Building Community

How to Build a Vibrant Community of Readers

Editors who hope to attract a new generation of readers to their newspaper must reinvent community journalism so that it accommodates changing media consumption habits, as well as shifting news interests.  This section of Dig Deeper brings to life many of the examples cited in Chapter Six of Saving Community Journalism, “How to Build Vibrant Community on Many Platforms.” Through interviews with publishers and editors in the book, as well as links to other sites, we’ll explore three different aspects of building vibrant community:

Building Community on Multiple Platforms. The editor of an award-winning daily college newspaper explains how he thought about publishing complementary print and digital editions so his paper could reach millennial readers wherever they were and however they wanted to access it. As one of 200 students involved in the five-year community news project, he worked closely with the Whiteville News Reporter in designing the Sports of All Sorts page, which debuted in 2012, in both the print edition and

How to Build Geographic and Special Interest Communities. We’ll look at how newspapers in small and midsized markets are nurturing a variety of special interest communities – with pages for pet lovers, as well as the sports-minded. In addition, we’ll look at how new technology can help reporters place context around data so that citizens in a community understand how they are related to people they may not know and how certain issues affect the quality of life of everyone in the geographic region in which they live, work and play.

How to Use New Tools to Build Community. Reporters and editors can build loyalty with their readers by more effectively and creatively using video, mobile and social media. The editor of the Rutland Herald explains how his paper is using video to connect with readers. The staff of UNC’s Reese Media Center has written a book on how readers used mobile technology to keep track of political news coverage in 2012.

How to Build Community on Multiple Platforms


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Sports of All Sorts on

Sports of all Sorts Print Edition

Sports of all Sorts Print Edition

Our media consumption habits are changing rapidly. According to recent national surveys, more people get their daily news from online sites than from print newspapers. So, editors of community newspapers need to be thinking about how to produce multiple editions on multiple platforms.

“Coming up with content to fill print and online editions can be overwhelming for any editor,” says Steven Norton, who was editor-in-chief of UNC’s independently operated student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, from fall 2011 to spring 2012. During that same period, he was advising the Whiteville News Reporter on how to create and nurture a community page for readers who just could not get enough of sports news.   In helping to design the page, he called on his own experience, as well as those of his predecessors at the Tar Heel, which has won numerous national awards for both its print and online editions.

Norton is currently a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, covering topics of interest to information and technology executives. Prior to that, he helped launch Reuters Global Markets Forum, a 24-hour “chat room” community for financial professionals. Here are his thoughts on how newspaper editors should approach building community on multiple platforms.

Develop a digital mindset. Print deadlines put major restrictions on your day-to-day workflow, and it can be easy for your paper’s website to serve as little more than an electronic dumping ground for that day’s content. Instead, view your website as a launch pad for experimentation. Appoint someone to oversee your digital editorial strategy, and include him or her in every editorial decision. Think digital first on breaking stories. Use your online edition to alert readers to a breaking story and keep them up-to-date. Use the print edition to put the story in context. Make digital a priority and you will discover new ways to engage readers and have them turn to you first as a trusted source of local news.

Leverage existing content across print and online. The two editions should complement one another. The important thing to remember is to work with what you already have, and find materials that can be easily modified to build your online presence. Take an inventory of the content in both editions, and then, look for new ways to bridge that content across both platforms. Can you add value to a great front-page graphic by creating an interactive database on the website?  How about turning a 50-photo online slideshow with highlights of the local high school basketball season into a special section for the print edition?

Define your target audiences. Who are your loyal readers now, and who do you want them to be 10 years from now? Can you build new content offerings around these communities of readers? Developing your long-term editorial strategy around these target audiences will better focus editorial efforts. Be clear about who exactly a new initiative will serve. Collect data through simple online reader surveys. This is will help you understand your current and future readers’ behavior, anticipate their needs, and refine your marketing strategies to match their expectations. This will also help make your paper essential to the community it serves.

Steven Norton

Steven Norton

Think about selling your content as you create it. As you brainstorm ideas for new sections and pages, always ask who your audience is and how your new ideas fit into your overall long-term vision for the paper. As legacy print-only readers age, you need to transform the content in both your print and online editions to accommodate younger readers, who are tech-savvy and used to having a wealth of information at their fingertips.

