By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF co-chair, Online Managing Editor-Business Aviation, Aviation Week Group
Editor’s note: please join the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism task force for our next BlogTalkRadio chat – “Hyperlocal Websites: Are They The Savior Of Local News?” – tonight, Tuesday, Sept. 28 from 8:00-9:00 p.m. Eastern time. Click here for more details. I hope you can join us!
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor at Elon University in North Carolina, where she teaches in the iMedia graduate program. She was one of the chairs of the Journalism That Matters conference, held in Detroit in June that focused on entrepreneurialism in journalism.
Ferrier is the creator of LocallyGrownNews.com, a hyperlocal website focused on allowing citizen journalists and community members to “focus on what they are most passionate about – building their community conversation through good local information and networking.” The website is an online community and mobile application designed to foster conversations around the locavore movement and uses the eating locally movement to generate conversation around sustainable, healthy lifestyles.
NABJDigital: How did you come up with the idea for LocallyGrown News?
Michelle Ferrier: The original idea came out of the McCormick Foundation’s New Media Women Entrepreneur proposal for grants. I created a project that provided tech, content, shared marketing and shared promotion systems to create small hyperlocal online communities run by women.
ND: Why did you think there was a need for a website like this?
MF: I felt this system was needed. I wanted a way to package all the things an entrepreneur would need to get started. It was actually born out of survivor’s guilt. I created this online community – MyTopiaCafe.com – at a legacy newspaper. I left after several rounds of layoffs. A week after I left, my whole team was laid off. I wanted to support those laid-off workers and create something similar for them.
ND: How does LocallyGrownNews.com work?
MF: First, those interested in developing a website can contact me. We did a soft launch in May. We started by developing sites in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C., to see what it would be like and test the technologies used. This is a women’s community news franchise and we picked this topic to start because of the growth in local food movements. Local food will increasingly get more attention in creating jobs to grow local economies.
ND: What in your background do you think led to the creation of LocallyGrown News?
MF: I had three majors in college. I started out in engineering, which gave me the computer science I needed. Then I went into business, where I got accounting and marketing knowledge. Finally, I went to journalism. All three gave me a good base for a future as an entrepreneur.
ND: You won a grant from the McCormick Foundation. How important was that funding for LocallyGrown News?
MF: The grant was for $10,000, which was used to cover development costs. Those costs alone for can be staggering. I looked at existing platforms, both free and charged. But to really develop the online community I wanted, I would have to build my own platform, and that seed money helped me create my vision. The content management system itself is extremely robust. It runs on an engine that some newspapers run. It’s a very robust platform for print export that you won’t find on Blogger or WordPress. It’s not a blog. If someone is looking for a comparison, it’s a mashup of Facebook, WordPress and online news sites.
ND: What advice would you give to others who might want to apply for this grant in the future?
MF: One, you have to be very comfortable with your vision and promoting that vision. In order to be able to talk to anyone about your idea — like venture capitalists and foundations — you have to have a clear idea of what you’re doing, why and who you’re serving. My goal from the start was to ensure that laid-off female employees have an advantage in the market for entrepreneurship, and provide them with a product they can work with. Be passionate about what you’re doing. I’m committed to women entrepreneurs, local foods and local communities, and am making that commitment. I am committed beyond financial enrichment for myself.
ND: Why do you think that journalism entrepreneurship has become so prevalent in conversations on where our industry is growing?
MF: One, because I think traditional legacy media have been retrenching as new and entrepreneurial activities grow. In terms of innovation and products, some are doing that, but some have lost that innovation spark. We want to offer opportunities after layoffs and severance packages. Journalists have a set of skills that can serve a community, but no outlet to do it. The market is ripe for these opportunities now. Technologically, tools are way more sophisticated now than when online communities were first developed. Communities and management systems are so much more sophisticated. The cost and other barriers to entry are significantly lower, so it’s a great time to consider entrepreneurial journalism projects and apply them to online media.
ND: You’ve announced plans to expand LocallyGrown News. Who is the ideal person to take on growing this site?
MF: That person would be either working part time in legacy media or freelancing. We’re looking at females with a broad journalist background. We want someone that has the desire to grow and own a business, someone with hustle to make things happen. Those people also have experience with consulting and can do marketing. On a good day, our footprint is smaller than a county area, so we need someone who can provide niche content and also has an interest in eating good food. But it’s also broader that just food – we’re also looking at sustainable, economic living with a focus on food. We offer opportunities for advertising and revenue that are untapped.
ND: How important has social media been in promoting the Locally Grown News websites?
MF: We have a Facebook fan page to cultivate a different audience for those who want LocallyGrownNews.com in their neighborhood. I’m using Delicious to curate and archive articles for a user library of resources. I use Constant Contact to push out email newsletters each week. I use Google Analytics and the Open X ad server management system to manage ad campaigns on the site. We’re adding new tabs that are resources, including using Google Maps to show a directory of farmers markets. Our site allows readers to create a profile so people can see them across the community, a comment function, social bookmarking to push content and a Rate This function.