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Starting Out

Case Study: The Power of the Wheel

When a site is new, says Mary Lou Fulton, “you have to promote relentlessly.” The web sites Northwest Voice and Southwest Voice in Bakersfield, California, are published by a family-owned newspaper company but have identities separate from the paper. Each of the participatory-journalism sites feeds into a free neighborhood weekly.

“The Northwest Voice serves an area where 65,000 people live, and we deliver to 25,000 homes. There’s no way to do personal outreach to every person in the community,” said Fulton, vice president of audience development for The Bakersfield Californian. “We are regulars at community events. We are always out there to a much greater degree than the daily newspaper, telling people who we are, what we do and how they can participate.”

Nearly every weekend members of the staff fan out to music festivals, health fairs and other community gatherings to invite citizens to register and post items. Because the staff is small, a company marketing coordinator recruits high school and college marketing students to fill out the roving teams.

Wherever they go, they bring their portable Wheel of Fortune game. 

“I can’t begin to tell you the power of the Wheel of Fortune,” Fulton said. People will stand in long lines and wait as long as it takes to spin the wheel and win a T-shirt or mouse pad. “While they’re waiting in line, you can talk to them about who you are and what you do.”

The founders of Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California, considered local demographics and determined that homeowners with children in kindergarten through high school dominated their geographic target area. They seeded their site, prior to its launch, by calling on people they termed “keepers of information” - individuals at the center of networks of families - and urged these youth sports organizers and mega-church pastors to post and participate. The site continues to promote relentlessly by sending staff and volunteers, recruited from high school and college marketing classes, to register users at markets and street fairs.

“You need to do some aggressive outreach prior to launch,” said Don Alexander, the newspaper executive who launched the Tennessee web site Blount County Voice. “We targeted groups where we knew we wanted content from day one, and that started the ball rolling.”

Your Hub‘s Travis Henry said, “Once you get the ball rolling, it just rolls, but the start-up is critical ... The worst thing is to do it badly” by opening the doors and expecting posters to materialize.

Your Hub launches sites by sending staff members with cameras to community events and passing out cards with the address where citizens can see their pictures. They run on-site photo contests in acknowledgement of the fact that many non-journalists feel more confident posting images than words.

The site hosted an essay contest for people to describe why they root for the Broncos, with playoff tickets as prizes. The responses were not always “quality posts,” Henry said, “but it got people to the site.”

He said, “You have to hit people over the head with what this is. It’s brand stinking new.”

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