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July 2011

Reflections from NewsTrust staff on the Baltimore pilot

As the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot winds down, we are publishing a series of reports about our local news experiment. For the past six 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, thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundations.

In this post, each member of the NewsTrust staff that worked on this project will share personal observations about the Baltimore pilot. See also our other reports to date on our blog: an analysis of the Baltimore news ecosystem, our editorial report, educational and community report, survey results and first pilot statistics.

After this Sunday, July 31, staff will no longer curate NewsTrust Baltimore, though we will post a few more reports on this blog in August. For more information about the wrap-up of this project and about NewsTrust's new directions, check out this blog post.

Fabrice Florin, NewsTrust founder and executive director

FabSquarePhoto I learned a lot from our local news experiment in Baltimore. Here are my main takeaways.

1. Journalism is evolving in Baltimore.

When we first took on this assignment, I was concerned that we might find a scarcity of good journalism in Baltimore. What we discovered instead was a thriving news ecosystem, with a growing independent scene that complements the work of mainstream media organizations. Traditional forms of newsgathering are co-evolving with these new ways to share public information, which bodes well for the future of local journalism.

2. A guide to good local journalism is a useful service.

NewsTrust Baltimore helped residents find quality journalism about their city, promoting good local stories from diverse sources, many of which they didn't previously know about. Using the NewsTrust social news platform, our community curated the news in Baltimore for more than 20,000 unique visitors. Traffic to our site was steady throughout the six-month pilot, and more than 60 percent of survey respondents found the service useful. Our staff posted daily stories for review on the site, inviting a healthy level of community participation, with more than 3,700 story reviews from 570 members. Our collaborative news curation tools proved particularly effective for surfacing good journalism in Baltimore, from a wide range of sources. 

3. Rating the news teaches literacy in schools.

Our educational programs and review tools helped more than 250 students become more critical readers and informed citizens. We worked with a dozen local schools and nonprofits to engage their students to review stories on our site and to learn to tell the difference between good and bad journalism. As a result, more than two-thirds of the students who reviewed five stories or more passed our news literacy test. We were more effective in colleges than high schools, and we need to design new courses for younger students with low literacy levels. But overall, educators found our service effective in helping the next generation of news consumers learn to separate fact from fiction.

4. Social news sites build local community.

NewsTrust Baltimore brought together a community of citizens, journalists, students and educators to discuss local issues and how they're covered by news organizations. By combining our online social news network with face-to-face meetings, we helped our members make new connections that might not have happened otherwise -- as well as to develop existing relationships. This ability to meet in person is a unique benefit of hosting a local site, and it stands in contrast with our national site, where our exchanges have been mostly virtual so far. 

5. Local news startups are hard to sustain.

I am very grateful to Lori McGlinchey and Diana Morris at the Open Society Foundations and Debra Rubino at OSI Baltimore for their invaluable participation in this experiment, which meant a lot to me personally. I wish we could have discovered a viable revenue model to offer NewsTrust Baltimore as an ongoing service beyond our six-month pilot. But local foundations we spoke to had other priorities, most schools were not ready to pay for our services and the site did not generate enough traffic to sell ads or subscriptions. So despite this pilot's many positive outcomes, a longer-term investment would be needed to make it sustainable. These sustainability issues may prove to be the most difficult challenge for local news startups to solve: they may require a close coordination between philanthropy, government, school and business communities.

6. A very special team.

Last but not least, I feel privileged to have worked with such a world-class local team: Gin Ferrara, Mary Hartney and Andrew Hazlett -- as well as Subbu Sastry and Jon Mitchell on our national team. Together, they delivered a high-quality service with modest resources, and I have really enjoyed our collaboration. Many thanks, as well, to all our partners and members for joining our experiment. I hope they got as much from it as we did, and that our findings will help them and other communities discover even better ways to find and share good local journalism.  



Gin Ferrara, NewsTrust Baltimore community manager

Gf2sm_bruceweller I was immediately intrigued by the concept of NewsTrust and the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot. As a media educator, I wanted to see how we could help people become more critical news consumers through an online community focused on local news.

Through this experience, I learned the opportunities and limitations of digital communities. I love the way NTB validates and encourages transparency of its members. I saw that when people were comfortable being themselves and sharing their comments, both honestly and respectfully, we developed rich dialog and began to grow a real community. 

My own beliefs about the power of local communities and face-to-face interactions were reinforced by this pilot. People we met offline often became more participatory online. This was not universal, but I saw many cases where once I spoke with someone at an event, I saw their reviews increase, their notes lengthen, and their general involvement become more deep. Building relationships always matters.

This was also a great education for me in learning the vocabulary of news journalism, of beats and grafs, sources and ledes. Working with local journalists was refreshing -- I got to see their perspectives on the challenges of reporting with a small budget and an even tighter deadline. I learned more about what becomes news in the local sphere and also saw more starkly which stories get missed or left behind.

I am so grateful for this experience of working with such talented, invested people. The NewsTrust team are some of the most collaborative, supportive people I have ever worked with, and I learned so much from them all.



Mary Hartney, NewsTrust Baltimore local editor

Photo-2-2_large I began working on NewsTrust Baltimore in early January, three days after returning to the U.S. from a year abroad. I'd spent 11 months in Malaysia working for a mobile Internet company and had done some traveling in Europe over the holidays. NewsTrust Baltimore proved to be an invaluable part of my transition home, a way of reconnecting with the news and communities in my adopted city.

We hit the ground running -- or as quickly as was possible in the snowy, icy weather -- during that first week in January, as West Coasters Fabrice Florin and Jon Mitchell were in Baltimore for meetings and trainings. I bumped our rented red Pontiac Vibe through Baltimore streets, and our days were fueled by takeout coffee and deli sandwiches.

