Sunday, May 24, 2009

Companies Tony Loves: The Windy Citizen

This is the fourth installment of the Companies Tony Loves Series. "Companies Tony Loves" posts describe why innovative companies and business practices make us all better off, and therefore why they deserve our love. "Companies Tony Loves" is featured every Sunday on this blog.

Local newspapers started for two complementary reasons: (1) there are always interesting local stories that cannot make the national news because the are not "national" enough, and (2) national news stories had no better outlet than local newspapers before the Internet became efficient at delivering news.

Now that the Internet does such a tremendous job of bringing news to our fingertips, people rationally switch where they look for the latest national news: from the doorstep to the desktop. With only local stories to keep them afloat, newspapers are in a bind. It is not surprising that Internet news innovation poses challenges for traditional print press media outlets.

I am all for creative destruction, but without some replacement, it appears that failure of local newspapers leaves consumers without reliable local news. To be sure, this presumes that the local newspaper provided reliable news in the first place, but does this skepticism imply that "no local news is good news"? I don't think so. Local news is interesting, and more importantly, it helps link a community together. There has to be a way to make local news reliable and available.

The Internet affects how local news works in two important ways.

The Internet decoupled national and local news. It is no longer necessary to bundle ever-popular national news with local stories. As national news stories migrate to the Internet, local news stories now have to stand on their own merit, and writing good stories is hard work. On one hand, this makes it difficult to profitably produce local news. On the other hand, local writers have to work harder to create good content. And, the result of hard work is better, more comprehensive coverage of local news.

Outlets for news on the Internet are biased toward national news. The Internet does a spectacular job of parsing the news stories that are interesting to any particular user. Just conduct a few Google searches and you find plenty of information that is pertinent to you. Google even throws in a couple of extra links to national news stories you might be interested in reading. Yet, local news remains hard to find on the Internet, unless you know where to look. Local newspapers post stories on their websites, but those stories are hit and miss. With multiple media outlets for the same locale, a consumer of news has to search several sites for adequate local information.

Consumers of news don't want to have to spend time searching for it, so they don't do enough to get a representative sample of news. What results is too little exposure for local news stories. With less exposure to the local stories, the local papers can't justify their advertising fees. With less advertising revenue, the paper stands a chance of going under -- even if that paper has gone digital.

I am not too disappointed if a newspaper goes under on account of driving customers away. If people really don't want to read something, we shouldn't waste the paper and ink (nor should we waste hard drive space). But, when a perfectly good newspaper goes under on account of not being found by readers, I am dismayed because everyone is worse off. Someone wrote a moving story and someone would have really enjoyed reading that story, but it was never read.

Enter The Windy Citizen, this week's company I love.

The Windy Citizen addresses the problem of lack of exposure for Chicago news stories by exporting the social news networking approach (used by Digg, Reddit, Delicious, etc) to the local setting. The idea? Let the readers decide and vote on what is good news. The articles and stories that have recently received the most votes go to the top of the reading list. Interested readers are then directed to the websites where the original content is posted. In this way, more eyes are directed to the best Chicago news.

The Windy Citizen is based in Chicago and is designed for Chicago news, but I think the approach is beautiful and generalizable. Clearly, The Windy Citizen didn't come up with social networking news, but it is innovative to apply social networking to local news. The thing I love the most is that the approach can be exported to other locales. For example, someone could start a similar social news network for the state of Montana (The Big Sky Citizen) or Seattle (The Sipping Citizen) or Florida (The Sunshine Citizen). I'm sure they would come up with more creative names than I just did.

No matter what your perspective, you should love The Windy Citizen concept. If you are an author of interesting content, write something good about a local event and you'll get readers. If you are a newspaper that has gone digital, write quality local stories and your local "Citizen" will pick up on it, directing readers to your site, which increases the advertising revenue. And, if you are a reader, you no longer have to search as hard for new stories with local interest. Plus, you can read and enjoy new stories with a network of people who are doing the same.

Now, that's entertainment, information, social interaction and fun reading all in one great package! The best part? It's local.

If you have ideas for Companies Tony Loves, please let me know. It could never hurt to have more suggestions!

If you have been following this series, you notice the name change. "Companies I Love" has now become "Companies Tony Loves." I did this for two reasons.

  • First, "Companies I Love" is an overused phrase out there on the Internet. There are already several popular "Companies I Love" series, but they mostly belong to cult-like websites (i.e., Mac, Linux, other techno-worship sites). I want to distinguish this series from that crowd because I really think the idea of this series is fresh.
  • Second, this really is my original content. Indeed, these are companies that I, Tony Cookson, love. If you want to join me in your admiration of these companies, feel free. But, please tell people that I loved them first! More on this on Tuesday.

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