Ashley McMahon reports for the Toledo Free Press and serves as the Community Outreach Manager at Home Instead Senior Care in Toledo. She previously served as Managing Editor for the Ohio-based Blufin Media, and as a producer for WLUW radio in Chicago. In addition, she creates content for her personal food blog, theelitebeat.com.

Out with Big Papers

Consumers Switching to Community News Sites


January 2015

BY ASHLEY MCMAHON

Tucked in among more than 2,000 entries, Sylvania, Ohio resident Ben Tucker was thrilled to learn he was among the finalists in the “Uncle Ben’s: Ben’s Beginners” cooking contest.

With the help of his mother Lisa, the six-year-old submitted a three-minute cooking video demonstrating how to prepare his gluten free, rice pancakes. His recipe and charm nabbed Ben a spot among 100 finalists, vying for the chance to win a $50,000 makeover for their school’s cafeteria.

“I really hope I win,” said Ben, who attends Highland Elementary School in Sylvania. “I want to get new tables for my school.”

Unfortunately, the kindergartner didn’t nab the prize in the end, yet his neighbors were still given the opportunity to hear his story, thanks to Sylvania’s community news website.

At a time when Americans have more choices for news than ever (in this fractured media universe), perhaps surprisingly it’s the smaller venues that are gaining steam. Community news sites, like the one that shared Ben’s cooking efforts, combine old-school newsgathering techniques with social media streams to give people access to what directly matters, and truly affects them most.

With our traditional news system, the consumer receives quality, reasonably unbiased information that a reporter carefully constructs to tell an important story.
Social media gives the user a chance to customize and craft information depending on his or her likes, dislikes and content gathered from the individual’s chosen networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.). Community news combines key qualities from both of these prevalent outlets.

The first time I noticed this shift was when I worked at the Red Eye, a free daily paper that’s produced by the Chicago Tribune. I served as a “Hood” Reporter. In this role, I covered the Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview (on the city’s near north side), primarily its crime and crime prevention efforts.
At the time of my hiring, the Red Eye had recently started up its “Hood” sections, which essentially are online news sources for the most prominent neighborhoods in the city.

While browsing the “Hood” sections, I noticed how important it was to focus on separate communities, because each neighborhood is unique in its own way. There are 77 pre-defined neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, all of which have their own economic infrastructures, ethnic cultures, conflicts, legislative needs and wants, celebrations, and reputations. It just makes sense to give each community its own news outlet.

In addition, it’s always been nearly impossible to cover every tragedy and triumph in the metropolis of Chicago (current population: 2.7 million) in a singular daily newspaper. Stepping away from the Windy City, all cities have–and are now noticing–a similar issue. With advances in technology and a serious lean towards an “I want it now” mentality, every populace desires more information at an ever-increasing rate.

One of the groundbreakers in the realm of community news is Patch. Formally owned by AOL, this network ran into issues due to its small volume of dedicated editors and a strong focus on obtaining global advertisers to turn a profit. For a community news network to succeed, it needs reporters and editors that are focused on the environment at hand and located inside the community to obtain one-on-one interviews, along with vivid imagery for proper storytelling. Patch recently shifted its efforts to this practice and now targets local businesses for ad sales, which in turn, should be more beneficial in the long term.

From my research, a growing number of community news outlets in cities around the country are now hosted through those cities’ various newspaper websites. This technique allows the larger-circulation papers to use their pull to promote small town news.
My personal experience shows that this strategy is well received and extremely appreciated in small, suburban communities, as well as big city neighborhoods.

After my time in Chicago, I moved to Toledo, Ohio to start up a brand new project with The Blade, the city’s primary newspaper. The online community news site, titled “Our Town Sylvania,” was the first of its kind in the area. Based primarily online, along with one pamphlet in the daily paper on Thursdays, this project gave the small suburb of Sylvania, Ohio its own voice and allowed a professional reporter (me) the opportunity to highlight various events, crime, and news.
Sylvania was the perfect city to start in since it had recently lost its weekly newspaper due to budget cuts.

The city staff, community members and neighboring suburbs loved the new outlet and provided me with ample information to keep the site updated daily. After just six months, The Blade extended its initiative to more cities, each with its own reporter to ensure quality articles and an opportunity to build a trusting relationship with its community.

As the circulation numbers continue to drop for newspapers throughout the country, I truly believe this is the direction both big and small town newsrooms must embark upon if they’re to remain viable, and profitable. Younger generations tend to stray away from the newsstands, instead turning to their smartphones and tablets for updates—which are increasingly based on citizen-reported information (social media, blogging, etc.).

The community online newspaper allows individuals to get accurate, knowledge-based information that goes through a managing editor and a source check, creating a more informed society.

“Our Town Sylvania” gave Ben and his family the opportunity to share their story with the small town and let others know that their neighbors are achieving great feats. Community news opens doors to feel-good features and personalized reports, versus the generalized news stories, which encompass a large metropolis.

Although Ben didn’t win the competition, he and his family now have a tangible story to cut out and place on their refrigerator. And isn’t this much more rewarding than a simple tweet or Facebook status?

Ashley McMahon can be reached at ashreneemcmahon@gmail.com.

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