4 Musts for Doing Quality Online Local News

Given the corporate turmoil and massive cuts playing out before us at AOL’s Patch, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what went wrong with the local news provider. They had the bodies, tools and platform to do good local journalism, but their model became unsustainable.

I’ve been working for an all-digital local news startup for the better part of a year, and these are a few of the essentials I think must be in place for success on the Web, on the local level. Of course, these notions are based on my own personal experience. Feel free to respond either in favor or against any of my propositions.

1. Report breaking news

Plain and simple, informing your readers quickly and accurately (the first part is a no-brainer when your local competitors have to wait for print deadlines) is everything. Features are nice, and the education beat is important. But at the Dallas-based news startup I work for, “Flash News Alerts,” which are separate email notifications during emergency situations specific to a community, are priceless. It doesn’t matter if the local news stations are going to cover it – you need to put together something short and sweet for the site. It drives traffic, builds credibility in the neighborhood and establishes your organization. Breaking news makes you legit – never underestimate it.

2. Live in the community you’re covering

There is just no substitute for human relationships – an introduction and handshake, the familiar waves and pleasantries at city council meetings, and the ongoing dialogue and sense of trust established between a journalist who stays close to his sources and the sources themselves. I truly don’t believe good journalism can be produced without those fundamental relationships developing over time, and you can’t have a handle on your subject matter if you’re living two towns away from the action. You need to drive (or walk) the streets of the readers you’re serving, know well the city’s haunts and be able to run into at least three people you know at every event you cover. Study it, breathe it, live it. The results will reflect your fluency in that city’s heartbeat, and the readers will appreciate you all the more.

Dylan Smith with the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) says one reason Patch failed was because its model didn’t allow for editors to engage deeply with their coverage areas.

“Networked plays such as Patch fail precisely because they are not local. They seek to profit from communities, rather than being invested in them,” Smith wrote.

3. Let readers be a part of what you do

With a 24/7 news cycle online, it’s not enough to rely only on original content in the realm of local news. If you did, you’d never eat or sleep. (We’re probably getting two little of those luxuries as it is.) Encourage readers to submit their own content. On Patch, readers can become bloggers, which may end up working to its benefit and changing the company’s trajectory.

The company I work for supplements original reporting with neighborhood contributions, and we allow readers to submit their own news stories, complete with photos, headlines, taglines, links, etc. via our software. Then we moderate the content, give it a quick edit and publish it to our daily newsletters and neighborhood news sites. It cultivates trust between reader and editor, gets you, the journalist, out of covering PTA meetings and provides stories that may not be interesting to you but are valuable to the reader.

4. Ask for what you want

…Because chances are decent that you’ll get it. Local news providers especially have the ability to use close proximity and genuine relationships to their advantage. I’ve been completely blown away by the track record I’ve had from requesting photos from booster club moms and calendar items from city officials I’m friendly with or at least have a working email relationship with. In the same way, I’ve noticed that if you ask readers to comment on a story you’ve written or a survey addressing a hyperlocal question, most times they do it. If you ask readers to share about your platform on their Facebooks and Instagrams, they’re likely to do it if you’ve indicated a certain level of commitment to that community.

So, what is my list missing? What do you think local online news providers should or shouldn’t be doing?