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RESEARCH

Chapter 4: Building Interest

The most indispensable member of the site team is the content wrangler.

Citizen media sites, even those attached to big media companies, are not old enough to have grown fat. Regardless of whether they’re published by traditional media companies, solo entrepreneurs or citizen volunteers, sites are characterized by lean editorial staffing, very little marketing, and limited readership.

Even the most popular citizen sites remain invisible to large portions of their towns or regions. For instance, the number of monthly unique visitors to the hyperlocal sites reported by our respondents typically amounted to between 5% and 10% of their local population. This was the case whether the sites were in Hoboken, New Jersey, Fresno California, or Reidsville, North Carolina.

Whether trying to draw attention or contributors, though, the most indispensable member of the site team is the content wrangler. That’s the person who goes to Rotarian breakfast meetings, to high school journalism days, to block parties, to blogger meet-ups and to wherever artists and musicians are eager to draw crowds. The content wrangler (either a paid “editor,” a site operator or a volunteer) is on a dual mission: He or she must build a community of contributors and attract a community of visitors.

At citizen sites the content-seeker reverses the traditional reporter dance of avoidance. Instead of ducking the gadfly who goes to every town council meeting and calls the city editor twice a day, the content wrangler targets people who want to be heard.

Sites without content wranglers can struggle to maintain a vigorous flow of citizen contributions. “It would be great to have the local busybody on board to tap into all the local stuff going on,” said Courtney Hollands, who was editor of Wicked Local in Plymouth, Massachusetts through January 2007, when she joined a competitor site in the Boston area. Wicked Local was envisioned to be a 50/50 balance between posts from the site’s host newspapers and posts from citizens. In the absence of a person who could regularly leave the keyboard and work events, she said in mid-2006, the community side of the site was falling at the lighter end of the seesaw.

At citizen sites the content-seeker reverses the traditional reporter dance of avoidance. Instead of ducking the gadfly who goes to every town council meeting and calls the city editor twice a day, the content wrangler targets people who want to be heard. At some sites that means the garden club president touting the club’s monthly speaker and the P.R. pros at government agencies and community institutions (such as museums and colleges) peddling good news stories.

But many site operators are just as interested in individuals: Mothers who want to start a play group, political junkies who track school board minutiae, the local restaurant maven who’s got an opinion on the new wings place. In some places a wrangler will come to your house and show you how to go online, if that’s what it takes to get you to feed his site.

Travis Henry, editor of Your Hub in Colorado, makes house calls.

Travis Henry, editor of Your Hub in Colorado, makes house calls. Henry leads a staff of 25 who publish 44 hyperlocal web sites launched by the Denver Newspaper Group - and weekly print editions that draw content from the sites. “Anyone who wants help can call any of us and we’ll help them,” Henry said. “We will go to their house and sit with them. I do it. I’ll go out to organizations - the archdiocese, the youth sports league - but my whole staff does. One of my requirements for my staff” is that they make calls on anyone “from a grandma who needs help to a big organization.”

Depending on how sites are organized, wranglers may be paid or they may be volunteers; they may be hired or be self-appointed instigators of community conversations. They may have the titles publisher or managing editor, community editor, site owner or solo operator. The content wrangler may be the same person who’s writing pitch letters to foundations, selling ads, moderating discussions and filling up the site with his or her own reporting, musings or links, at least for the first few months.

Building content and marketing sites are intertwined routes to the same goal: Making sites essential gathering places where communities can debate, call out government or local media, or find a neighbor who also collects Mustangs.

The important lesson, say site operators, is to understand that building content and marketing sites are intertwined routes to the same goal: Making sites essential gathering places where communities can debate, call out government or local media, or find a neighbor who also collects Mustangs.

At sites where editors have weekly gigs discussing local events on TV or radio (as in Brattleboro and San Diego), these on-air promotions prompt more postings. Citizens who become regular posters start promoting the site to friends and networks. Backfence saw the effect when Little League parents began to post game pictures and circulate word throughout the league. “McLean is a huge sports town, so we’ve got a lot of Little League stories. Our most trafficked item on the site last week was a [photo of a] kid sliding into home base,” Mark Potts said in the summer of 2006.

But while all site runners want more citizen involvement, not everyone values all citizen posts indiscriminately. Gordon Joseloff of WestportNow says his priority is to draw quality posts, rather than quantity, and to keep the site focused on news and submissions that have community-wide appeal, such as the pictures posted from the Memorial Day parade.

Joseloff doesn’t want the garden club speaker announcements or “chicken dinner” posts, at least not on the front page. “We’re looking for more contributors,” he said, “but I would rather see the site sit idle then be filled with less interesting items.”

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