Go social. Now that smartphones allow us to carry the world in our pockets, it’s easier than ever for your readers to capture and share original content. Did a football fan get a great shot of the team after a big win? Ask to feature it in the paper or in your web edition. Use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to meet your readers where they are and interact with them in real time. For example, you can use Twitter to post changes in scores during a local high school football contest. As your community of fans and followers grows, look for ways to integrate them into your editorial process, posting their comments in your online editions, and printing them in the paper.

Be realistic with video, and look to grow it at a pace that makes sense for your organization. Don’t expect to transform your organization overnight, especially if you’re short on resources. Scale your video production goals to the resources you have and can afford, and begin experimenting accordingly. Think about ways to obtain video from readers or to use smartphones to capture breaking news or interviews that can be posted to the web.

Finally, don’t let technology issues become long-term problems. Many newspaper editors contend with a website that is not exactly user-friendly. If an outside vendor handles your content management system, make it a priority to work with the company to fix glitches, add new features and experiment across both web and mobile platforms. Outside vendors should be more than willing to work with you to improve their product since it makes it more attractive to other current and potential clients. Managing technology can seem like an insurmountable challenge, especially alongside hectic print deadlines. But streamlining online processes can make all the difference in the way you and your readers view your digital efforts, and interact with one another. And that can help create loyal readers of both your print and online editions.

Building Geographic and Special-Interest Communities

Many local newspapers still enjoy strong reader loyalty.  But readers are also taking a very expansive view of “community.”  They are still attached to the geographic area where they live, work and play.  But the Internet also allows them to connect with other like-minded individuals, who may share, for example, an interest in sports, parenting or entertainment and dining out.

This means that newspapers must begin to create multiple “communities” on many platforms – including the printed paper, the website, the mobile phone and the tablet – that speak to a reader’s geographic attachment, as well as his or her affiliations around certain interests and passions.  This section focuses on how newspapers featured in Saving Community Journalism are redefining community in the digital age.

Building hyper-local communities

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, with a print circulation of 55,000, has been one of the most aggressive newspapers in the country in establishing digital communities.  It currently has more two dozen successful hyper-local and special interests communities, many of which exist primarily online.

The Press Democrat, which owns the weekly newspaper in Petaluma, Sonoma County’s second largest city, launched its first hyper-local community site in 2008.   Since then, Petaluma360 has become a daily destination for thousands of city residents who wish to learn about local news, events, and advertisements, and view the photo galleries or read the community blog posts.

The Press Democrat has community sites for all nine incorporated cities in the primary distribution area of the daily newspaper. The free sites are staffed by paid, part-time correspondents who keep the content fresh. Summaries and links to Press Democrat stories are also included on the local sites, so consumers can easily find local stories relevant to them. In that way, the community sites also serve as a marketing tool for the daily newspaper, says former publisher Bruce Kyse.  “The cost of providing hyper-local, special interest content is much less than paying for an experienced city hall reporter,” he says.  “But that content can attract readers to the newspaper’s website.”

The Press Democrat has more than 40 bloggers and micro sites – focusing on topics that range from road conditions to microbreweries.  These micro sites produce content that never appears in the newspaper. Most of these have to be supported or managed by the newsroom.   Kyse concedes that this requires “a shift in some resources,” but insists “it isn’t the death knell for investigative journalism. One of the distinctive qualities of newspapers is the ability to get an important story in front of a mass audience. It’s more challenging to reach a large audience online, but newspapers are clearly learning how to get stories in front of consumers who will be most interested.  Newspapers need to learn how to use digital publishing to their advantage.”

Here’s a look at some of the online communities in the Press Democrat:

Local city sites

The Press Democrat has developed hyper-local sites for every city in Sonoma County as well as some communities and adjoining counties. The business theory behind these local sites is that proximity increases the value of news and community identity. All but one of the sites are maintained by paid correspondents who live in each community.  They update the sites with calendar information, profiles, community events, daily photos, and school and government stories that fall beneath of the radar of the larger regional newspaper.  These sites are mostly a digital-only version of a small weekly newspaper. Most of the correspondents work part-time on the sites and are compensated based on the popularity of the site.

