Early success and struggles, and why Central PA NewsVote isn’t Spot.Us

When Central PA NewsVote first launched last week, the initial post got 36 comments, many of which were story ideas I was very happy about. (Catch up on my new blog, in which I solicit story ideas from readers and allow them to assign me their favorite via polling, in my older entries on the subject.)

But the follow-up post, in which I actually put their ideas into poll form, had gotten just 68 votes as of 10:30 a.m. Monday. The poll had been up for several days, and it’s a high-traffic web site. That’s a very low number.

I had done my best to promote it via social media, tweeting the heck out of it and promoting it amongst my interested friends through Facebook. I suspect that led to a lot of out-of-town journalists voting, which is nice and all but not exactly what the blog needs to thrive.

Such low numbers leave it open to gaming, as I suspect one of the subjects might have started an e-mail campaign to boost its voting numbers. I noticed a quick rise in one of the story ideas.

Since I put the poll up Thursday, it had never been promoted on the home page of PennLive as the original post had. So shortly after 10:30 a.m. I got the OK to put a teaser up in our breaking news blog, which has its headlines displayed prominently on the home page. We’ll see if that improves the numbers, because I’m seeing now how important it is to have a true cross-section of readers if this is going to work.

In the future, there will be more consistent promotion in the breaking news blog and the print edition, so I’ll be less worried about voting numbers. The Web site folks did a great job promoting the launch, and I probably should have lobbied to get significant promotion for the first poll, too.

Other thoughts:

— Though it wasn’t voted on, opening myself up to story suggestions led to an A1 story that ran above the fold Saturday.

I got an e-mail from a reader with a simple idea: When someone is laid off, what do you say to the person? Does anyone really know what to say in that situation?

It was a great idea I wouldn’t have come up with by myself, and ended up being a somewhat interesting read.

— Several people have drawn the comparison to Spot.Us, and I can see why. Spot.Us, for the uninitiated, allows anyone to pitch stories, then others can vote with their wallets by donating money to hire reporters for specific stories.

David Cohn, its founder, dared to tweet yesterday that Central PA NewsVote is smarter than Spot.Us because the news organization absorbs the cost of reporting. I happen to think that’s silly modesty, as Spot.Us is a much more innovative concept in that it operates outside the traditional news organization. Anyone can reshuffle chairs inside the news organization, but it’s something else to establish a completely new model.

But that’s a silly “argument” to have. What’s important to note, though, is that Central PA NewsVote is really working in a different area than Spot.Us. There’s a big difference between the community features my blog is soliciting and the investigative stories being pitched on Spot.Us. So we’re talking much different levels of reader engagement and different ways that readers are going to use our sites.

What we do have in common, though, is an acknowledgment that democracy has a place in the news process. The more people are trying similar concepts, the more we can find out where it fits.

— I’ve been thrilled and highly appreciative – yet slightly unsettled – by all the attention the idea has gotten so far in the journalism community. Among my favorites: Alana Taylor had a nice analysis on beatblogging.org, and Jay Rosen discussed the idea in a podcast with Dave Winer (about 28 minutes in).

Thanks to all who are excited by the idea, and I hope others try it elsewhere so we can compare notes.

I’m only uneasy because I’d like to see it produce first. I don’t want this to be a gimmick, I want it to be a legitimate gateway to great stories. I want it to be a genuine involvement of the readers. As of now, it’s still just an idea, and I’m looking forward to getting the real answers.


    tap-tap no takebacks!

    hehe… okay. So it is a silly argument to have – but either way what you are doing is very refreshing. Admitting that people should have a say in editorial output! Ludicrous!

    If I win the lottery – I would just hand that money to the users on spot.us – and they could essentially “vote” on what stories they want to see.

    In my opinion every news org should have a Daniel Victor doing what you are doing.

  • Run Up The Score

    Just voted for the thrift stores / food bank story, myself. Nice to see that it’s up to 215 votes. In all honesty, all of the leading vote-getters are legit stories. I would suspect that the thrift stores are doing rather well, but the food banks and clinics are being hit rather hard.

    That “two mile rule” for busing seems a little hard to believe.

  • Daniel,

    Don’t be discouraged by low poll counts early on. As you point out, you really need your effort promoted on the front page of the paper’s Web site.

    And, I’ve found, that things like these take time to grow. (Not that I’ve done anything of this magnitude. But I do this “reader’s question” thing in my weekly column. Readers e-mail me a question; I post it on my blog and in my column; other readers answer it. At first, no questions/no answers … then, people sort of got what we were trying to do. Some weeks I’m flooded.)

    Another point: Even if people don’t vote on a story … could be a good idea. Readers don’t have to follow the format to express their idea. (Don’t fall into the old media trap of — people must do things the way we want them to.)

    Good luck!

  • Vicki

    I wonder what the result would be to merge this idea (tell us what you want us to write about) with something like the SF Chronicle’s Two Cents program (tell us what you know about this) — http://ccj.p2technology.com/node/714

  • Cool experiment, Daniel. Good luck.

    As for the dropoff in numbers after the initial post, here’s my completely unscientific guess: Perhaps some of those responses came from people who saw the initial post as a venue for telling you the pet story they’ve been harping for the paper to cover. I certainly seemed to pick up that tone from a few of the comments. Perhaps those people are more interested in telling you their pet story than being consistent participants in this venture. So maybe the responses you got on the follow-up post should be the starting benchmark from which to measure the growth of your project, since those are the people who might be willing to participate on a consistent basis even if their pet stories aren’t in the poll.

    I think you definitely need a lot of promotion for something like this. You mentioned you did a lot of social media promotion. What about promotion in print to reach audience segments that might not be heavily involved in social media? They might have stories to tell, and commenting & voting on a blog doesn’t demand all that much social media immersion. I also hope you’re planning to put a promo in print and online w/ every story you write from this experiment. Even in the example you gave about the story you got from a reader about what to tell someone who’s been laid off, you can stick a promo w/ it that says something like “This story idea came from a reader. Tell us and the community your untold story now at …”

  • Run Up The Score

    Plus, don’t underestimate the cynicism of the readership. You’ll have to do a few of the requested stories before the people have faith in the process — kind of like starting an actual blog.

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  • @John Zhu

    You make a really good point about the pet projects. I’d prefer knowing that if a reader stumbles upon something interesting, they’d think to post it to the blog. No way to measure that yet.

    We’ll definitely be promoting it in print. Each story that comes out of this effort will be accompanied by the blog’s URL, a brief description, and credit to the person who pitched it.

  • Vern

    Stay the course….It’ll take awhile to build up a solid foundation of commenters that don’t pollute the page with filth and politics. I voted (maybe twice?), but I had no suggestions for the “person to profile” question, as I don’t know anybody extraordinary that would be deserving over plenty of other people your readers know about.

    And I see my lacrosse story idea didn’t quite make it to the vote….what gives???????? preferential reporting on a newsVOTE site???????

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