Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Victoria Advocate's Local Information Network

Hats off to the Victoria Advocate for making the list of finalists in this year's Digital Edge Awards in the most innovative visitor participation category.

This little-known independent newspaper in southeastern Texas relaunched its Web site in October to focus on conversation around news, using the Bakomatic social media platform that they purchased from Participata LLC and The Bakersfield Californian, as well as some of their own PHP applications.

If you've ever used, the site we launched nearly three years ago (and which Bakomatic grew out of), you'll see some familiar elements -- such as recent blog posts and comments, "Seen on the Scene" photo galleries and user profile interests. I'm of course proud to see our ideas and technology extended to other markets in this way, but Victoria didn't stop there. They also integrated discussion into news stories, and they dynamically bubble up the most talked-about stories right to their home page.

What I love about the Advocate is how it harnesses interest in news to engage people in other ways. Thanks to the user profiles that show up next to each comment, conversations around news inevitably bleed into other types of community interaction around user profiles and blogs. For example, you may see a comment from someone about a school story, click on his profile picture and find out that he has the same hobbies as you do. This is a perfect example of how newspapers can position themselves as not just providers of local news and information, but also as the glue of their community. You may go to a newspaper site to read a story someone e-mails you, then find yourself engaged in conversation and social networking quite by accident.

Many people were involved in the success of the Advocate's relaunch, but in my opinion the real champion from the beginning is Dan Easton, the newspaper's Vice President of Interactive.

I will never forget the e-mail I received from Dan one year ago, when I was tired and jet-lagged after traveling to London to speak at the World Association of Newspapers conference. He'd heard me speak at an Inland Press Association conference and wanted to know if we'd thought about collaborating with other independent newspapers like them. I think the phrase "in the spirit of open-source" came up at least three times in that conversation, and he was clearly on fire about community and open source (which makes sense -- at a high level, open source development is one type of user contributed content that just happens to be code). After agreeing to wait a day to let me get over jet-lag, we continued e-mailing ideas back and forth at a rapid pace, and they eventually purchased Bakomatic last spring.

As we all build upon successes and our work becomes more established within our companies, perhaps we independents will be able to work more collaboratively in the future. This is already happening to an extent with fully open-source platforms like Drupal, but almost never for proprietary newspaper-specific stuff. And it's not exactly easy to do that, as it would require a commitment by multiple independent news organizations to work in that way and staff around it.

I'm personally too busy to manage that myself, and I don't know when we would be able to do it, if ever. We still intentionally operate in scrappy "Rebel Alliance" mode, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. But I always enjoy talking to people who see that same future possibility, because it is something that should and hopefully will happen one day if independent newspapers are going to survive. Dan Easton is one of those people.

By the way, in case you've never heard of Victoria, it's a city of about 100,000 that is just south of Austin and southeast of San Antonio. Here it is on a map:

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