The sites also provide relevant links to more-significant stories on the Press Democrat website, which is a subscription site with limited free access. As a result, the local sites create a marketing opportunity and natural portals to the newspaper.  On the business side, the local sites serve only local ads, most often at the community level. This advertising has a click-through rate that is twice as high as local ads served on the larger newspaper site. This, of course, increases the value of digital banner ads. Local advertising is more relevant to consumers.   Below are some of the community sites: Napa County, the city of Sonoma, Healdsburg and Rohnert Park.  All can be found online at

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petalumaPetaluma 360: Highly profitable community website

One of the most successful local sites for the Press Democrat is Petaluma360, a hyper-local website supported by the Petaluma Argus-Courier weekly newspaper and a community of local bloggers.  P360 is updated seven  days a week with local content and photos. In launching the site, Argus-Courier publisher John Burns recruited 20 local bloggers to write on an eclectic collection of topics. Bloggers have come and gone, but the blogging community remains strong six years later. There is no wire content on the site. Monthly, the free site generates more than 1 million pages views and 2 million ad views. It generates almost $20,000 a month in revenue. This digital advertising revenue is sufficient to support the salaries for the weekly paper’s four-person newsroom.

watch2Personal interest, topical sites

Like most newspapers, the Press Democrat supports numerous niche sites that have a high-level of community interest. Those sites range from politics to pets, from prep sports to dining. One of the more popular sites is a political forum ( designed to allow the public to comment on local and state political policy. The site is supported by the newsroom and the Editorial Department, but includes blogs from several unpaid, regular bloggers.

pdHigh School Sports

Many newspapers have created successful prep sports sites.  The high school sports site of the Press Democrat is no exception. This site is maintained by the newspaper’s sports department, with the help of some high school correspondents.

bite-cludLocal dining

Heather Irwin’s national-award-winning blog site has news, reviews and commentary about the renowned Sonoma County dining scene. The site is targeted to locals, not tourists.  It generates more than 100,000 page views a month. Irwin is a manager in the Press Democrat’s media lab, the newspaper’s digital agency.

Building Geographic Community

HOOdKe11w37osRM0SsipoLjTT4V9SFG6wfN8S7GRul4Newspapers can foster a sense of geographic community among readers in two ways.  They can go hyper-local, like the Press Democrat, or they can go regional, scaling up or down, depending on the interests of readers. By analyzing clean, complete and up-to-date data, reporters can zero in on what’s happening in a specific block or zip code.  Or, they zoom out and show readers how their community compares with neighboring ones in their region or state.  Similarly, they can compare current trends on the block or regional level with historical information.

Journalists can also present data online in new ways that give readers a customized experience.  In 2011, Ryan Thornburg, a UNC faculty member, received a grant to investigate whether a data-mapping application called OpenBlock could be used by community newspapers to enhance their reporting on public policy issues that affected the quality of life in a community.   His initial partner was the Whiteville News Reporter, which covers rural Columbus County, located near the coast in eastern North Carolina.  Both the challenges and opportunities quickly became apparent.

An Interview with Ryan Thornburg
Ryan Thornburg

Ryan Thornburg

Knowing what kind of data the government keeps – and what your audience would find regularly interesting is the first step. We know that crime reports, as well as property transactions and births, deaths and marriages have long been favorites of community news audiences.

But the next step is to understand what advertisers will sponsor, or be associated with.  One of the challenges with disaggregating content on the web is that audience and advertiser interests may not always align. Health, education and property data seem to be more appealing to advertisers than crime, for example. This is one reason that some news organizations, such as the Columbia (Missouri) Tribune, are exploring whether to charge readers a subscription fee for access to such data.

Asking for – and receiving – data will also change the dynamic of your news organization’s relationship with both your sources and your audience. There is sensitive information in police reports, for example. Reporters and police officers in small communities often work together to share or withhold information from the public based on a sense of what is best for the community. But when a complete list of arrests and incidents begins to flow online, readers may call and complain about “invasion of privacy,” and police may be less willing to collaborate with reporters when their entire record is made instantly available for public scrutiny.

