Editorial report: Finding good journalism in Baltimore
As the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot winds down at the end of July, we are preparing a series of reports about our local news experiment. For the past five months, we have provided a free online service to help local residents find good journalism about their city -- and become more discerning news consumers in the process.
In this report, we’ll take a look at the site’s editorial operations and activities, as well as media partnerships. We’ll also make recommendations for future local news sites. Find our first two installments of these reports here and here.
How we edit the site
NewsTrust Baltimore was edited by a team of three local staff members: Mary Hartney, local editor; Gin Ferrara, community manager; and Andrew Hazlett, writer/researcher. Community hosts and partners were also invited to lead editorial activities, such as news hunts, as described below. Other contributors to our editorial operations were two national staff members: Jon Mitchell, managing editor, and Fabrice Florin, executive director.
Throughout the pilot, NewsTrust Baltimore was updated with dozens of new stories every day, including weekends and holidays. We posted stories we found newsworthy, from a wide range of sources, by looking at NewsTrust feeds, personal RSS readers, local social media, and the websites of local news organizations.
The NewsTrust Baltimore home page had seven feature spots at the top of the page, three of which were for an editor’s picks – a large feature spot, with a photo, at the top of the page, as well as one news and one opinion piece in the six-story grid. Our goal was to refresh these picks and the overall home page by about 9 each weekday morning, as our traffic would spike around 10 a.m. On weekends, we aimed to update the site by 11 a.m.
Featured picks were selected with a goal of showcasing a diversity of sources, topics and media types. The main featured story was most often a news story, but opinion pieces were occasionally highlighted. Photo thumbnails were picked from the news organizations whose work we featured, or from sites like Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.
Editors were also responsible for preparing and sending a daily email newsletter to a few hundred email subscribers. This originally went out at noon Eastern time, and it was later changed to 2 p.m. to feature more community reviews from the day. Because of this newsletter, we also saw traffic spike at 2 p.m. on weekdays, as people clicked through to the site from the email. The top of the newsletter featured highlights from that week’s editorial efforts on the site, as well as a list of automatically populated recent news and opinion stories.
Local staff members also frequently updated the NewsTrust Baltimore blog and Twitter and Facebook feeds. We used the blog to introduce and summarize our editorial activities, as well as to report on interesting work by our partners and community events. We used our social media feeds to promote these blog posts, and we also pointed to stories and good journalism from a variety of Baltimore sources.
In the first several months, we were continually adding new sources and feeds to the site to ensure that all sources of journalism in the area were represented. By the end of the pilot, we had more several hundred sources we regularly scoured, posted and reviewed, and this diversity was reflected daily on the home page.
The content on the site was constrained geographically – we sought to only include stories about Baltimore City and County, as well as stories that affected the entire state, including news from the state legislature session. At times, those stories came from sources not based in the city or county, including newspapers like the Frederick News-Post and the Hagerstown Herald-Mail writing about statewide news. While there are many excellent news organizations and blogs writing about other areas of the state, the constraints helped us focus what was included on the site and was a necessary distinction, given the resources of this project.
During the pilot, we offered a number of activities to engage our members in the editorial process and seek out good journalism as a community about Baltimore and Maryland.
In the first several months of NewsTrust Baltimore, we featured weekly news hunts on a variety of topics, and our media and educational partners were often guest hosts during these activities. A news hunt is sort of like a scavenger hunt for good journalism on a given topic, such as transportation or education. During a news hunt, we would aim to feature stories about the selected topic on the home page and to drive members to post and review stories on the topic pages. We previewed each news hunt on the blog, promoted it in the newsletter and on social media, and we posted about the hunt’s findings on the NewsTrust Baltimore blog the following week.
News hunt topics ran the gamut:
- Politics, Part II
- Youth — with Wide Angle Youth Media
- Transportation and the Red Line — with Urbanite magazine
- Community Part I & Part II — with the Baltimore Brew
- Culture and Living — with Baltimore magazine
- Science and Technology
- Business News and Real Estate — with Citybizlist Real Estate Baltimore
- Politics, Part I, and the Maryland Legislature — with Center Maryland
During a news hunt, we asked guest hosts to post and review at least one story on the topic, and they could also make news and opinion "host’s picks" on the topic pages. These hosts often pointed us to stories and sources we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, and their reviews and comments added richness to the discussions about journalism on the site.
In our first politics news hunt, Howard Libit, co-founder of Center Maryland, helped set the tone for the site and pointed us to additional Maryland sources who were covering state politics, including The Gazette suburban newspapers and pieces from the Frederick News-Post.
Libit said of the experience: "While I have always been a consumer of a lot of different sources of news, looking at stories through the NewsTrust filter forced me to think more critically about what is being reported, what is missing, and how stories are written. It was definitely a useful exercise in fine-tuning how I think about coverage of news. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many different media outlets producing so many different quality stories."
