Local Media Association is profiling some of the first Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the webinar from Sept. 29, which explores lessons from hyperlocal news expansions, including Wick Communications, Torstar Local, and Crosstown — all leveraging new technology to connect with untapped audiences.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
Wick Communications is enhancing some of its community newspapers with neighborhood-level platforms that operate similarly to social media channels.
NABUR, or neighborhood-assisted bureau reporting, is a social platform hosted by three Wick Communications newspapers to encourage hyperlocal, healthy discourse sparking story ideas and community discussions about important issues not otherwise covered. The project was funded late last year as part of the inaugural North America Google News Initiative Challenge, which awarded 34 out of 269 applications across the continent.
Francis Wick, president and CEO of Wick Communications, said the NABUR acronym now stands for “Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect” to reinforce the intended nature of the platform.
“In the [GNI] application itself, the key component we looked at is, how can a community converse with itself in a very civil manner,” Wick said. “Given the polarized environment we have lived in the past few years, the effort to improve community discourse, that is the differentiator in what we’re trying to get at.”
The project leader is Digital Media Director Sean Fitzpatrick, a boomerang employee at Wick Communications. He returned to the company two and a half years ago with product management and grant-writing experience that came in handy when applying for the GNI program.
“Anybody in the newspaper industry who has not written a grant would do great to go to a grant-writing training program,” Fitzpatrick said.
Social platform Nextdoor had become a prominent part of the community conversation by the time Fitzpatrick returned to the company. Wick was concerned the company would give away its content to Nextdoor the same way it had done on other social media. He instead insisted on creating an alternative for newspapers.
An idea came up to establish journalist product managers at the hyperlocal level to help lead the online conversation.
“We really did our homework on this to provide the value proposition,” Fitzpatrick said.
With Innovation Challenge funding, the platform debuted in April at two Wick Communications-owned newspapers: Wenatchee World (Washington) and Green Valley News & Sahuarita Sun (Arizona). A third publication, the Herald/Review in Sierra Vista, Arizona, launched its NABUR platform in August.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the chaotic discourse of traditional social media spilled over to NABUR.
“It started as a hot mess,” Fitzpatrick said. “We quickly learned that general discussions gravitate toward two subjects: our president and COVID-19 and mask-wearing. People were at each other’s throats.”
But slowly and surely, the Wick Communications team shifted the culture by doing its own critical listening, specifically with non-subscribers. The team learned that journalist product managers couldn’t steer the conversation in too strong of a direction because their voices would overpower the rest of the community — and risk creating an experience too similar to traditional newspaper websites, Fitzpatrick said.
Product managers are now facilitators for their community. For Wick, that meant no story was too small as long as it provided practical information that helps people live their daily lives.
“It marked a cultural change for our newsrooms and our company to go back to answering questions and providing information the community is looking for — not necessarily just what we want to write about,” Wick said.
Now, the journalist product manager hands off questions to the newsroom so reporting staff can hunt down the answers. The findings are often reverse-published in print and online, and sometimes other users answer questions before reporters get to them.
Questions vary from “Why is gas more expensive in Green Valley versus Tucson?” to “What are safety procedures at community parks versus county parks during COVID-19?” NABUR members sometimes reference prior coverage, too, seeking follow-up information.
While civil discourse has improved, Fitzpatrick cautions that a handful of users remain combative. That is where the journalist product managers can enforce clear, consistent guidelines to all NABUR users.
“The quickest way to kill the growth of your community is to allow people who want to take over the agenda to go unrestricted,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve tightened our guidelines and booted people a lot quicker than we did initially.”
For now, these digital-focused product manager roles are framed as fellowships in the hopes the NABUR platform sparks enough subscriptions to generate sustainable, permanent jobs. Until then, it’s a matter of Wick Communications newsrooms finding a balance between the traditional print product and feeding the NABUR platform.
“As we are working toward a more digital-centric environment in our newsrooms, it’s still a challenge and hurdle to move all of our legacy journalists and employees into a future-forward mentality,” Wick said. “The journalist product manager has added value in educating our long-term local journalists in the community.”
Project funding directly supports the journalist product manager positions as well as the platform costs. Wick said he is out to prove that smaller media companies can use existing tools and skillsets to succeed.
“You don’t have to be a Washington Post or New York Times,” Wick said.
Wick said the company is deciding between two markets for the next launch to add the fourth community to the NABUR platform. The fourth publication will benefit from other lessons learned from prior debuts. For example, Sierra Vista established community ambassadors that didn’t exist when the first two NABUR platforms debuted.
Fitzpatrick said the team now has a full checklist for launches based on previous lessons learned. Once the platform has gained a following, the key is to engage that following and win back early adopters who might’ve been discouraged by the initial discourse on NABUR, Fitzpatrick said. So far, that’s paid off, with engagement up across the platform.
The next step is monetization, although Wick said any ad-driven strategy hasn’t gone beyond discussions so far. The ultimate goal is for NABUR to demonstrate its ability to support the company’s larger revenue initiative to make its newsrooms sustainable through digital subscriptions. Initial research, usability testing on the NABUR platforms, and conversion metrics have been promising, Fitzpatrick said.
“The goal right now is purely to develop the engagement and the user behavior and the experience before we go down that path,” he said.