The pace slowed down, though only slightly, after launch. As part of working on this project, I read widely across Baltimore media and discovered many new favorite sites and authors. I reconnected with journalism and recognized from a new perspective those who are doing good work, day after day, to illuminate issues and tell important stories. And I felt charged and inspired about the news -- both the news organizations and what they were covering -- in Baltimore.

Outside of the site work, some of my favorite experiences were working with Gin Ferrara to teach news literacy in classrooms at Towson University and Baltimore Freedom Academy. I loved helping students develop opinions about journalism and what was going on in the news, encouraging critical thinking and new ideas.

But I think my biggest takeaway from this project will be the experiences of working with such a wonderful team. Through all our work building communities and working to understand them in Baltimore, we became our own community. I learned so much from each of my colleagues and am so grateful for the experience.



Andrew Hazlett, NewsTrust Baltimore writer/researcher

AH Long before the NewsTrust Baltimore project began, I was an active consumer of local news. I'd visit the Baltimore Sun homepage several times a day, read through the City Paper and Urbanite, and dip into some local blogs and Twitter streams. When I signed up to work as a writer and researcher at newsTrust Baltimore, I thought I already had a firm handle on the city's journalism ecosystem

But, when it became my job to help document that ecosystem, I was stunned by the number and variety of news sources. Each week, it seemed, we'd discover more, or new journalism start-ups would emerge. The volume of content was more like a fire hose than the news desert one would expect from, say, watching Season 5 of "The Wire."

But what about the value of that content? Was it mostly opinionated chatter riding the backs of the traditional mainstream news media? Was it sterile reporting from press releases, or adventurous bloggers' reports capturing the texture of local neighborhoods? My answer would be, "All of the above, and then some."

When it comes to news and information, I have a bit of a split personality. I seek out and enjoy long-form journalism on extremely boring but important topics, e.g., legislative redistricting, convoluted public-private development debacles, and investigative series on ground rent. However, I also spend a lot of time floating along the stream of Tweets, updates and RSS reader headlines. Six months immersed in our local sea of information left me more than satisfied on both counts. In fact, there's far more reporting than any one person can keep up with. It's a situation that highlights the value of news curation -- one of the services NewsTrust Baltimore provided to readers.

But there are certainly gaps and divides in our local news ecosystem.  Though I saw no evidence of journalists backing away from sensitive racial topics, I met or became aware of very few African-American writers or editors. That's more than a little disconcerting in a city that is two-thirds black.

I also think there is more room for advocacy journalism in Baltimore. Sometimes, the dry, factual tone of traditional news writing can seem disconnected from the urgency of problems. There are proper limits on reporters "taking sides," so I think there is a big opportunity for more opinionated and action-oriented journalism to follow-up on stories revealed by traditional outlets.

I feel that activists, amateurs and private citizens are making real contributions to Baltimore's collective knowledge of itself. At the same time, the still-mighty Sun and other professionals and traditional news leaders seem to be finding new, stronger footing. The bottom line is that all Baltimore needs is more ... more reporting, more curating, more collaboration, and more argument. 


Jon Mitchell, NewsTrust managing editor

Ntavatar I had a blast bringing NewsTrust to Baltimore. I knew from the start that the local news environment was a great fit for our tools because they're both in experimental phases. I was encouraged by the interest we saw from established players, and I was impressed by the bold new media efforts I learned about as I familiarized myself with Baltimore's news scene. More than anything, though, I knew that Gin, Mary, and Andrew (in no order other than that in which I met them), would be able to help us find a home in Baltimore. I knew what we had to offer, having practically wedded myself to the NewsTrust tools, but I didn't know the city we were moving into, nor did I know much about its media landscape. After meeting each member of our local team for the first time, I didn't worry about that anymore.

I think NewsTrust Baltimore did great work. We surfaced some truly excellent stories, and the community generated some incisive and thoughtful reviews. We also brought to light some gaps in existing coverage, and the local team's methodical approach, breaking down coverage by topic and by medium, provided an informative cross-section of the current state of Baltimore's news ecosystem. I think the team's blog contains a treasure trove of information, and I hope that news organizations in Baltimore can benefit from that work as they build for the future.



Subramanya Sastry, NewsTrust chief engineer

Me2009 As an engineer who developed the technology, I was not as directly involved with running the Baltimore project, but it was fun to watch from the sidelines and see how things worked.   

In terms of the technology itself, the original national site hadn't been built to accommodate local news sites, but reworking the code to accommodate local news sites was a good overall experience and also showed up the strengths of the existing architecture and its weaknesses. Overall, it was a good change to the code to enable other local news sites if ever it becomes necessary.

I was happy to have provided ongoing support to enable the editors to get on with their tasks and thankful for their regular feedback and bug reports -- and for being accommodating when bugs got in the way of getting the work done. I enjoyed working with everyone on this project and the complementary and supporting roles we all played.


Mapping Baltimore’s news ecosystem

As the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot winds down at the end of July 2011, we are publishing a series of reports about our local news experiment. For the past six 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, thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundations.

In this report by staff writer/researcher Andrew Hazlett and NewsTrust founder Fabrice Florin, we’ll share what we have learned about Baltimore's news ecosystem. See also our other reports to date on our blog: our editorial report, educational and community report, survey results and first pilot statistics.


How are the news media covering public issues in Baltimore? Are local citizens getting the quality journalism they need to make informed decisions about their lives and government? These were some of the key questions we wanted to address during our six-month NewsTrust Baltimore pilot.

In this report, we will share some general findings about Baltimore’s news ecosystem and provide some details about some of the most interesting news sources we reviewed as a community. Our report is based on more than 3,200 reviews of local news stories and opinions during our pilot. The NewsTrust Baltimore site now features a large compilation of qualitative and quantitative data about the local news media, gathered by our staff and hundreds of community members and students. Through the numerical ratings and written observations of local citizens and journalists, we can now map some of the key players in the city’s news ecosystem, with a first look at the perceived quality of their journalism over the past six months.


