Here is our final report on NewsTrust Baltimore, our local news experiment. In this last report, we summarize our activities on this multifaceted project and share some of our key findings about Baltimore's news ecosystem, the impact of our curation and education services on the local community and much more. The pilot overview and our key findings are excerpted below. You can also view the full report here, as a PDF file.
NewsTrust Baltimore was a local news experiment designed to help Baltimore residents find and share good journalism about their community -- and to teach college and high school students to separate fact from fiction online.
This six-month pilot took place in Baltimore, Md., from February to July 2011. It was organized by NewsTrust Communications, a nonprofit social news service, with funding from the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organization promoting human rights, justice and accountability.
In this report, we will summarize our activities on this multifaceted project and share some of our key findings, along with practical tips for creating other local news sites based on our tools and methodologies. (Our full report can be viewed here, as a PDF file.)
Our goal for this experiment was to help Baltimore residents – particularly college and high school students -- become better informed and more engaged about local issues. Throughout this pilot, participants learned how to tell apart good journalism from misinformation and how to become more discerning citizens and news consumers.
NewsTrust Baltimore featured some of the best news coverage in Baltimore, selected from a wide range of local online, print and broadcast outlets. Our pilot website provided what we call "a guide to good local journalism" -- a unique social network where our staff and community evaluated the local news ecosystem and identified its most reliable sources.
NewsTrust editors curated the site daily, posting news stories for review on a variety of local topics. Community members were invited to rate these stories and discuss their quality, in collaboration with NewsTrust staff. Their top-rated stories were promoted around the clock on this virtual news hub about Baltimore.
For this project, NewsTrust partnered with over 20 local news organizations, including The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore magazine, the Marc Steiner Show (WEAA-FM), Urbanite magazine and WYPR-FM, as well as online sites such as the Baltimore Brew, Center Maryland and Baltimore-area Patch sites. These media partners invited their audiences to participate in this interactive quest, and many included NewsTrust feeds and widgets on their websites.
We also partnered with several local colleges and high schools, including Towson University, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, the Baltimore Freedom Academy and Wide Angle Youth Media. These educational partners used NewsTrust to help their students develop literacy skills by rating the news, earning certificates for their work.
With the help of our partners, we served more than 21,048 unique visitors and signed up 535 members, including local citizens, journalists, educators, students and community leaders. Our findings suggest that this community-based social network improved the way participants find their local news and helped participants become better informed citizens.
We learned a great deal from this experiment. Here are some of our key takeaways.
• Baltimore's news ecosystem is growing
The NewsTrust pilot enabled us to take the pulse of the local news media in Baltimore. We were pleased to discover a thriving news ecosystem, with a growing independent scene that complements the work of mainstream media organizations. Traditional forms of newsgathering are integrating with these new ways to share public information, which bodes well for the future of local journalism.
During our pilot, we identified dozens of reliable news sources, from over 120 publications, many of which our members hadn't heard of before. Our first map of Baltimore's media landscape can help residents learn more about their sources of local news, along with their strengths and weaknesses. The same process could be used for other cities, to survey their local news media with a focus on journalistic quality.
• A curated feed of local journalism is a useful service
NewsTrust Baltimore helped residents find good journalism about their city, all in one place. Our staff curated the news daily and posted new stories for review on the site, from a variety of local sources. During our six-month pilot, we served 140,146 page views on our site, and users read 7,550 news stories and opinion pieces.
Overall traffic to our site and widgets was steady throughout, and more than 60 percent of survey respondents said they found the service useful, even when they did not participate actively. Overall, NewsTrust's collaborative evaluation tools, combined with daily curation by our experienced staff, proved particularly effective for surfacing good journalism in Baltimore.
• Review tools help students separate fact from fiction
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, 79 percent of the students in our college study group passed our news literacy test. We were more effective in universities than high schools, and we need to design new courses for younger students with low literacy levels. But overall, educators said they found our service effective in helping the next generation of news consumers learn to separate fact from fiction.
• Social news builds community, online and offline
NewsTrust Baltimore brought together a diverse community of citizens, journalists, students and educators to learn about local issues and how they're covered by news organizations. Online, our pilot site attracted 21,048 unique visitors, with 535 new members generating 3,582 story reviews in just six months.
But we also engaged participants through a variety of offline events, such as meetups, presentations and training sessions. 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.
• A great team is a key ingredient
Building a social network is a team sport, which requires a wide range of skills. For this project, we were very lucky to work with a world-class team in Baltimore with very diverse talents: local editor Mary Hartney (former editor at The Baltimore Sun), community manager Gin Ferrara (former media educator at Wide Angle Youth Media) and writer/researcher Andrew Hazlett (formerly with the National Endowment for the Humanities).
Our national team supported their work and included managing editor Jon Mitchell (Brown University) and engineering manager Subramanya Sastry (University of Wisconsin), with contributions from technology advisor David Fox (Lucasfilm), media advisor Evelyn Messinger (Citizens Channel) and visual designer Caleb Waldorf (The Public School).
Together, they delivered a high-quality service with modest resources, and we all enjoyed a close collaboration. Much of this report is based on earlier posts and observations from our team, which were published on the NewsTrust Baltimore blog during our experiment and which are referenced with links throughout this document. We encourage you to read these full reports on our blog to get a sense of the unique contributions made by each team member in making this pilot possible.
We were also privileged to collaborate with so many great partners and members who generously contributed time and resources to participate in our experiment. We hope that 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.
• Local sustainability remains a challenge
We are deeply grateful to Lori McGlinchey, Diana Morris and Debra Rubino at the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute - Baltimore for making this experiment possible; we couldn't have done it without their financial, strategic and logistical support.
We 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 this local service sustainable. These sustainability issues could prove to be the most difficult challenge for local news startups to solve -- and might require a close coordination between philanthropic, government, school and business communities.
Many thanks to all of our partners and community members for their great contributions to this experiment. We 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 online. Enjoy!
Executive Director and Founder
P.S.: This blog post only contains the first section of our final report. The full report can be viewed here, as a PDF file.
Be sure to check our other reports about the NewsTrust Baltimore pilot, which include an analysis of the Baltimore news ecosystem, an editorial report, an educational and community report, final stats and survey results, as well as personal observations from our staff and information about NewsTrust's new direction.
P.P.S.: Also check out these recent articles about NewsTrust Baltimore:
(UPDATED Oct. 12, 2011)
• Lessons from NewsTrust Baltimore - Audacious Ideas - Updated findings by Fabrice Florin
• Best Media Watchdog Experiment - City Paper - Nice recognition from a trusted local source
• NewsTrust Baltimore Findings - WYPR - Interview with Fabrice Florin and Mary Hartney