How to build a community news site

Filling a gap left by shrinking newsrooms

By Bob Conrad, M.A., APR

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 of PRSA’s TACTICS newsletter.

PR professionals are aware of the impact of downsized newsrooms. Our publicity efforts have been transformed because reporters and other media contacts have either been laid off or are faced with increasing workloads.

Downsizing newsrooms also means that news quality and breadth of coverage suffer. Spreading our messages can seem daunting as traditional news grapples with how to handle the social aspect of online media.

As a solution to this problem, communications professionals in Reno, Nev., have created a news site that is designed to support publicity efforts. We saw a need to create a place for quality news that may not receive attention or accurate treatment by traditional news outlets.

6 Tips for Launching a Community News Site

  1. Gather like-minded volunteers to manage content
  2. Ensure technical expertise exists to build your site and online network(s)
  3. Recruit writers, artists and bloggers to generate original material
  4. Link social media sites to minimize workflow and maximize social presence
  5. Define protocols, such as comment moderation, before launching
  6. Set an ethical example by being accountable, transparent and responsive

Our rationale

We maintain that organizations do a good job of generating news stories but are sometimes limited in where that news ends up. As public relations professionals, we are accustomed to pitching news to members of the news media on behalf of our clients and organizations. Those who work in news organizations, however, seek contrary perspectives as they strive for objectivity. When we pitch story ideas to the news media as a means to communicate with a broader audience, reporters and editors often distill, transform and even misrepresent that information.

Enter social media

Social media, however, has dramatically changed how news is broken and given PR professionals more of an ability to communicate directly with those we want to reach. We are also seeing public figures communicating directly with their audiences more frequently rather than through the media as they traditionally do.

Presidential candidates spoke directly with Americans during the 2008 election. After his alleged extramarital encounters, Tiger Woods released a public apology through his Web site rather than holding a press conference. While communicating directly with consumers is becoming the norm, this trend does not diminish the importance of solid media relations and pitching skills.

What we did

One way to communicate directly with audiences is to create your own news site, one that focuses on your community, its news and events and even controversial issues. A group of us — social media, marketing and PR professionals — created a site called This Is Reno. Then, we reached out to the Northern Nevada PR community that we would post, with little modification, news sent to us. We recruited local bloggers to offer original content, including commentary, reviews, event coverage, interviews, videos and photographs.

This Is Reno readers determine whether or not the news is relevant. The most read stories are listed in order of popularity at the top of the site, and readers are allowed to comment on stories if the discussions are kept civil.

We accept is one banner ad, which we change periodically, free of charge that supports non-profit organizations. All contributors volunteer their time and efforts because they are passionate about providing a news forum that compliments mainstream news outlets while providing a place to publish their work beyond their own blogs and client Web sites.

The community news difference

A community news site such as This Is Reno should be open and obvious about its mission: We publish our own work, that of our clients and the work of our colleagues, including anyone who sends us news. We embrace PRSA’s Member Code of Ethics, such as the free flow of information and disclosure of information. Our biographies on the site reflect our experience, employers, other interests and disclaimers if necessary.

While creating such a community news site is a noted departure from what has traditionally been considered news, and it should not be held to the same kinds of expectations as news journalism, it is similar to what PR professionals do each day in that we regularly create, send out and post our own news releases. The main difference is that we are also posting news from our colleagues in a central place rather than just on our own Web sites.

Our results

The results have been surprising. The site’s statistics show consistently increasing visitation — far above what our respective blogs may have gained working by ourselves. We average about 5,500 page views each month, and This Is Reno grew quickly to have more than 500 fans on its Facebook page. As word has spread, more and more news releases are being sent to us to post each day from diverse sources, such as state politicians and government agencies to sports teams and local hospitals. This has all occurred by word-of-mouth and by direct communication with our colleagues.

Comments about the site have been overwhelmingly positive, readership continues to grow and so far the PR professionals who send us their news believe the site to be a great idea. Most express appreciation for the opportunity to post news that might otherwise be ignored or altered. While a public-relations-friendly community news site is not a substitute for traditional news reporting, such a site can help compliment mainstream news and fill the gap left by downsized newsrooms.

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