In Columbus County, as in most counties rural or urban, data from property records – sometimes known as GIS – are most reliable. Because the real estate industry demands it, the data is often current and complete. On the other hand, it’s not always easily understood at first glance. Any reporters dealing with public data should make time to sit down with someone in government who created the data to understand all the various codes in the data, as well as any limitations. Just like human sources, data can be opaque or downright deceptive.  In a newspaper story, even if you use the wrong values to calculate median home values in the area, no specific person gets directly harmed. But publish the wrong value for a specific address on your website and you can expect an angry call from one of your readers.

Getting your hands on current, clean and complete data is probably the biggest hurdle.  Big cities like Chicago or San Francisco are increasing government efficiency and citizen engagement with open data, but many small towns have not yet made the investment in open data. That means journalists have to know either how to make public records requests for data (real data that can be put on a spreadsheet and analyzed, not PDFs!) or know how to scrape whatever data is available off of government websites.

Community reporters who begin to dig through data may become quickly acquainted with the acronym GIGO – “garbage in, garbage out.” We found all sorts of dirty data in statewide campaign finance reports and educational assessment data that prevented us from quickly uploading relevant data. In campaign finance reports, for example, some donors would list their professions as “physician” while others were “doctor” or “surgeon” – making it impossible to quickly calculate how much money “doctors” were giving to certain candidates. And in the school database we found zip codes with digits that were transposed and school names that were misspelled, again making it impossible to quickly upload information to the web.

The biggest lesson we learned with the OpenBlock Rural project was that the cost of data presentation – putting points on a Google map or creating a searchable online database – is pretty low when compared to the costs of acquiring, cleaning and analyzing the data. While that poses incredible challenges for the economics of newsrooms who want to aggressively pursue this path, it most likely means long-term job security for reporters who have the ability to provide meaningful context to the numbers that computers give us.

Click here for related resources on open government.

Building Special-Interest Communities

The Whiteville News Reporter is published twice-weekly, has a print circulation of 10,000, and serves the economically challenged community of Columbus County in rural eastern North Carolina. Like the much larger Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which is featured in a previous section and circulates in California’s affluent Sonoma County, the News Reporter is attempting to foster both geographic and special-interest communities with its print and digital editions because editor Les High believes that attracting a new generation of digitally savvy readers is “key to our survival.”

In fall of 2009, High began working with a team of students and faculty at UNC to better understand the interests and passions of the county’s 55,000 residents.  The group began by analyzing census data and other state and regional economic and voting statistics to create a profile of the county.  By combining these findings with the results of online and in-person reader surveys (see Get Started: Lesson Three), High was not only able to identify six different types of special-interest communities, but also estimate their size, which ranged from less than 10,000 to 25,000.  (In many cases, residents belonged to two or more of these communities.)

The students further refined the profile of each special-interest community, assigning descriptive names to the groups so reporters could more easily relate.  They also produced prototypes of potential digital community pages and suggested new online features that might be of interest to the special-interest communities. This section takes you behind-the-scenes to show you the first step in the process of brain-storming.  On the right is a brief description of each special-interest community.  On the left, is the prototype created by the students.


Sports of All Sorts:  Community members are roughly age 12 and up and include both genders, skewing male in adulthood.  They like being the first to know the outcome of a game and are avid fans and participants in a range of sports, from football to fishing.


Plugged-in Parents: These residents are between 25 and 55, and skew predominantly female.  They are heavy users of social media and are especially interested in learning more about local education, family-friendly events and health-related issues that might affect them or their families.


Curious Citizens: These residents care about such broad quality-of-life issues as the economy, education and the environment.  Largely Internet-savvy, many of these residents are already loyal readers of the News Reporter and visit frequently.   They like knowing the details behind the headlines and value the paper’s analysis of political and public policy issues.