How Baltimore news happens now

In January 2010, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published a report entitled "How News Happens." Focusing on a single week in the city of Baltimore, researchers traced several key news storylines as reported in traditional and new media sources. Tightly focused on original reporting of public affairs issues, the study found that newspapers created the vast majority of important news.

The report received a lot of attention when published. As discussed in the New York Times and within journalism circles, the study affirmed the central role of "legacy" print outlets, especially the Baltimore Sun, in generating original reporting that drives all news consumption.

Some took issue with the report’s definition of what qualified as a legitimate news source. At the time the Pew study was released, journalism scholar Jeff Jarvis argued it was a helpful snapshot of a moment in time but did not capture the emerging role of amateur and independent news sources.

Two years after the Pew study’s data was collected, NewsTrust Baltimore now offers new information on how that ecosystem has evolved. Our project is not directly comparable to the Pew study, but it does provide a detailed record of Baltimore news coverage over about six months.

What has changed in the last two years? Our findings reveal a rich, diverse and growing ecosystem of both mainstream and independent news sources in Baltimore.

Where the Pew study focused on a handful of news stories during one week, our project reviewed thousands of individual stories from 120 news sources across a six-month period. While the Pew study included only 10 blogs and online sources that met their criteria, we found newsworthy material from 68 local blogs and online sources, including both professional and amateur operations. We also discovered new or previously unknown sources throughout the life of the project, with informative news stories and insightful commentary from the edges of a rapidly changing news ecosystem. During the six months of this project, we saw some news sources go dark, others come back to life, and new entrants, such as Baltimore Fishbowl, make a splash.

Our observations confirm that Baltimore’s news ecosystem continues to be heavily influenced by The Sun and a few other mainstream news outlets. However, we also found a growing independent journalism scene filled with innovative players, with 70 independent sources representing 37 percent of our story reviews. Across this variety of media, we reviewed quality news and analysis from both independent and mainstream sources, many of which received high ratings regardless of their ownership or size. These diverse journalistic groups complement each other to offer Baltimore citizens a much broader spectrum of factual reporting and insights than we had anticipated when we started this project.

This graphic chart of our top-rated news sources helps visualize some of the key players that stood out for us in the Baltimore ecosystem.


Sources are shown as bubbles on this chart, where they are scattered vertically by quality (average story rating) and horizontally by activity (number of stories listed), with bubble size based on number of story reviews. Note that this chart only features sources that had at least 50 stories listed on our site and 35 or more reviews, to insure that their ratings were based on a sufficient body of work. These ratings, calculated on a 5-point scale, are based on story reviews by our staff and "trusted members" (50 reviewers who demonstrated high news literacy skills, earning a member level of 3 or more) -- instead of overall ratings from all community members (many of whom were students who were just learning these skills).

Here's a more detailed listing of our top 20 news sources that met our above criteria, ranked by rating, and showing their number of stories and reviews, using the same data set from Jan. 31 to July 15, 2011.


While these charts are based on subjective evaluations over a limited time period and cannot be viewed as definitive quality measurements, they do reflect a general consensus among our trusted members about which sources they found to be informative and credible over the course of our six-month pilot.

We are also encouraged by the fact that four out of ten of the top-rated sources on our bubble chart were independent publications (shown in green), which we view as a positive development for the Baltimore news ecosystem.

The pie chart below shows how Baltimore sources broke down between independent and mainstream publications, with a third of the content coming from independent sources, based on the number of stories listed for review on the NewsTrust Baltimore site.  


And here's how the same story data set can be broken down by media type. Again, we note a wide range of diverse media types, particularly online, to complement the steady output from such newspapers as The Sun, The Post, City Paper and The Daily Record.


For more information on how local news sources in various media contributed to the overall news coverage, read our earlier report on the NewsTrust Baltimore blog, where we offered general observations and specific examples of interesting work in print and wire services, television, radio, and online sources.

By necessity, NewsTrust focuses on content that is readily available online. Unfortunately, this excludes a number of broadcast and print-only sources, as well as outlets that restrict access to paying subscribers. Our mission is to help people find good journalism online, so we can only review stories that the public can view on the Internet. This constraint may also exclude under-resourced newsrooms and small neighborhood papers, but readily shared online content is not just a convenience for NewsTrust editors -- it should be an important goal for any entity that works to inform the public.


Featured Baltimore news sources

To complement our overview of Baltimore’s news ecosystem, we feature below brief descriptions of some of the most interesting and representative news sources we reviewed during our pilot, along with links to their source profiles on our site. We selected a handful of major players and some unusual outlets that operate in various corners and niches of the city’s news and information ecology. We like to think of this short list as a "core sample" of the diverse media and styles that compose Baltimore’s news environment. For a complete list of sources we have found, we encourage you to explore our source listings -- and you can even rate these sources here, all on one page. Our many issue-focused News Hunts also provide rich detail on more of the sources that our community evaluated in the course of the project. 

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore’s news "solar system" typically revolves around The Sun, its newspaper of record. Like many newspapers in recent years, The Sun has weathered a revolution in how people consume information, an unprecedented economic crisis and ownership changes. Despite some dire predictions, The Sun has proven flexible and adaptive as the media landscape has changed around it. In the course of our project, no other source came close in number to the 1,171 Sun stories reviewed by the NewsTrust Baltimore community (out of 1,471 Sun stories listed on our site). The Sun excels in coverage of Baltimore’s government at the local and state level and Maryland’s delegation in Washington. No other news source was as comprehensive, in our observations.

NewsTrust Baltimore community members were particularly interested in reading and reviewing the work of Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Michael Dresser, Julie Bykowicz, Julie Scharper and Annie Linskey. These journalists cover crime, transportation and politics at the city and state levels. These are the same topics on which NewsTrust community members have sought out The Sun’s expertise.

