Friday, March 14, 2008

Rochester (NY) paper relaunches Web site with participatory journalism focus

When this blog was started, one of its purposes was to highlight interesting and innovative citizen and civic journalism projects from around the industry. My hometown paper, the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle has just launched an ambitious one. I'm not sure if the approach is truly unique; the software that drives it is from a third-party vendor and has an off-the-shelf, template-y feel to it -- so it's possible that similar software is driving similar projects at other papers out there. But what's interesting is being able to watch this one from launch and see how it develops. (Full disclosure: this newspaper is my former full-time employer and still brings me back for temporary fill-in work on the copy desk when they have a need and my schedule allows for it. And I'm a registered user and have done a little blogging and forum posting since this started not long ago.) Here are some observations on this foray into a ramped-up form of parcipatory journalism at one mid-sized metro:

The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, has recently completed a re-launch of its Web site in a way that highlights reader contributions in the form of blogs, forum postings and directly-submitted content. The Gannett-owned Democrat and Chronicle has a print circulation of about 170,000.

The redesigned home page actually emphasizes these contributions over the traditional news, with links immediately below the main flag devoted to portions of the site for reader-generated and custom content outnumbering the links to the traditonal news departments such as business, sports, news and opinion. Also prominent atop the home page are the log-in screen for registered users and links to a reader-generated calendar -- all of it above the traditonal news postings.

In fact, the only traditional news placed "above the scroll" (as one editor described it) is a rotating carousel of top-story photos with links to the full story, and about a half dozen "top story" headlines. Overall, that news package occupying perhaps half the space above the scroll and another set of links near the bottom of the page organized by department (news, sports, business, top world/nation headlines) are the only place for traditional news postings anywhere on the page. Combined, they might occupy about 10 percent of the total page area. The rest of the space is dominated by links to custom content and especially places for reader content to be both viewed and contributed. Some of the contributions are later reverse-published, or used for content in the print publication.

Audience members are invited to register, and when they do a personal profile page is created for them with a place to list interests and personal data, a personal blog as well as a social network utility for connecting with other users and posting messages to those pages (a la the Facebook "Wall"). Readers' blog entries are highlighted on the site's front page, with automatic updating that keeps the four or five most recent postings out there for prominent display with clickable links to the actual entry. Readers also can comment on each other's blogs and also submit photos and articles, with the most recent highlighted on the front page similar to the blog updates. More than 50 themed forums allow readers to establish discussions on topics of their own choice. After about a week of operation, more than 250 discussion threads had been established with nearly 2,000 postings in them.

The week the new site was launched, the paper held a citizen journalism workshop for more than three dozen community members -- who turned out on a snowy March morning to learn more about the project and also receive a quick course in journalistic practice and ethics from former USA Today editor Adell Crowe. At the session, Democrat and Chronicle Editor Karen Magnuson said the goal was to promote democratic conversation about issues of community concern.

The relaunch of the paper's main site is Gannett Rochester's latest effort in the field of encouraging reader contribution and comment. Earlier, it had established RocMoms, with content of special interest for women; RocMen, a parallel site for men; and RocLoop (aka "The Loop") for area college students, which is produced by student interns overseen by professional staff.