Grant to fund UNC journalism partnership with N.C. newspapers to create new business models around hyper-local news

The UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication will help rural newspapers develop sustainable business models around hyper-local news that can be produced using public information and open source software, with a $275,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Assistant professor Ryan Thornburg is leading the project that was one 16 winners of the 2011 Knight News Challenge.

Thornburg is aggregating data from state, county and municipal governments in North Carolina – making it useful to rural newspapers and their readers – through customization of the OpenBlock Web application that can display news and data onto local maps. Popular applications of the technology include crime maps, real estate transactions, birth and death notices, and restaurant inspection scores.

The project will help local newspapers to develop a significant source of new online revenue that can help sustain and enhance their news and information gathering.

The Knight News Challenge is an international contest to fund innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations and information distribution and visualization.

The staffs of rural news organizations are often small with limited time and resources to experiment with technology and develop new digital strategies, Thornburg said. “It’s a privilege to work with our state’s great community papers and their hard-working journalists moving into the digital age,” he said. “We believe this project will help open the door to important information for our citizens and significant new revenues for our rural newspapers. We've got a lot to learn about whether and how digital news platforms that can work in big cities might work in communities that knew hyper-local before it was cool.”

The project involves digitizing public documents so they can be accessed through OpenBlock database software developed by OpenPlans with funding from Knight Foundation. The goal, Thornburg said, is to use digital public records to lower the cost of doing reporting and also create a new editorial product that is popular with rural audiences and valuable to local advertisers.

“We’re excited about the potential of applying new approaches to accessing and sharing public data in rural communities,” said John Bracken, director of digital media for Knight Foundation.

Recent research and partnerships led by the UNC journalism school’s Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy, funded by the McCormick Foundation, shows that citizens in the state’s rural communities want the kind of content Thornburg’s project will help produce.

“This kind of information draws new and younger audiences who will return to their community newspaper websites repeatedly and increase the time they spend on the site searching for and sorting the public information they want,” Abernathy said. “The increased traffic creates opportunities for the newspapers to attract sponsorships and provide new revenue streams needed to support quality community journalism.”

Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, said the project would fill a need in North Carolina. “Small papers can’t do this sort of work on their own, so it just isn’t getting done,” he said. “What a gift this is for those communities.”

Beth Grace, director of the N.C. Press Association said the state’s newspapers would welcome the help. “At a time when papers have lost staff and have had to postpone in-depth/investigative and trend reporting, this could bring some of that information back to papers and their readers,” she said.

Les High, editor and publisher of The Whiteville News-Reporter, has worked with Abernathy and Thornburg over the past year.  “As is the case in most rural communities in this state, the public information we want to report is not readily available,” he said. “This project brings the benefits of the digital highway to even the most remote areas, and it could be an important source of new revenue for community newspapers everywhere.”

Thornburg hopes the project will create a model for gathering and reporting public information throughout rural America and eventually shed light on larger trends that would otherwise go unreported.