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The Gazette Co.’s blueprint for building communities

One path for transforming a local media company for the digital age is to build brand not simply around the traditional notions of news and advertising but around a deeper idea of civic leadership and engagement.

This is the approach at The Gazette Company, an independently owned media group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The goal of the company’s leaders is to redefine the business model through the narrative facilitation of community building – not just news or journalism. By helping people in the community organize around shared interests and common issues, they hope to create a connection for their newsrooms to make their products stronger and more relevant.

These ideas, and the notion of community building, provided the basis of the American Press Institute’s Transformational Communities” workshop at The Chicago Tribune on March 11. The program was the seventh stop on API’s Transformation Tour.

Chuck Peters

Chuck Peters

The Gazette Co. is run by president and CEO Chuck Peters, who has been an advocate for transforming community journalism for more than a decade. Not only is the advertising-based revenue model no longer working for news organizations, Peters contends, the content model needs to evolve, as well. “We are not engaging our communities as well as we could be to actually create valuable information,” he said.

In the community-building framework, the approach is more collaborative than in traditional news gathering. Journalists invest time and resources in the issues and people they cover, collaborate with community thought-leaders on strategies for change and highlight what’s working.

Peters’ background is in organizational management. As an executive at Amana Refrigeration and Maytag, he reorganized companies to create products that were more responsive to consumer needs. Now, he’s applying those methods to a community newspaper. His vision is to create “a pro-active media organization that points to important and complicated issues and engages the community in solving them.”

The concept of applying community-building practices to a news media company may be challenging, and Peters’ efforts are still admittedly a work in progress. But he believes this approach is essential to his organization growing audience and finding a new path to revenue.

To get started, Peters turned to local experts to understand how Cedar Rapids was changing in a digitally connected era. Eventually, he hired one of those experts, an educator specializing in organizational effectiveness named Dr. Trace Pickering, to become The Gazette Co.’s director of community building.

In the role, Pickering guides a program to correlate news coverage to the way modern communities actually operate. That often has more to do with informal networks in communities than traditional or formal institutions.

Another member of the team, Amanda Styron, goes beyond coverage and helps The Gazette Co. develop, support and collaborate with community groups.

Styron, Pickering and Peters contend that the sustainability of a local news organization depends on becoming more connected to these networks where people, talent, connections, knowledge, diversity and resources are already reshaping the way communities identify and solve problems. The challenge for newspapers, they argue, is that newsroom cultures tend to cling to traditional institutional definitions of community and often resist adapting to the new ways that communities work.

This failure to adapt, even after newsrooms have identified how they need to change, was well established years ago in research conducted by Vickey Williams, a trainer and news-culture consultant who directed The Learning Newsroom, a Knight Foundation-funded research project and a joint venture of the American Society of News Editors and API from 2004 to 2007.

TC_constructive-defensive-culturesWilliams’ work identified two kinds of newsroom cultures, “defensive” and “constructive.” And she charted ways that newsrooms could break out of the top-down internally focused culture that prevented incumbent news organizations from adapting to new ideas.

Williams advocates internal conversations aimed at breaking down the directive management style traditionally found in most newsrooms. She also found that news companies need to train journalists to be more strategic and innovative, and to relate better to their readers.

TC_gifted-leadersYet making these cultural changes can often be the biggest obstacle to media companies successfully transforming. Gifted leaders, Williams said, excel at meeting reluctance, preventing resistance and communicating the expectation that engagement with the community is now everyone’s job.

Perhaps no concept being tried in news companies requires a bigger shift than the idea of reshaping your company around community building. One challenge is that community building is not a single idea or solution. Rather, Peters’ executives emphasized, it is a broad group of values, practices and tools aimed at addressing community needs by approaching them holistically with a long-term commitment. It requires forming new relationships with the community built on trust, transparency and shared experiences.

The first step, Peters’ team argues, is to recognize how news and information is created, distributed, accessed and shared in today’s media ecosystem. Legacy media companies tend to have an “inside-out” view of the community, Pickering argued, one in which content decisions are made by editors and reporters according to processes and procedures based on established news beats and well-defined journalistic guidelines.

Today newsrooms need to have an “outside in” approach, Pickering argues. Problems are not identified or solved by any one institution, organization or even a set of formal groups. Instead, the conversation and the solutions are more encompassing.

That, however, is an opportunity for local media companies. A news organization, in the role of community builder, can provide context, understanding and connections to the audiences it serves and places influences of the community at the forefront of internal decision-making.

The Gazette Co. team offers the following framework to get started:

1. Identify a problem, critical issue or “community of passion”

“Pick something that your organization can be good at and invest your resources there,” Peters says. He cautions that the issues and passions that resonate with communities will vary with geographic, cultural and economic differences.

The Gazette Co. focused its first community building experiments around education. The team is leading an effort to develop networks where “anyone who cares about education can join in the conversation,” Peters said.

In partnership with its local ABC affiliate KCRG-TV, The Gazette Co. launched Iowa TransformEd, a website that features news, resources, Tweets, blogs by community and student writers and a searchable database of Iowa educators.