We have found The Sun to be an excellent source of both in-depth news and up-to-the moment breaking stories. The online presence of the newspaper is timely and interactive. Blogs maintained by columnists and reporters complement news stories with analysis, context, and (when moderated) a forum for civil public debate.

Here are some notable stats we collected in our evaluation of The Sun, as shown on its source profile on our pilot site:

Overall Rating: 3.8*.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 1,171.
Highly rated for: Facts, Fairness, Accuracy, Information and Relevance. 
Topics covered: Politics, Business, Living, Education, Crime, Sci/Tech, Maryland General Assembly, Health.
Most reviewed authors: Justin Fenton, Michael Dresser, Julie Scharper. 

* All source ratings in this report are on a scale of 1 to 5 and based on a weighted average of story reviews by trusted members, rather than all reviews by community members, for reasons outlined above. As a result, these ratings may vary from the community-wide ratings shown on our public site. 

The Daily Record

The Maryland Daily Record is a statewide business and legal newspaper, published six times a week. The paper reports on commerce, finance, law, business, construction and real estate, with a focus on Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

During the NewsTrust Baltimore experiment, The Daily Record contributed a great deal of enterprising reporting. The launch of our project coincided with a widely-cited investigative series that highlighted problems and setbacks in a massive development project around Johns Hopkins Hospital. The stories generated a City Council hearing and numerous substantial comments from our community. In addition to specialized business news, The Daily Record has established expertise and relevance well outside its niche market.

Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 161.
Highly rated for: Facts, Accuracy, Relevance, Transparency. 
Topics covered: Business, Politics, Law, Development, Courts. 
Most reviewed authors: Rachel Bernstein, Nicholas Sohr, Melody Simmons.

City Paper

The Baltimore City Paper dedicated itself in 1977 to provide an alternative source of news and opinions on local politics, communities, culture and the arts in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

While it remains proudly alternative, it has also become something of an institution in Baltimore. Our community members rated the City Paper highly for its blend of lifestyle news and accountability journalism. That combination may be one reason for the paper’s longevity and continued relevance. As an illustration, NewsTrust reviewers praised City Paper stories on subjects ranging from the city’s Environmental Control Board to internet-enabled amateur ornithology

Anna Ditkoff’s Murder Ink column has ensured that homicide victims receive more dignity than is possible in scant police blotter reports.

Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 150.
Highly rated for: Facts, Accuracy, Relevance, and Transparency.
Topics covered: Politics, Living, Business, Crime, Culture.
Most reviewed authors: Edward Ericson Jr., Van Smith, Anna Ditkoff.


Publishing a host of stories about innovative people and projects in Baltimore, Urbanite magazine engages in a very direct form of civic journalism. In addition to food, arts and lifestyle reporting and criticism, the magazine has sponsored competitions and exhibitions that encourage creative solutions to urban problems. In addition to a freely distributed print monthly, Urbanite has developed a robust online presence and a new project called The Great Baltimore Check-in -- an interesting integration of social media, location-based services, serious issues and recreation.

Overall Rating: 3.9.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 138.
Highly rated for: Sourcing, Style, Accuracy, Context, Relevance. 
Topics covered: Living, Politics, Business, Culture, Arts, Sci/Tech, Food. 
Top authors: Greg Hanscom, Cara Ober, Michael Corbin.


WBAL-TV is the NBC-affiliated television station in Baltimore. It is one of the flagship stations of the Hearst Corporation, which also owns sister radio stations WBAL and WIYY.

Among Baltimore television stations, the NewsTrust community had particularly strong praise for WBAL-TV. Our editors and community members were drawn to the station’s approach to the news. Strong investigative work by Jayne Miller and other reporters is one distinctive quality of WBAL-TV’s work. Its sister station, WBAL Radio, was also rated highly for its coverage of local issues by NewsTrust members.

Overall Rating: 3.5.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 49.
Highly rated for: Facts, Fairness, Enterprise, Relevance. 
Topics covered: Politics, Baltimore City, Business, Crime, Living, Youth.
Most reviewed authors: Jayne Miller, Sheldon Dutes, Barry Simms.


WYPR is the local NPR affiliate, serving the metropolitan Baltimore area and Maryland with a goal to provide radio programs of intellectual integrity and cultural merit that aim to strengthen the communities it serves.

WYPR spurred the most reviews on NewsTrust Baltimore from among Baltimore’s radio stations. WYPR has reserved a large portion of its airtime for local news and analysis. From in-depth cultural coverage to daily interviews with newsmakers, it seems fitting that our community ranked WYPR especially high on the "originality" and "insights" scales.

Though it can be difficult for broadcast-oriented outlets to extend their work onto online platforms, WYPR has done an admirable job of enhancing their radio journalism with podcast versions and additional material.

Overall Rating: 3.7.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 113. 
Highly rated for: Facts, Originality, Information, Insights. 
Topics covered: Politics, Living, Business, Health, Sci/Tech, Arts.
Most reviewed authors: Sheilah Kast, Stephanie Hughes, Tom Hall.


Baltimore Brew

The Baltimore Brew is a daily online journal featuring independent reporting and informed commentary about greater Baltimore. Founded by Fern Shen, a former Washington Post reporter, the Brew has proven to be a strong source of original reporting and opinion writing on several beats. The Brew has published many news-hunting scoops and informed analysis. By pursuing several stories on an ongoing basis, the Brew has developed authority on such topics as urban bicycling, the Sparrow’s Point steel mill, and downtown development projects. Despite its modest resources, the Brew is an enduring example of quality work outside the institutional frameworks of traditional journalism.

Overall Rating: 3.73.
Number of Stories Reviewed: 274. 
Highly rated for Relevance, Originality, Insight, Accuracy, Information. 
Topics covered: Politics, Business, Living, Transportation, Education, Sci/Tech, Industry, Development
Most reviewed authors: Fern Shen, Mark Reutter, Gerald Neily.