Front Porch Neighbors. Many in this group are loyal readers of the print edition of the News Reporter.  They tend to be longtime residents, who know everyone and love knowing all the details about what is happening in the community – births, deaths, weddings, graduations, church suppers and socials.  In contrast to the previous three groups, many are not Internet-savvy.  So, High decided creating a digital community for this group was not a priority at this time.


Texting Teens. This was one of the smallest groups. They are heavy users of social and mobile media, and spend after-school hours hanging at the local Hardee’s and McDonald’s.  High considers them future loyal readers of the paper.  Rather than create a special page for them, he decided to first introduce them to the News Reporter through the Sports of All Sorts community page, which features high school athletes of the week.


Home for the Holidays. This is the smallest group.  They are former residents of Columbus County, who live within a hundred miles of home.  Mostly professionals, they visit relatives frequently and often shop with local merchants when they are in town.  Many routinely consult to learn about people they know.

As he reviewed his options, High decided to focus on the largest three groups – Sports of All Sorts, Plugged-In Parents and Curious Citizens – which were also the most Internet-savvy.    Sports of All Sorts debuted in fall 2012 and it was an immediate success with both readers and advertisers.  For more about the advertising success, see the interview with Nancy Adler in Dig Deeper: Pursuing New Revenue.

Using New Tools to Build Community

Social Media. Mobile. Video. There is a whole new tool kit that local journalists can use to connect and engage with readers.   More and more newspaper editors are realizing that when a Twitter feed goes viral, it can reach many more potential readers than an above-the-fold headline featured prominently on the newsstand. So they are encouraging reporters to attend digital “boot camps,” offered either on the premises or at near-by universities. Audrey Cooper, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, says his goal is “to physically remove reporters from the traditional newsroom and give them new digital (tools and) metrics . . . to judge whether their stories have reached our core audience.

This section looks at the recent experience of two news organizations that incorporated new tools into their reporting repertoire.   Both the Rutland Herald and UNC’s Reese Media Lab at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication looked at this as an opportunity to experiment and to learn.

Using Video to Reach a New Audience

(3) Tapings of Tomorrow's Headlines Today, with Alan Keays and Gordon Dritschil
For several years the Rutland Herald has been taping a brief video segment with the local community access television station that features a brief summary of the main stories. Recently, “when one of our copy editors offered to tape and edit it all in-house, we took him up on it,” says editor Rob Mitchell. “We’d been hoping to make use of the video from our iPhones for a while, and this was our chance.”

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today (or “THT”) can be accessed at this link,, along with the other daily video offering, the Weather Minute.   Weather is very important to Vermonters, and the podcast provides a lot of information about what is happening locally and around the world. The Herald is also hoping to begin offering a Sports Minute.

Here’s what Mitchell says about the Herald’s experience so far:

“We’re hoping to reach our readers in a different way, maybe on mobile, and in an easy and fun way. And we’re hoping to reach new people – whether younger, or people who don’t have the time to read the paper. Our copy editor and videographer Rich (Alcott) is the task master. He grabs our News Editor, Alan (Keays) every afternoon after the news budget (agenda) for the next day’s paper is set.

Than Alan grabs a reporter and they do the main show. After it’s done, Rich will often go get a one-on-one segment with another reporter or the sports reporter. We’ve learned that people really like seeing the reporters talking about their job, and they like the informality of the show.

This video segment only works because Rich and Alan have made it part of their daily must-do. And, this is a great way to get reporters to do video. We often use a 15-second or 30-second clip from a reporter’s iPhone with a voice-over and it’s a great newscast.   I’d advise other newspapers that it’s best to just go and do things like this. You may not be the evening news right away, but that’s kind of the point.”

