I’m Jim McBee, designer and cofounder of The Ann magazine in Ann Arbor, Mich. I’ve been interested in news-based discussion since 2005 when I was involved in Bluffton Today, a tiny upstart news daily in South Carolina that gave anyone who wanted one what we called a free “blog” on our Drupal-based platform. It was a freewheeling deal before Facebook was ubiquitous, and we “reverse published” raw commentary to fill print newshole. Readers loved it.
Then the trolls came, and not just the easy-to-ban type, but respected online community members who formed a clique and began to accuse us journalists of sock-puppeting and selectively killing comments — you know, all that tripe that plagues news-comment sections and discussion boards to this day and, presumably, scares many people away. As if any of us had time or energy to conspire against our readers.
My current project has an anemic digital presence — we intentionally focused on print as that’s where the revenue was — but we’ve long dreamed of developing a digital conversation that can drive news coverage, rather than just follow it. We get very little traction in story comments or social media postings, so there’s not much to build from. Upside: If we do something new from scratch, we haven’t lost much.
Ideally, I’d like ways for community members to influence news coverage and provide a meaningful knowledge/source base journalists can use to deepen their work. And I suspect that involved readers will be loyal readers. We have a hyper-intelligent, highly educated, upscale population that is underserved by withering local news providers — when Ann Arbor lost its daily paper, it was then the largest city in the U.S. not to have one. I think a new, engaging approach to local news could really hit the mark in college towns across the country.