Other noteworthy sources

The prolific and highly-rated sources we featured above were staples of Baltimore’s news diet during our study period. But there were many other quality sources that added flavor, variety and some other essential ingredients. 

* The Afro (formerly The Afro-American Newspaper) is rooted in a rich history dating back to the 19th century. The Afro was highly rated for the information it conveyed and the relevance of its reporting on the black community. It is published from a point of view and cultural context that is underrepresented in Baltimore’s media landscape.

* Baltimore magazine has been published for more than a century and, in addition to stories boosting the local dining and cultural scenes, it provided quality journalism on a number of public issues, as well as in-depth profiles of intriguing individuals.

* AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal news websites has extended into Baltimore and its suburbs. Patch sites regularly broke stories in the region and covered local community issues particularly well. For example, the Towson Patch was one of our most highly rated sources. The daily churn of neighborhood news stories and event listings proved valuable, but there were also investigative pieces like this one which questioned the authenticity of "grassroots" efforts to push for more speed cameras in Baltimore County.

* The Washington Post does not actively cover Baltimore, but it provided quality news and analysis about Maryland politics, earning a consistently high rating from our reviewers.

* The Maryland Reporter, a nonprofit news operation, provided close coverage of local and statewide politics, producing "wonky" watchdog coverage and a number of stories that no other outlets covered.

* Center Maryland, a nonprofit online news aggregator, added depth, detail and texture to our understanding of the state legislative session in Annapolis and helped us find many quality news stories about local politics which we might otherwise have missed.

* Investigative Voice is an adventurous and energetic source of reporting on crime and politics in Baltimore. While it had a relatively low rating on NewsTrust Baltimore, its reporters and editors worked to break stories on the police and corruption beats.

* Bmore Media reports weekly on social and business innovation in Baltimore and has developed into a formidable source several years after a somewhat rocky start in the city.


The Baltimore blogosphere

In contrast to the Pew study of Baltimore’s news scene, we found a plethora of blogs and other online sources generating news and opinion. Some published only occasionally, others more regularly, but all added something to the conversation. The many voices conversing in the city’s blogosphere include community organizations, impassioned advocates, nonprofit policy groups and private individuals. 

* Adam Meister, who blogs about Baltimore city politics on the Examiner and Charm City Current, did some digging into property records and broke a story that travelled up the media food chain to the point that a City Council member filed a lawsuit against him.

Unsung Baltimore is an example of a personal blog that also covers events and reports news. Written by Kevin Griffin Moreno, a local nonprofit staffer and active NewsTrust Baltimore member, the blog contains personal reflections, and, from time to time, reporting on events in the city. His post "Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera" is an example of the real journalistic value that can emerge from a personal blog. 

* The Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog falls outside a lot of our usual categories and measures. It is an anonymous, single-minded blog repeating a steady drumbeat of attention on one issue plaguing Baltimore: neglected properties that degrade the physical and economic landscape of the city, as well as the living conditions of tenants and neighbors. As evidenced by this interview with The Baltimore Sun’s Jamie Smith Hopkins and some recognition from City Paper, the blog has made an impact on a major civic concern. This post on a particularly egregious case of landlord neglect is an example of this blog’s striking work: "Breaking a Rule."

* Audacious Ideas is a blog "created to stimulate ideas and discussion about solutions to difficult problems in Baltimore." It features insightful opinions about important local issues from a variety of community leaders and innovators in Baltimore. Disclosure: this blog is published by the Open Society Institute - Baltimore; its parent organization, Open Society Foundations, funded the NewsTrust Baltimore experiment.


Tweets, updates, streams and flows

During the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot, we have also seen local journalism that does not fit easily into traditional notions of the news media. Increasingly, news gathering and reporting can fall outside the form of an article composed of text for publication on paper or on a static website. We have certainly seen examples of professional reporters — notably The Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper — using Twitter in innovative ways. Staffers at The Sun also used the Storify service to curate and collect Twitter and Facebook posts from public figures and citizens reacting to the death of former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Email newsletters and discussion lists, often keyed to particular neighborhoods, are also an important news source for some Baltimoreans. The Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance blog lists seven active neighborhood listservs that focus on city parenting.

Within Facebook’s "walled garden," individuals and organizations make announcements and report new information. Communities coalesce around shared interests to share news and perspectives (see, for example, the active Baltimore Tech group).

Baltimore has even become home to a local variation on the web-enabled anonymous-leaking trend in BaltiLeaks. Baltimore Government Watch was also created in the same vein, though quickly shut down.



In the course of half a year, we have had an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Baltimore news ecosystem. We have been impressed by the overall quality and diversity of the local news landscape. We have seen vital and innovative work by media organizations founded before the Civil War, as well as important news-breaking by amateur bloggers. Our tools helped surface and spotlight quality journalism from many sources in many media -- both mainstream and independent. Even in a time of transition, Baltimore's journalists are providing vital information to area residents.

As Clay Shirky has written about the news media, the local news scene is in a state of flux with more than a little creative chaos. But patterns are emerging. As news startups and impassioned individuals become more rigorous and as traditional news organizations become more open and responsive to the public, there is a growing opportunity for collaboration across the local journalistic community. The energy and reach of amateurs can combine effectively with the expertise, contacts and judgment of professionals. Enabled by social technology, including tools we use at NewsTrust, we are beginning to see deeper connections among all those who seek trustworthy information about their communities. In "Links that Bind Us" — a summer 2011 report from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University — many scholars and analysts explored this networked future of the news. We have witnessed, online and in person, ample evidence of the importance of community and collaboration in building a healthy news ecosystem. 

A local nickname for Baltimore is "Smalltimore," a reference to the city’s tight-knit communities and the first-name basis of many social relationships. In reality, many divides and differences remain. A major achievement of NewsTrust Baltimore has been through our formal partnerships and informal connections with the many individuals and organizations contributing to the local news ecosystem. At our social events and on our website, the people producing quality journalism in Baltimore found a "clean, well-lighted place" where they could meet and exchange ideas with each other and the public. We believe that NewsTrust Baltimore has in effect catalyzed the same community we were invited to study.