This effort connects teachers, parents, legislators and students who have good ideas about education and provides networking and sharing opportunities online and at parties, meet-ups and workshops.

Pickering said they try to make learning more appetizing to students and teachers with initiatives such as “bacon-wrapped lessons workshops.” During the two-day event, teachers assemble their best lesson plans into one indexed database. The lessons are vetted by a panel of students and parents in the “shark tank” and redesigned to make them “tastier” when they are taught in the classroom.

The partnership also created the Billy Madison Project, based on the 1995 Adam Sandler movie in which Sandler’s character must return and complete school as an adult. The Madison project puts area business and community people back into classrooms as students and then lets them use the experience and their lives as adults to craft a shared vision for transforming education.

2. Understand community-wide context and needs

News organizations usually organize coverage around traditional beats and geography that doesn’t necessarily match the way people think about the issues, Pickering argued. That has more to do with passions, behavior and concerns than topics. For example, when coverage is defined by the mayor’s office or the school board, it may reflect the agendas of those local institutions, but it may not shed light on the underlying reasons why people make decisions about their families and communities or behave in different ways.

“We assume that the community is connecting the dots of our media coverage and understanding the context of news events and its relevance to their lives,” Peters said. But often news companies don’t know. They only know that when newspaper subscriptions are cancelled the needs of the readers were not met.

Peters and his team want their company to take a different approach. They want to first identify their communities’ “jobs to be done,” the unmet needs or fundamental problems they hope to address and solve. Then, they want support the community’s resources, power alliances and networks to make shared goals explicit. Finally, they want the news company to help citizens develop a strategy for making deep-rooted change in the community. A connected community will be stronger, more flexible and better able to adapt to change, Peters said.

3. Build trust relationships with community builders

Solving the complex problems facing most communities today requires collaboration, buy-in and bold action from a range of stakeholders, Peters’ team argues. It’s also difficult for any one of those players to achieve change alone. The Gazette Co. strategy is to help by strengthening and expanding relationships among active community members, especially leaders—not just to report their actions and disagreements. Their experiments, in other words, aim to connect people to one another and with resources so that they can accomplish their goals.

As an example, The Gazette Co. is working with the local United Way, a community college and a local foundation to adopt community issues that these institutions can support. As their community-building efforts develop, the organizations are encouraged to tell their stories through the people who are actively engaged in them in a variety of media and settings. Timely narratives from the community help bring attention to the range of voices involved and inspire more forward movement.

Another example of giving voice to new ideas is an “Ignite” event, at which participants have five minutes to speak about their personal and professional passions on the topics presented. In 2011, The Gazette Co. partnered with the Cedar Rapids Visual Arts Commission to host their first Ignite event to generate awareness and to stimulate thought and action on arts opportunities in Cedar Rapids. More recently, they hosted an Ignite event at which nine teachers talked about their vision for innovations in education.

By developing community partnerships around relevant issues, Peters argues, publishers can create a relationship with audiences, connect them to each other, and provide the information and resources they need to make informed decisions that solve difficult community problems.

And these connections will deepen the company’s connection to the community and can lead to new revenue opportunities.

4. Solve problems that align with your purpose and capabilities

In Peters’ model, building a local news company around community engagement doesn’t end with providing news, resources and forums for connected networks. It also involves helping solve problems.

For The Gazette Co., that starts with looking at the established resources, power alliances and sources of innovation. Styron recommends working with a community to make shared goals explicit and develop a strategy for making lasting and sustainable change in the system.

She suggests building a roadmap to the community assets and unlocking hidden resources. “You have to do your homework,” she said. “Identify the stakeholders, their functions and aspirations, their capital holdings and assets, and their relationships to one another.”

Active events and programs that serve a variety of processes and purposes nurture communities. Styron urges community builders to create gathering places and forums for discussion. She says these events provide opportunities to hear and exchange ideas, discuss differences, build on shared goals, clarify information, establish agendas for the future, and celebrate progress.

5. Enable social networks that foster virtual communities

The final step in The Gazette Co. model is to sustain these new communities in an ongoing way through dialogues across digital platforms. Think of social media as the new circulation and marketing departments, Peters’ team says, only in this new method the community itself distributes content, promotes it and organizes around it.

Social media also creates and sustains “virtual communities” that are much like geographic ones with an important difference: they are not bound by physical time or space. Virtual communities allow members to interact at any time and from anywhere. Because of this, social media applications can build communities that could never exist before the technology emerged and can extend far beyond the boundaries of newspaper circulation zones.

These connected communities can be fans from around the globe that share a passion for a local sports team, support groups for those who share the same chronic health condition, collectives for every interest or hobby imaginable, business intelligence for many occupations and professions, or concerned educators trying to achieve, as Peters describes, “a world-class education for the children of Iowa.”

Peters and The Gazette Co. may seem to be at the far edge of how local news companies are trying to transform themselves. Peters is only getting started. The model may at first sound challenging to many traditional notions about local news. But at its most basic level, The Gazette team is engaged in something conventional news and advertising always provided: understanding the community, knowing the people in it, mapping the resources and assets it has, and facilitating the members of the community in coming together to solve shared problems. That, Peters argues, is a mission most community news organizations share.

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