Our community news sites make a couple’s dream come true

Our community news publications make April and Jim Pruitt's dream come true -- a John Deere wedding.

Our community news publications make April and Jim Pruitt’s dream come true — a John Deere wedding.

Investigative reporters like to talk about the impact their stories have had — corruption exposed, laws changed, the sort of things that win Pulitzer Prizes.

Community journalists like to talk about the impact their work has had, too. It’s just on a different scale.

Here’s one neat example from today: Thanks to two of our community news publications in Salem, Va., and Botetourt County, Va., we made a couple’s dream come true. We helped find them tractors for their wedding. More accurately, we connected them with readers who supplied those tractors.

Allow me to explain. In early September, April Harris contacted the newspaper with an odd, and urgent, request. She and her fiance, Jim Pruitt, has their heart set on a John Deere-themed wedding. He’s a big tractor fan, she embraced the concept but they were having a hard time finding someone to loan them some farm machinery as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

The couple was getting married in, and planned to live in, Salem — so we put an item on our Salem community news site (and then later published it in print.) We also did something we didn’t normally do, and that was to also publish it on our Botetourt County community news site (and followed it up in print there, as well.) There was no Botetourt connection, and normally we’re very strict about such things with our community news site. However, Botetourt is still pretty rural, and I suspected there might be some people there with big tractors, and big hearts, willing to help the couple.

I was right.

Turns out that multiple readers in both localities saw the item (it’s unclear whether they were responding to the print version or the online version) and responded. Come wedding day, the couple had not one, not two, not even three — but four John Deere tractors. Plus a riding lawn mower!

April shared her wedding photos, which we have posted here on our Salem site and here on our Botetourt site.

It’s no Watergate, but we just had made one couple’s dream come true, all thanks to our hyperlocal sites.

Were we the first to put journalists in coffeeshops?

Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View sets up shop at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville, Virginia.

Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View sets up shop at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville, Virginia.

Over the years, I’ve seen chatter in the industry from time to time about the idea of stationing journalists in coffee shops.

David Cohn, aka “digidave,” wrote about this concept in this 2009 blog post which envisions a newspaper that operates a coffee shop. The idea is to take journalists out from behind their downtown fortress and put them out among the people.

The Huffingon Post also reported in 2009 about a small Czech newspaper that was operating out of a coffee shop.

The Asbury Park Press got some buzz from American Journalism Review in 2010 when its Freehold hyperlocal site stationed its community reporter in a coffee shop.

I’m surprised, though, that no one has written about The Roanoke Times — whose journalists-in-coffee shops business model predates all those above.

In 2008, we closed a money-losing community news tab and in its place created three new community news publications — each with a strong web presence. Each was in outlying growth area — The Botetourt View in Botetourt County, So Salem in Salem, SWoCo in Southwest Roanoke County. And a key part of the business model was that the the community journalists for each of them would not be working out of the main newspaper building in downtown Roanoke, but would be out in the community.

Every day.

How “out in the community”?

Well, from day one, we have advertised that the community journalists hold office hours — in a coffee shop. Each Wednesday morning, the community journalist in each publication sets up shop in the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea location in their respective zones. Sometimes people come to see them to offer stories, sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t, well, that’s where the journalists work. We don’t need a bricks-and-mortar building, just a laptop and wi-fi.

We’ve found the idea to be very successful, especially in Botetourt County. On some Wednesdays, community journalist Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View has a line of people waiting to see her at her coffeeshop bureau.

In fact, she’s found the concept so useful that she now holds regular office hours at other public locations on other days around the county, making her a true mobile journalist.

I remain surprised other papers haven’t embraced this concept, because it does two things at once — it puts journalists in closer contact with their community and . . . it saves money. Who needs bricks-and-mortar anymore?

Why Patch failed in so many places

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  Wikipedia.

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  My experience in community journalism has borne out a military truism: An indigenous force almost always trumps an outside invader. (Photo from Wikipedia)

So why did so many of the AOL hyperlocal sites fail? Of all the reasons being expounded, here are two I’ll add to the list based on our experiences here in Roanoke.

* Not all communities are communities. Some are simply places. For a hyperlocal site to work, it needs to be built around a jurisdiction that already has a strong sense of community. When we were figuring out what our community news zones would be in Roanoke, we had a checklist we used to try to measure sense of community. Does the place hold parades? Festivals? How big is high school football on Friday night?

Here’s a story I like to tell that illustrates the sense of community. In 2010, the Cave Spring High School and James River High School boys basketball both won state championships (in separate size classifications) on the same day. That evening, the Cave Spring team returned to Southwest Roanoke County to a modest reception at the school attended by friends and family.

Out in Botetourt County, though, the James River team returned to a full-bore parade through downtown Buchanan. A police car lead the procession. The team rode in on a firetruck, circled around downtown and then was deposited in front of the firehouse where a crowd of hundreds was gathered. Every politician who wanted to speak was given a chance, and believe me, they all did. Then all the players were expected to speak, as well! Finally, when all the speech-making was done, the team and crowd retired to a reception inside.

And this wasn’t just something done for a boys team; when the team’s volleyball team won the state championship a year later, the same drill was repeated. The point being — Botetourt County has a much stronger sense of community than Southwest Roanoke County — so it shouldn’t surprise us that our online traffic with The Botetourt View is significantly higher than with our SWoCo site in Southwest Roanoke County, even though Botetourt is less populous and rural and Southwest Roanoke County a populous, affluent suburb.

So I have to wonder if Patch simply picked some of the wrong places.