As a result, personal bonds were formed between independent and mainstream journalists that might not have developed otherwise, and we are grateful to the local journalism community for participating in this project and for making us feel welcome in their midst. Our experience was itself evidence of Baltimore journalists' openness to experimentation and innovation.

New sources and new journalistic practices are emerging to feed citizens’ information needs. The media landscape is changing rapidly, and news organizations are adapting and transforming as well. Like the 2009 Pew study, our experiment may be capturing moments of transition. Overall, we see substantial progress in legacy media and new independent sources of local news, which encourages us to be optimistic about the future of journalism in Baltimore.

-- By Andrew Hazlett, writer/researcher, NewsTrust Baltimore; and Fabrice Florin, NewsTrust founder 


Teaching and building community with NewsTrust Baltimore

As the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot winds down at the end of July, we are publishing a series of reports about our local news experiment. For the past six 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 educational and community activities and make recommendations for future projects.

See also our other reports to date on our blog: our editorial report, survey results and early pilot statistics.


Our educational partners and community

To build community participation in NewsTrust Baltimore, we reached out to educational institutions and local nonprofits before launching our site. These partners agreed to use the site to engage their students to look critically at local news media, develop the skills to distinguish fact from fiction, and inspire their own writing.

During the pilot, we partnered with the Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Civitas School, Baltimore Freedom Academy, Baltimore Urban Debate League, Loyola University Maryland, Morgan State University, Towson University, University of Maryland - College Park, and Wide Angle Youth Media. In total, we trained 26 teachers and facilitators from these organizations and conducted media literacy presentations for more than 200 students.

Student reviewers represented 64 percent of total reviewers in the first three months of our pilot, as shown in our pilot stats report. Most, if not all, students were affiliated with our partners. During our pilot, 179 student reviewers posted 1,413 story reviews as of July 10, 2011, making significant contributions to our site.


Building participation online through offline events

Introsession1 To establish NewsTrust Baltimore as a locally focused, community-driven site, NewsTrust conducted significant outreach at schools and in local venues. Community manager Gin Ferrara, local editor Mary Hartney, and writer/researcher Andrew Hazlett, along with NewsTrust founder Fabrice Florin and managing editor Jon Mitchell, met with community leaders before and during the pilot. Introductory presentations were made to community leaders, educators and journalists from November 2010 through January 2011.

On Feb. 2, two days after launching the site, NewsTrust Baltimore hosted a launch reception for all our partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, giving everyone the opportunity to meet face to face and to share their goals for the pilot. This event, along with our preliminary meetings, helped us connect with the community and encourage participation in the project, while also building new relationships among the partners. Another community event, a meetup, was held March 15 at Teavolve restaurant to connect with partners and members and get feedback on their initial experiences.

We also held a handful of awards events toward the end of the pilot, which we'll discuss later in this post.


In February, once the site was live and we were curating online events, we worked more closely with educational partners to train staff and students to use the site, traveling to their schools and offices to present to their communities. These presentations typically lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours and included a group review project, in which students used NewsTrust Baltimore to review a news story, then discuss it, with moderation by NewsTrust staff. Most presentations concluded with a group discussion, when participants asked additional questions and shared their perspectives on local journalism. In total, we made 16 presentations to the staff and students of our educational and community partner organizations.

Our presentations and training sessions made it easier for people to start using the site. Students quickly became comfortable logging in, rating the news and writing story reviews. Having access to the NewsTrust Baltimore community manager and local editor in the classroom helped them overcome any technical challenges, and it allowed us to learn more about their own needs for the site. Modifications to group-page and profile-page templates were often made as a result of these classroom visits.

Students who were trained and participated in a group review generally continued to use the site after our visit, while most of the partners who had not chosen to have an in-person presentation used the site less. We had a far higher degree of participation from college students than high school students: 57 percent of our overall reviewers were college students, and 7 percent were high-school students.


Creativity in partner projects

Students were invited to review six different stories, including two test stories that were used to determine their news literacy before and after the program. Once students completed all six reviews, they could become Certified Student Reviewers if they passed our news literacy test. Certified reviewers were recognized as such both on their profiles and at an awards event at the end of their school year.

Beyond these recommendations, our educational partners integrated NewsTrust Baltimore into their curricula and schedule in various creative ways.

Tustudents2Towson University professor Stacy Spaulding used the site to help her students improve their own journalism in her “Writing for New Media” course. Students picked their own "beat," or topic area, to follow, and they reviewed a series of stories from various news sources on that theme. They then created blogs and news websites, where they published their own content. At the end of the term, our local editor was invited back to the class to be a judge of the final projects.

Wide Angle Youth Media, a nonprofit media education organization, took another approach, hosting a news hunt to find and review local journalism about youth. Wide Angle did this in concert with its annual youth media festival, providing its audience of youth, families and educators with an opportunity to extend the conversation about youth issues online and examine how local journalism report on youth. Wide Angle staffer Stephanie Dickard curated the youth page that week and found that NewsTrust Baltimore, "allows users to really look at news from a variety of perspectives and investigate what may be missing in an article."

At Loyola University Maryland, professor Stephanie Flores-Koulish integrated NewsTrust Baltimore into her "Media Literacy Education" course. Our pilot project was just one facet of her overall curriculum, which is a requirement for all graduate students in Loyola's literacy education program. Students reviewed three stories in preparation for a trip to the Newseum museum in Washington, D.C. Rashawna Sydnor wrote of the experience that "the critical analysis of the articles made me take a closer look at the framing and evidence presented, or the lack thereof, and I can clearly see how this could be a launch pad for middle to high school students to experience the same."