Another interesting news hunt was conducted with Urbanite magazine, which was holding a contest about the Red Line, an east-west transit project planned for Baltimore City. Urbanite used NewsTrust Baltimore to collect stories about the Red Line, dating as early as 2004, when the project began to be discussed, as well as more recent coverage about its construction.
During this weeklong news hunt, Urbanite assistant editor Rebecca Messner posted and reviewed a number of stories about the Red Line on a special co-branded topic page, and Urbanite was able to point its print and online readers to NewsTrust Baltimore to find a historical record of the Red Line project. During that week, we also looked at general transportation stories, a consistently hot topic in Maryland.
For Urbanite’s "Open City Competition," Messner said, "We're looking for thoughtful designers to make a positive lasting impact on the communities who will be affected by the construction of the Red Line. To do this, they need to see the whole picture, and they need to have access to the best journalism available on the subject. NewsTrust is a great way to make this happen."
When possible, we scheduled a news hunt to coordinate with a news organization’s editorial calendar. During a special two-week news hunt on community, in which we looked at the wide-ranging definitions of the term, we worked with Fern Shen of the Baltimore Brew. The timing of the news hunt matched up with the Brew’s release of a series of articles on "The State of Your Block," a project that sought Baltimoreans takes on their own neighborhoods, and a riff on recent "State of the State" and "State of the City" speeches from Maryland politicians. The publication of these user-generated pieces and our look at community dovetailed nicely.
Another notable news hunt was an in-depth look at youth, part of a partnership with nonprofit and educational partner Wide Angle Youth Media. Several Wide Angle staff members and interns posted and reviewed stories about youth, seeking coverage beyond crime stories about teens or the occasional "outstanding young person" article. It was an enlightening news hunt for both NewsTrust and Wide Angle staff, as well as for our members.
Other editorial efforts
When we announced our second round of funding for NewsTrust Baltimore, we began to branch out from these weekly news hunts and experimented with other ways of engaging our members around content. In April, we structured a week around promoting long-form journalism that users may have missed. We also drove for reviews on opinion pieces during another week.
There were several weeks where we did not have scheduled news hunts, as we wanted to be nimble and adapt to breaking news. During one of these weeks, William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor and comptroller, died at age 87. News organizations began producing droves of extra content – obituaries, news stories about his funeral, and dozens of remembrances of the politician. We were able to respond quickly to the news and set up a Schaefer page to collect these articles. This became a de facto news hunt, and our collection was a popular destination for people wanting to read more about Schaefer’s life and legacy.
Also during that week, we featured a “news comparison” on the home page, which pointed to three different remembrances of the politician and asked readers to compare and contrast the three. We conducted a handful of other news comparisons during the course of the pilot.
In May, we rolled out an ambitious project. We wanted to look at different types of media – print, TV, radio and online – and to see how these different media were covering some of the bigger issues affecting Baltimore. We described this as a monthlong news hunt and envisioned it as a cross-section of media types and specific topics. Each week, we pointed readers to stories and sources from that week’s featured media type and asked for their reviews.
After each week, we wrote a blog post summarizing our findings and pointing to particularly interesting stories. At the end of the experiment, we compared and contrasted the different media and their coverage and story choices over the course of the month. Over the course of the month, NewsTrust Baltimore editors and community members reviewed 238 stories. Of those, 28 were rated and 27 were determined to be most trusted. These highly regarded stories gave us a sample of the city’s preoccupations and a good sense of how different media cover Baltimore’s most pressing issues.
Additionally, just before kicking off this news hunt, we rolled out a new feature on NewsTrust Baltimore, where members could rate and review news sources, in addition to individual stories. If reviewing story is like reviewing an entrée at a restaurant, then reviewing a source is akin to commenting on the restaurant. May’s monthlong news hunt by medium was an effective way to point users to this new source-rating feature.
In June, we launched our first local Truthsquad, as part of NewsTrust’s community fact-checking service. We selected a quote to examine, from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, that Maryland has "America’s number one public school system." Over the course of two weeks, NewsTrust staff and community members voted on whether this statement was true or false and added and reviewed relevant links.
We had more than 40 participants vote and 16 related stories posted. We also saw several journalists and commentators take part in this Truthsquad, including Kyle Leslie and Lawrence Lanahan of WYPR and Marta Mossburg of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, who is also a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Frederick News-Post.
After reviewing the evidence, we found the statement to be "half-true." O’Malley’s claim references a ranking from the newspaper Education Week, a reputable source of news and analysis about schools and the education system, but we used the statement to examine the state of public schools in Maryland and in Baltimore City in particular.
The Truthsquad was an interesting new way to engage the NewsTrust Baltimore community around a specific issue, and we consider this first local Truthsquad to have been a success.
