It was an honor and a privilege to be one of the 125-odd local place-based sites to attend the first ever Block by Block ( #hashtag bxb2010). What could be better than sharing a room with other excited, passionate people running local web sites around the country and a handful of foundations interested in finding ways to support them? There were even a few big company types--notably Yahoo's Local editor, Anthony Moor, and Patch's regional editorial director Tim Winsor, who came to express their interested and support.
All good, right?
Uh, not really,
24 hours after coming home and crashing for a day, and still excited about the great people I met and the valuable work we are doing, I kind of feel like I was at a poets' convention, or a meeting of botanical explorers who find rare plants and write them up, saving our ecosystem because they've tracked a piece of lichen whose spot in the food chain keeps the Northern ice floes from melting any faster.
Folks, we have a movement, but we have no tangible support.
We have voices applauding our willingness to work long hours for little or no pay, cheerleading the good--and the news--we provide to our communities--but not organized to fund us (especially on the local level, where many community foundations have no clue), and certainly not yet focused on helping us get the health insurance and the business infrastructure that will make our local endeavors flourish.
As someone who's worked on the web since before Mozilla launched back in the 90s, I have been involved with lots of speculative projects, and have done lots of things because they solved problems, hadn't been done before, or just seemed worth doing, but I am worried that the few foundations that so graciously came to this conference--and who are so genuinely interested and engaged--aren't enough to turn a gathering of admirers into a tangible movement to support new types of quality community and local media in the US.
I'm going to write about the cool people who were there and the useful things they said at some point, but I want to focus now, while the thoughts are clear, on what we need that we didn't necessarily talk about:
What we need NOW is a means to have knowledge-sharing and support for the 125 people in the room and the other 5,000 who didn't know about or who couldn't come to the conference. After all, as my friend Lisa Wiliams, CEO of Placeblogger, says: In 2006, 1 in 8 Americans lived in a city with a placeblog -- now the number is 1 in 2.
So, some suggestions as to what should be happening next so that there's some real teeth behind the smiles of our 24 hour meeting:
1) Set up a list-serv for Local site operators to knowledge share.
Definition of members: You must own and operate a local site, commercial or non-profit, revenue under $3MM year (funding can be greater, if you are so lucky).
2) Set up a wiki for list-serv members to share templates, best practices, etc. with one another. Publishers can choose what to make public, but the focus here is establishing a peer group.
3) Fund a community manager part-time who can manage 1 and 2. A grad student would do, but how about a site operator who needs some support instead? Form a committee and let people apply.
4) Fund a survey and have some foundations take a tangible action:
Do we know what the most pressing needs of local site operators are?
I'd say revenue, but I'd also venture most of the ones who are less than 3 years old and/or who are non-profits with less than $100,000 in funding lack business and marketing team members.
The action step from determining business infrastructure was an issue, for example, could be to set up a fund addressed to this purpose that could even do micro-lending to support bringing sales & marketing folks on to sites that seem viable, if cash-strapped.
5) Create a incubator to support new news ventures that aren't funded by wealthy patrons.
I spent a summer at Tech Stars, the venture incubator, and appreciated the portfolio management approach to VC investing which basically involved giving 10 companies some seed money ($10-15K), supporting them with skills building, and then providing further investment in the ones that seemed most promising.
Why don't we have the foundations who want to support community media and civic engagement do the same thing?
How about a joint $5MM community news fund that can run an incubator program for local news and fund on an incremental basis? Such a program would both help local sites, AND provide a much better ROI ran some of the spot grants seem to.
What else do YOU think we need to do to help local community operators flourish? Post in the comments or use the tag #byb2010next