This summer, Baltimore Freedom Academy is using NewsTrust Baltimore to spark discussions with youth about freedom of speech, civil liberties and the law. Students in the ninth-grade seminar will review stories in these topic areas and participate on the Students and the Law group page.

Some ideas that were not implemented but are recommended for future news initiatives like this one include launching a youth-run online newspaper, conducting research and developing arguments for student debates, connecting student journalists from different schools through group pages and events, and developing a simplified review tool for working with younger students.


Measuring news literacy skills

Civitas Helping people become more critical news consumers is one of NewsTrust's key goals, and we worked to develop a prototype for assessing the news literacy of our students and the educational impact of this pilot. To that end, we identified two flawed news stories as our "pre" and "post" tests. Both stories were selected by NewsTrust editors as examples of bad journalism, with clear flaws that could be identified using our review tools. We asked our educational partners to have their students review the pre-test story at the beginning of the pilot, and we distributed the post-test story at the end, in conjunction with our community survey. We then compared student ratings to editor ratings: Student reviews that were within 1 rating point above or below our average editor ratings passed, and reviews that were outside that range failed our news-literacy test.

Our pre-test story, "Racial tension simmers on Martha's Vineyard as Barak Obama arrives" was a deeply flawed story that had been tested extensively on our national site and used in a range educational settings in the past (our editors gave it a 1.86 overall rating). We used two post-test stories, as some classes had already reviewed one: "Opting out - Kweisi Mfume not running in mayoral race, councilman says"  and "News Flash: 14 year old Baltimore boy facing charges for beating grandmother in head with hammer"  were both local news stories selected by NewsTrust staff during the pilot. In both cases, our editors gave "2" or lower ratings to at least three rating categories (e.g.: fairness, sourcing, depth), with an average editor rating of 2.15 for "Opting out" and 2.1 for "News Flash".

Of the students who completed the pre-test story review, 88 percent passed, or reviewed the story within the acceptable range. For the post-test story, 79 percent passed. This was a useful exercise, but we believe this prototype needs to be developed further in order to effectively show the skill development of students, for several reasons.

The pre-test story was often reviewed as part of our first group presentation, when our staff coached the students with helpful hints, and in many cases students had the opportunity to edit their reviews after the discussion of the piece. It is possible that some who gave the story high marks on the first pass changed their rating on reflection, or even continued to edit their review during the group discussion. In addition, the post-test stories were reviewed online and, in most cases, without group discussion of the articles, so we don’t have a sense of the environment the students were in or the attention they gave their reviews. It should also be noted that the post-test stories were not as deeply flawed as the pre-test story, which made it harder for students to discern their flaws. Finally, both the “pre” and “post” stories were public on the NewsTrust Baltimore site, and reviewers could read others’ ratings and reviews, which could influence their own thinking.

These factors contribute to our conclusion that the current version of our news-literacy test needs to be developed further before we can offer it as a standard tool for assessing news literacy.

That said, we can observe from these first prototype results that the majority of our student reviewers were able to review stories with a degree of critical thinking by the completion of the pilot. 


Recognizing student and community achievement

It was our intention from launch to recognize the contributions of both our students and the NewsTrust Baltimore community at large. We developed awards for our college students (there was not enough participation by high-school students for awards by the school year's end), which we promoted to teachers and highlighted through our daily email newsletters and our blog.

Our education awards recognized thoughtful critiques, community contributions, and the trustworthiness of our reviewers, in these superlative award categories:

  • News Hound Award: For contributing the most reviews to the site.
  • Student Researcher Award: For posting the most stories from diverse sources to the site.
  • Most Trusted Student Reviewer: For having the most reviews that were rated highly by NewsTrust Baltimore editors and the general community.


Studentaward These awards were given to students who had already become Certified Student Reviewers (as described above), with only one award per category per school. Fifty-nine students from Towson University and one student from Loyola University were certified, and three students at Towson received one of the superlative awards.

We held an awards ceremony at Towson University on May 9, 2011, to recognize all the student achievers. It was an opportunity to connect once again with the community and to provide a fitting conclusion to their participation. At this time we also recognized the professors, whose commitment to the project encouraged so much student participation.

Kevinaward For other NewsTrust Baltimore members, a community awards event was held on June 21, 2011, at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore. Several members were recognized as "Top Reviewers," and one received an award as "Community NewsHound." These awards were given for either the highest number of reviews or posts, or for high ratings received by their peers for the quality of their reviews. We also gave awards to all our partners, guest hosts, and members who went above and beyond to make the pilot a success. This event was another opportunity for community members to network with each other and to build relationships outside of the online framework.


Considerations for future projects

Overall, we saw a high degree of college student participation throughout the academic semester. Once the school year ended, however, few students were able to maintain engagement. This tells us that educational activities should be scheduled with the school calendar in mind and that other community projects, such as Truthsquad, a fact-checking service, should be considered to maintain community participation in the summer months.

While many efforts were made to engage high-school partners, participation from this group remained comparatively low. Our outreach efforts may have been more successful had we begun the project in August, rather than January, so we could plan the partnerships and train the teachers before the start of the school year. Several presentations had to be postponed from January to later in February due to snow days, and by the time we worked with many teachers, they were shifting focus to prepare for the mandatory state exams.

High-school participation was also limited for many other reasons, as reported by teaching and program staff. Regular computer access was a challenge for some partners and potential partners. Some teachers felt that student technology literacy was low and that the process of teaching students to use the site could be challenging. Other teachers had difficulty integrating the pilot into their curriculum in the middle of the school year and might have had better success adding NewsTrust in the fall semester. Some students had poor reading and comprehension skills, making it difficult to evaluate the quality of the stories they were asked to review. Some partners expressed concerns about the relevance of the news sources to students; others were concerned about privacy controls on the site.

Susan Malone of Wide Angle Youth Media saw promise in using NewsTrust Baltimore with high-school youth, including "a collective effort to use the reviewing tools to evaluate media literacy skills of young people, but to do so youth need a more bite-sized way of digesting news media, with questions and fun facts to guide them in the process."