These 12 partners ran the gamut of media in the Baltimore area, including newspapers, magazines, online sites, radio shows and stations, and blogs. They were Baltimore magazine, the Baltimore Brew, The Baltimore Sun, Bmore Media, Center Maryland, Citybizlist, City Paper, the Marc Steiner Show (WEAA-FM), Baltimore-area Patch sites, Urbanite magazine, the Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! blog, and WYPR-FM.
To solidify these partnerships, we reached out before launch to news organizations in the area and set up meetings. We found that many outlets were curious about this new site, and after launch, we had a second wave of interest from news organizations wanting to work with NewsTrust Baltimore. We signed on three additional partners during the six-month pilot and had conversations with several others. Check out our photos from the "making of NewsTrust Baltimore" to see how we engaged our partners and community.
One key goal of these partnerships was cross-promotion. We talked to news organizations about NewsTrust Baltimore’s ability for newsrooms to continue their conversations with readers and showcase their social media efforts, and we aimed to feature their work on the site. In return, we asked that a news outlet promote the project, and news organizations responded in different ways to the request.
For example, the Marc Steiner Show on WEAA-FM had us as guests on the show, along with a high school student, a college student and a charter school executive director, to discuss the different aspects of NewsTrust Baltimore and review a story on air. We were also interviewed on Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast on WYPR-FM.
Many partners wrote articles about NewsTrust, including a feature from The Baltimore Sun’s Gus G. Sentementes. Citybizlist ran our news release and promoted NewsTrust Baltimore in its daily newsletter. City Paper published a post on The Nose blog about our objectives, and Bmore Media, Urbanite, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Brew, Towson Patch, and Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! all wrote editors’ notes about the partnerships. Center Maryland wrote an editor’s note and featured the partnership in its popular daily newsletter more than a dozen times over the course of the pilot.
Several partners also ran our widgets on their sites, and these were consistently some of our biggest traffic drivers. The Baltimore Sun included NewsTrust Baltimore widgets on its Maryland, Baltimore City, and Baltimore County pages, and The Baltimore Brew had our widgets on its home page. The Marc Steiner Show featured an expanded widget on its home page, and WYPR also included a "share this on NewsTrust" button on its website, as did the Baltimore Brew.
At our community awards ceremony and networking event on June 21, we recognized these media partners and the key staff that helped support NewsTrust Baltimore over the course of the pilot. Those staff members each received a certificate and a NewsTrust mug as a small token of our deep appreciation.
Recommendations for future sites
Much of NewsTrust Baltimore was modeled after the national NewsTrust site, which provided excellent guidance and best practices for our work. Still, we found that there were some unique challenges and opportunities to operating a NewsTrust site geared toward local journalism, and we have some recommendations for future projects like this one.
One difference we noticed early on was the inclusion of stories. The Baltimore site served as a hub for local news, which meant we posted from a range of stories and sources, instead of serving only as a forum for the best local journalism. We encouraged our members to rate and review stories to help the better stories surface to the top of the page, but we included a large variety at the beginning of each day.
To engage our members, we found that a regular rotation of editorial projects appealing to different groups of people worked well. We recommend that future projects feature a diversity of news hunts, Truthsquads and interesting blog posts, while also leaving room to respond to breaking news and feedback from the community.
The community has the opportunity to play a stronger role on the site, beyond reviews and ratings. On NewsTrust Baltimore, we found that staff members posted the large majority of stories, and this may have led members to feel they didn’t need to do so. Rewards for posting, as well as more a more intuitive user interface, could help. Community members could also be called upon to help find statements to fact-check using the Truthsquad tools, which would be a great way to ensure political diversity in examining these statements.
NewsTrust Baltimore could have benefited from stronger marketing. While there was a lot of buzz at launch, sustaining that attention and curiosity and converting visitors into members was a critical need. When we added sources to NewsTrust Baltimore, we emailed the writers and publishers to let them know they were included on the site and encouraged them to sign up. Had we had this promotion element in place early on in the pilot, we may have seen more traffic to the site.
For media partnerships, we recommend more specific "asks" of these organizations, as well as the implementation of different member levels. At each tier of partnership engagement, it would be helpful to identify clear benefits for news organizations that help promote the service in bigger ways.
We also could have defined the news hunt partnerships more clearly throughout the pilot, and we only began doing this during the news hunt about youth. We asked that the guest host organization promote the news hunt on social media a number of times during the week, and we provided language to make this easier. We also asked that the organization include a blurb about the news hunt in its newsletter or on its website. Having pre-defined language, to make available to partners, would have helped the success of these hunts for good journalism.
Because we thought of and described NewsTrust Baltimore as an experiment, we were able to test new strategies and features on the site, and we were nimble enough to make rapid changes and new iterations based on member feedback. We feel the experiment was a success from an editorial and media perspective, and we’re grateful to our members and partners who helped make this happen.
Stay tuned for our report on our educational activities and partnerships, which we’ll feature next week here on the blog.
Photo credits: Fabrice Florin