Using Mobile to Cover Politics

At the Reese Media Lab at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, students work in teams to brainstorm ideas, create prototypes, conduct feasibility tests and then develop go-to-market strategies. In 2012, students in the center launched a mobile-friendly site that covered state politics. Some of their findings about how readers accessed the material were so contrary to their original assumptions that they decided to publish an online best-practices mobile guidebook. The following excerpt, written by associate director Sara Peach, is adapted from News On The Go: Field Notes On Storytelling For Mobile Device. The book, written by Peach and the staff of Reese News Lab, is available at

News on the GoThanks to the rise of smartphones, more people than ever now consume news and information on mobile devices rather than on traditional computers. In 2012, more than half of cell owners reported using their phones to access the Internet, up from 31 percent just three years earlier, according to surveys by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Seventeen percent of Americans said that they now mostly go online using a phone instead of a laptop or a desktop computer. These trends suggest that journalists must consider the needs of mobile audiences. But adapting editorial content for smartphones can be more complex than simply shrinking a website to fit a small screen.

Unlike a television or a desktop computer, a smartphone is a storytelling platform small enough to carry in a pocket. Commuters have been reading newspapers on subways and buses for decades, but only smartphones and tablets can offer readers up-to-the-minute news and content. Only mobile devices enable consumers to engage with news on the go, consuming and sharing information about the places they visit. In short, a mobile device can be a storytelling medium in its own right, not just a place to display a simplified version of a website.

How can journalists adapt their articles, photos, and interactive Web tools to take advantage of the opportunities of storytelling on these devices? A team of students and professionals at UNC’s Reese News Lab launched an experimental, mobile-friendly political news site called

To produce the site, students working in the lab generated original reporting about political issues that affect North Carolinians, such as health care and unemployment. But rather than designing their stories for a newspaper or a standard news site, they crafted their work so it would be accessible and appealing to mobile users. Mindful of the challenges that the media industry is facing, the student team took detailed notes on how they developed and created content for the site. I edited and synthesized their ideas into a best-practices guidebook for news professionals and students called News On The Go: Field Notes On Storytelling For Mobile Devices. Here’s a taste of the findings reported in the book.

News managers should think carefully about whether to build a single “responsive” site or separate sites for desktop and mobile users. To create, we decided to use a responsive approach, which meant that the site would be flexible. With a responsive design, a website adjusts automatically to a user’s device and screen size, resizing and adapting itself to meet the needs of that platform. Responsive design is a popular approach because it enables your Web team to build a single site and perform changes in only one place. But it also makes site development more complicated, can slow your site’s loading time, and can prevent you from adapting your work to best serve the needs of desktop and mobile visitors.

Another option is to create separate sites for mobile and desktop users. This approach allows you to publish your content in a way that best meets the needs of different types of visitors. However, this approach can make site development more expensive and may also increase costs in the future, because alterations will need to occur in two places.

Early results suggest that mobile news consumers will read just as much of your stories as Web users.Because smartphone screens are small and readers can only see a few lines of text at a time, the reporters initially assumed that our mobile visitors would not scroll to read long stories. But preliminary data suggests that mobile readers’ willingness to consume long stories may not be as limited as we initially feared. During the first two months of our project, about 1,000 visitors came to our site using a mobile device, representing about 20 percent of overall traffic.

Our analytics allow us to track how far down on a page our visitors are scrolling. We examined that data to find out whether mobile visitors were less likely to scroll to the end of our stories than desktop visitors. To our surprise, this data suggests that mobile users to our site tend to scroll to the end of a story at about the same rate as desktop users. On both platforms, an average of about one in five users finished a story.

Photographs, videos and infographics must be simple enough for consumption at a small size. The lab’s photojournalists and designers struggled to produce visually diverse stories that would be comprehensible on a phone screen. They had to adapt their images to fit a vertical format and often had to simplify their work. As lab photojournalist Kathryn Carlson later wrote, the difference in creating visual stories for mobile devices and for desktop browsers is akin to the distinction between acting on stage and acting in movies.

“Actors in movies can use subtle eye movements or small shoulder shrugs to convey a particular emotion to the audience,” she wrote in News On The Go. “On stage, actors use grandiose gestures and make their body language as obvious as possible. That is because small gestures are lost to the people in the balcony. This concept applies to videos on mobile devices. In traditional photography and videography, subtleties are the bread and butter of our frames. We’re taught to capture frames that appear static except for one subtle motion, such as the swaying of leaves or a fly buzzing around trash. We found that on a mobile screen, subtle motion disappeared. A smaller screen means that subtleties must give way to more obvious frames.”