Block by Block: Imagining the sequel(s)

The online community news leaders and their shared passion for local news was the most impressive part of Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010. More impressive — and challenging — is where local editors and publishers take it from here.

A big tip of the hat to online publishers, including Susan Mernit, Andre Natta and Jason Pramas, who are keeping a lively conversation going on Twitter and other platforms about next steps following last week’s conference in Chicago. Building on their excellent thoughts (links to various posts and feeds below), I want to add a couple of my own, share my ideas for my own next steps and get feedback.

I am proud to have been an organizer of the event and even prouder to have raised tens of thousands of dollars so we could have travel scholarships and bring in online community publishers who typically cannot travel to conferences. (Thanks to Reynolds Journalism Institute, Knight Foundation, The Patterson Foundation and Knight Digital Media Center).

Those people, with their passion and commitment to local news, were the magic of the event. They are the magic going forward. I look forward to seeing how they organize themselves, help one another, and decide among themselves what help they want most.

I attempted to start one thread of that discussion Saturday with a gathering of about 30 people — half of them online community publishers including Mernit, Polly Kreisman, Ben Ilfeld, Brad Flora, Denise Cheng, and Liz George. The rest of us play supporting roles as foundation representatives, researchers and resource providers.

My goal was to have those of us in supporting roles hear, in a reflective way, what publishers think they need next. We held multiple break out discussions. We talked about what we thought we had heard from community publishers in the big room the day before rather than about what we thought they should do.

Several people generously provided me with their notes from this meeting, which was facilitated by Janet Coats of The Patterson Foundation. Here are some key needs participants identified:

  • Be more effective at telling the story. If the goal is to succeed, through civic engagement or as a business, we have a concise way of telling other what we are doing. We need help defining our pitch.
  • Create a more granular typology of sites that will make it easier to define success and appropriate revenue sources as well as to connect publishers with support resources. Deeper site profiles might support this work. “There’s a plethora of info that already exists, so we don’t necessarily need to replicate it as much as we need to create a place for directed conversation,” Cheng said.
  • Related, create more definition around what revenue model works best for a particular kind of site and a particular community. Expert advice for groups as well as one on one consulting for specific needs.
  • Develop metrics beyond page views to levels of community engagement are reflected. Jay Rosen suggested something like a Total Index of Engagement (TIE) that shows the complete range of engagement a site has, not just its traffic. This could help demonstrate how community sites are different from others, through influence.
  • Gather community publishers as an online network where they can share questions and answers. Hire a community manager to facilitate the conversation. Within the network, enable affinity groups to gather, perhaps using more detailed typology and enabling user profiles. “Conference attendees still want to talk to one another, didn’t feel like there was enough time to share,” said Denise Cheng of The Rapidian.
  • Bring other voices into the mix, including more from sites serving low-income, minority and underserved populations, librarians, venture capitalists, community organizers, artistic community (dealing with many of the same issues of engagement, community building), technologists, advertisers, social activists, Government 2.0 groups.
  • Hold another BxB conference next year, or, alternatively, hold a series of smaller regional gatherings to make it easier for more publishers and editors to attend.

These are all great ideas and I hope others will respond and throw their thoughts into the mix.

My work as a Reynolds Fellow was officially over in April. I intend to continue the research I have started there. I think there is value in continuing to build my list of promising sites and in conducting another survey next spring about their critical needs. (At the same time, I can see that work being overtaken in the future by a network of community publishers.) I have tentative agreements for modest funding for this effort (stay tuned for when I can name names and have the new url) and I believe it can include working on deeper site profiles and a more granular typology as Jay Rosen suggested. I hope to involve students in this work because I believe it will help them learn about an important segment of the future of news. I also hope it can be a collaborative effort with online community publishers.

Finally, I loved being a lead organizer for the conference (with incredible logistical support from Jeffrey Beeson and others at RJI), and I’d like to be involved if we do it again in the future.

Resources and conversations:

Twitter hashtags: #bxb2010 and #bxb2010next features posts and many related links to other blogs about the conference and discussion that followed. I will be cross posting this post on that blog.

Mernit has created a PB Wiki for local site operators who were at Block by Block 2010 and might want a place to privately share files and best practices with one another. The URL is and people who want to be included can e-mail her at

She also created a Google Group — — that can serve as an email list for site operators to share information.

In addition, there is a LinkedIn group — Block by Block — Community News Producers that John Hawbaker started.

This is a cross-post with Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog.


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