This year, we were invited by the Open Society Foundations to organize a local news experiment called NewsTrust Baltimore. The goal of this six-month pilot was to help Baltimore residents find and share good journalism about their community—and to teach college and high school students how to separate fact from fiction online.
From February to July 2011, NewsTrust Baltimore featured some of the best news coverage in Baltimore, selected from local online, print and broadcast outlets. Our pilot website invited our staff and community to rate and discuss the local news together. Their top-rated stories were promoted around the clock on this virtual news hub about Baltimore.
We learned a great deal from this experiment. Our overall findings suggest that NewsTrust Baltimore improved the way residents find their local news and helped participants become more informed citizens. Here are some of our key takeaways.
- Baltimore’s news ecosystem is growing
Throughout our pilot, we observed a thriving news ecosystem in Baltimore, with a growing independent scene that complements the work of mainstream media organizations. We identified dozens of reliable news sources, from over 120 publications, many of which our members hadn’t heard of before. All this bodes well for the future of local journalism.
- A curated feed of local journalism is a useful service
NewsTrust Baltimore helped residents find good journalism about their city, all in one place. Our staff curated the news daily and posted new stories for review on the site, from a variety of local sources. Traffic to the site was steady, and over 60 percent of survey respondents found the service useful. NewsTrust’s collaborative evaluation tools, combined with daily staff curation, proved effective for surfacing quality news coverage in Baltimore.
- Review tools help students separate fact from fiction
Our educational programs and review tools helped hundreds of students become more critical readers and engaged citizens. We partnered with Towson University, Morgan State University, the Baltimore Freedom Academy and Wide Angle Youth Media, among others. These educational partners found many useful ways to help their students develop their literacy skills and get better informed by reviewing local news stories.
- Social news builds community, online and offline
NewsTrust Baltimore brought together a diverse community of citizens, journalists, students and educators to learn about local issues and how they’re covered in the news. We partnered with over 20 local news organizations, including the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Brew, Center Maryland, Urbanite magazine and WYPR-FM. These media partners collaborated actively with us to engage their communities in this interactive quest, attracting more than 21,000 unique visitors, with 535 members contributing 3,500 reviews. Through this online network and face-to-face meetings, our members made many new connections that might not have happened otherwise.
- A diverse team is a key ingredient
Building a local social network is a team sport, which requires a wide range of skills. Our world-class team combined the diverse talents of local editor Mary Hartney, community manager Gin Ferrara, writer/researcher Andrew Hazlett, national editor Jon Mitchell and engineering manager Subramanya Sastry. Together, they delivered a high-quality service with modest resources, and their close collaboration made their individual contributions more effective. Read their individual reports on our blog.
- Local sustainability remains a challenge
We are deeply grateful to Lori McGlinchey, Diana Morris and Debra Rubino at the Open Society Foundations for making this experiment possible. We wish we could have discovered a viable revenue model to offer NewsTrust Baltimore beyond this six-month pilot. But a longer-term investment appears needed to make this local service sustainable, despite this pilot’s many positive outcomes.
Many thanks to all pilot participants for your inspiring contributions to this experiment. We hope you got as much from it as we did and that our findings will help you find and share more great local journalism about Baltimore.
For more information about NewsTrust Baltimore, I invite you to read our full report.