Some attempts to address these concerns included paper review forms for classes without computer access; limiting our high school workshops to explorations of facts and fairness, with new lesson plans; reducing the review format from “Full Rating” to “Quick Rating”; and identifying stories that have relevance to youth, in a variety of media types.

Other recommendations for future educational partnerships could be synchronizing pilot activities more closely with academic calendars; announcing awards criteria at the beginning of the pilot and offering prizes; developing targeted curricula for high-school and middle-school students; creating student log-ins with more privacy controls; and increasing the number of multimedia stories, along with special review criteria for multimedia journalism.


Conclusion: Educational structure and real-life connections support our online community

From our pilot, we learned that partnering with educational organizations enriches online community. It is clear that integrating NewsTrust Baltimore into the school curriculum boosts student participation and overall literacy, and we are grateful for the leadership of professors JoAnne Broadwater, Stephanie Flores-Koulish, Thom Lieb, Allissa Richardson, Stacy Spaulding and Ronald Yaros in promoting and sustaining student engagement.

Teavolve Our student reviewers were quite self-motivated and seemed to enjoy this opportunity to learn the news of their community, while analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of local journalism. We also found that regular participation by students supported and encouraged thoughtful reviews by our general membership and helped to establish a civil online community.

By hosting live events and awards ceremonies, we were able to strengthen online connections and bring people together in the real world, not just on our site. This combination of education, outreach and recognition helped anchor NewsTrust Baltimore in the local community and made this service more useful for building skills, networks and access to information in Baltimore.


Photo credits: Fabrice Florin


Next steps for NewsTrust Baltimore

Our six-month pilot for NewsTrust Baltimore ends on July 31, and we would like to give you an update of our next steps as wind down this local news experiment.

For the next few weeks, we will continue to publish a series of reports about what we accomplished together during this pilot and what we learned along the way. We will also transition from a staffed website to an automated service with community input. Here's what else will change in coming days.

At the end of this week, on Friday, July 15, we will discontinue our daily email newsletters for NewsTrust Baltimore. The home page of our website will promote our recent reports, along with a daily featured news story. We will still provide news listings below the fold on our home page, as well as on other pages on our site, and NewsTrust Baltimore members will be able to post and review stories on these pages. But these listings will only be curated by our staff on a daily basis until July 31, when our pilot ends.

To prepare for this transition, our last daily email newsletter will go out this Friday. We will continue to offer our weekly newsletters until Wednesday, July 27, highlighting some of the most trusted news stories of the week. If you now subscribe to our daily newsletter, you will automatically receive these weekly newsletters every Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern time, through the end of the month. After July 27, we will no longer send any newsletters, since we cannot guarantee their quality without staff curation.  

If getting daily emails from us is important to you, you are welcome to subscribe to our daily MyNews email on our national site, which provides a personalized listing of news stories based on your interests every morning at 6 a.m. Eastern time. This automated service is available free to all NewsTrust members, and it only takes a minute to set up on your MyNews page (if you're not yet a member, read more about MyNews here). To get stories about Baltimore on your MyNews email, simply add Baltimore as a topic, or add Baltimore sources you want to follow in the right sidebar. Of course, you can change any of your email subscriptions at any time, on your Email Newsletters page.

We will also make a few more changes in coming weeks, to make sure that our crowdsourced news listings serve the best interests of our community. For example, stories that have been rated highly by trusted members will be featured more prominently. And NewsTrust members will only be able to post up to five stories per day, to prevent any individual from flooding the site with content that others may not find as useful. If you have any feedback or questions about any of these changes, please contact us at feedback-at-newstrust.net.


A new direction for NewsTrust

The end of our Baltimore pilot coincides with some major changes we are making at NewsTrust, as outlined in today's blog post on our national site. At the the recent meeting of our board of directors on June 17, we decided to pivot our nonprofit organization from a standalone news-curation site to a consultancy that will serve the needs of larger partners and help their communities become better informed about important public issues.

Our initial focus will be on fact-checking services, to expose misinformation in the public debate. To that end, we have partnered with the Center for Public Integrity and Craig Newmark to develop Truthsquad.com for the 2012 U.S. elections. We created this pro-am fact-checking service last year to help citizens and journalists work together to separate fact from fiction. 

News sharing on the web is now primarily taking place on large social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, reducing the need for curated news sites like NewsTrust.net and NewsTrust Baltimore. As a result, our site traffic has decreased in recent months and we no longer have funding to pay for our daily news curation service, which we offered for the past five years on the national site, with support from foundations and private donors.

Instead, we see an emerging need for quality fact-checking services and collaborative evaluation tools, which we think can effectively provide by extending our innovative platform to serve partner communities on their sites. We will also explore partnerships that enable us to provide news-literacy and civic-engagement services through consumer and educational channels.

This new strategy supports our overall mission to help people find good journalism and credible information online, but it does so more effectively, by shifting our focus to services that can be sustained over time, in collaboration with our partners.

In the meantime, we're deeply grateful for all that you and other community members have done to support NewsTrust Baltimore this year.

Stay tuned for more reports in coming days about what we learned together as a community.


Fabrice Florin
Executive Director and Founder
NewsTrust Communications


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. 

5531290884_b2534df7bb_m 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.


Community activities

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.


News hunts


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: 

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.


Media partnerships

5530700693_b2db90fcbf_m NewsTrust Baltimore had a dozen media partners during this pilot, and they helped provide promotion of the project, as well as valuable advice and discussions about journalism in Baltimore.

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


About NewsTrust Baltimore

  • NewsTrust Baltimore is a local news experiment that aims to help Baltimore residents find good journalism about their area. Our web review tools let you rate the news based on journalistic quality, not just popularity. We're non-profit, non-partisan, and committed to helping citizens make informed decisions about democracy. More »

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