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
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
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
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
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
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
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.