from Newscloud — The Freeway. You may have seen references to it or heard about it on air.

While the project is coming to an end, we decided it made sense to look back and post a few things we learned.

Ask and you shall receive content

You can get really terrific writing and multimedia when you ask people to share their insights and encourage them to be creative and unbounded by the usual journalistic conventions.

We got essays on bicycling, community activism, video games, medical marijuana, needs of disabled kids in public schools, religious politics, experimental dance, new TV shows, local history, criminal law, vegan living and much more. What these articles have in common is they came directly from the people who are living those issues and were passionate about them. No journalistic filter, what you see is what you get. We had not only one, but two poets who wrote verses for The Freeway every day.

People wrote for us for a myriad of reasons and we worked with them to help them contribute more. It gave many a creative outlet in the public eye.
One of the bonuses of having engaged people writing commentary is that it served as an early warning system to issues we cared about: medical marijuana activism, local history, conflicts over bicycle transportation planning, and a few other topics. Some of the co-hosts helped our writers find sources for their sources. In a journalism world where fewer reporters work beats, it can be important to have dozens of volunteer writers alerting you to developments in the areas they care about.

Keeping momentum is hard

While everybody who signed on as a co-host promised to post weekly, the reality is – and yes, we expected it – about half fell off and didn’t post as frequently.

Once you start a site such as The Freeway, the momentum to post builds quickly, and sometimes falls just as quickly as interest wanes or life gets in the way. Keeping people interested in posting is important and not an easy task.

We don’t have a solution for the problem we came up against, but we did our best to maintain connections with people and understand where they were coming from as contributors.

An overall plan is needed

Decide early how to mesh the community’s output with your existing channels. Some of our co-hosts were disappointed that their work didn’t end up on the air or on our website.

We work in an industry which is changing every day with new ways to reach out to the audience — from traditional outlets like the radio to newer outlets like Facebook or Twitter.

The balance between promoting your own reporter’s work and those of the community is not an easy one to maintain, nor are  news outlets used to sharing the air/page with the community.  Our news operation, which is young and growing fast, did not have a place for this type of content to surface on our air, online or social media channels.

The constant question was how to integrate those two kinds of content without crossing lines or ethics. To add to that, there are technical limitations to posting content across different content systems.

Know what testing means

Being first with new software can cost a lot of time when it isn’t stable enough for use by the public or by expert bloggers. Choose a tool that is well-tested, even bombproof.

Experimenting brings its own costs. We were constantly reminded that being first meant that we were guinea pigs and for a small digital staff, that meant a lot of time spent, sometimes away from other obligations.

Time is a constant struggle in a newsroom. Meetings, breaking news and projects all demand their time. Adding in a new experiment meant training, bug tracking and other tasks that might not have happened if we had waited several months to sign up.

Looking back

Was it worth it? Yes.

Despite the difficulties we came across we learned a lot about our audience, and our strengths and weaknesses as a team. Knowing that the community wants a place to speaks it’s mind will be important to us as we grow our engagement channels.

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