* Secondly, our experience has been that to do true hyperlocal journalism, or community journalism, you need an indigenous workforce. In war, a guerrilla army of natives always has an advantage over an invading conventional force. It’s the same way in journalism. Don’t hire some J-school grad from who-knows-where and send them into a community and expect them to be a community journalist; they’’ll get beat by the competition if that competition consists of true locals — even if those locals don’t have formal journalism credentials. Those locals know the place from the inside out; they will have street credibility you can’t buy. It’s better to find some people who are wired into the community and teach them the journalism skills they need than to take a fully-credentialed journalist and send them into a strange place and expect them to beat the locals. That’s not a message journalists and j-schools want to hear, but it’s the business reality.

Keynote speaker at Media Day at Bluefield College

Dwayne Yancey speaking at Media Day at Bluefield College. Photo courtesy of Bluefield College.

Dwayne Yancey speaking at Media Day at Bluefield College. Photo courtesy of Bluefield College.

I was the keynote speaker at Media Day at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia on April 23, 2013. I told the students, faculty and media members that now is actually a great time to get into the news business, because all the old rules are changing, the new rules have yet to be written and those who join now will be able to help write them.

Here’s what Bluefield College sent out about the event:

Bluefield College paid tribute to the work of local journalists during its 14th Annual Media Appreciation Day, April 23, which featured remarks from Roanoke Timessenior editor Dwayne Yancey and the presentation of a $1,000 award for excellence in media.
Since 2000, Bluefield College has hosted the area’s media professionals on campus for a luncheon, keynote address and media-student roundtable, all part of Media Appreciation Day. The event, according to BC officials, is designed to “recognize area media representatives for their efforts in promoting Bluefield College and serving the community.”
“We want you to know how important you are not only to Bluefield College, but the community at-large,” BC public relations director Chris Shoemaker told the 30 journalists in attendance. “We’re grateful for the ways in which you share our story – our news, our activities, our accomplishments, and our hopes and dreams – but even more appreciate of the greater role you play in informing and educating the public at-large.”
As part of the recognition for the day, the college presented two Shott Excellence-in-Media Awards, made possible by the generosity of media entrepreneur Michael Shott and his North Point Foundation in an effort to help preserve the legacy of the Shott family who pioneered the presence of news media in the Bluefield area.
The Shott Excellence-in-Media Journalist Award, determined by votes from the local media and featuring a $1,000 cash prize for the journalist who demonstrates excellence in his or her vocation and who makes a significant contribution to the local community, went to longtime Bluefield Daily Telegraph senior editor Bill Archer, who outshined 20 other nominees from 10 different organizations.
“He is a journalist who cares deeply about the communities and the people of this region,” said Shoemaker, who helped James ‘Smokey’ Shott present the Excellence Awards. “No story is too big or too small. He will cover a small-town festival with the same zeal and enthusiasm as major, breaking news events.”
Archer, winner of a variety of awards for excellence in writing from the West Virginia Press Association, began his journalism career in 1986 with the local weekly newspaper The Twin State News Observer. He became executive editor of that publication before joining the staff of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in 1992, where he has remained for the past two decades. A pillar in the community with more than 30 years of service and civic engagement, Archer is also a historian and author, having published nine pictorial histories of communities in theregion.
“He is perhaps the best-known journalist in this area,” Shoemaker read from the nominations for Archer, “thanks to his dedication to the idea that it is his job to inform, entertain and inspire his readers, all while being a vital part of the region he serves.”
The Shott Excellence-in-Media Student Award, featuring a $1,000 scholarship and designed to recognize a current BC communications student who demonstrates excellence in the classroom and in his or her extracurricular communications activities, went to senior Angi Highlander of Hampton, Virginia. Lauded by her professors who nominated her for the award for her leadership, work ethic, versatility, communication skills and service to others, Highlander was described as a “great writer,” “very good graphic designer” and “exceptional oral communicator.”
“She brings to every class she takes an unabridged commitment to excel,” Shoemaker read from the nominations for Highlander. “She projects a delight in learning and graciously shares this enthusiasm with everyone around her.”
Outside of the classroom, Highlander completed two public relations internships, captained the women’s volleyball team, served as a resident assistant, sang with two BC select student voice ensembles, taught abstinence to high school students, and functioned as a personal aid for a handicapped student at BC.
“She is genuinely devoted to serving others,” said Shoemaker, “and poised to use all of her skills to make important and lasting contributions in the world.”
BC’s Media Day program also included a keynote speech from Yancey, a 33-year veteran of the industry, who now serves as senior editor for new channels at the Roanoke Times. Involved with a variety of new ventures to deliver news across multiple platforms, Yancey spoke to his colleagues about a changing media industry, revolutionized by technology and social media.
“We are in an era where all the old rules are giving way, so my advice is to be prepared for the maximum amount of change,” Yancey told his fellow journalists. “Smartphones, web service and around-the-clock breaking news cycles have created audiences accustomed to getting live news any time and anywhere they want it. It’s one of those great transition periods in history where everything seems to change so quickly — be it the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, or the end of the dinosaurs. Exciting to look back on, but sometimes very confusing when you’re in the middle of it.”
Despite the industry’s rapid change, declining revenue and increasingly competitive environment, Yancey told BC’s aspiring journalists to be encouraged about their prospects for success.
“It’s a great time to get into the industry,” said Yancey, who also supervises five niche publications for the Roanoke Times, “because everything is changing. Rules are being rewritten, and you, unlike those in the industry today, will not be encumbered by the idea that ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’”
BC’s Media Appreciation Day also included a roundtable discussion between members of the media and BC communication students. During the roundtable, the students asked for advice about “getting (their) foot in the door” and “reporting controversial news,” among other topics. The journalists also discussed how best to prepare for a career in journalism, the advantages of diversifying your skills, the competitiveness of the industry, and audiences’ demand for sensational news, among other issues.