At one year old, how are we doing?

    A year ago today, NewsWorks.org was born. Based on what we’ve seen and heard, we have some idea of what you’ve liked and what you’ve not liked. We’ve taken some steps to do more of the former and less of the latter. Are we on the right track?

    A year ago today, NewsWorks.org was born.

    It made a quiet, hopeful entrance into the raucous, fast-changing digital public square.

    Its goal: To create a niche in this region’s Web array for the kind smart, serious, deft, varied storytelling—leavened by wit and an eye for the whimsical—that NPR has long staked out on the radio dial.

    And to become, also like NPR, an oasis where smart people could go to take part in lively but civil dialogue about news, issues and culture.

    NewsWorks was created to serve the entire tri-state region that’s within reach of WHYY’s radio and TV signals.

    It also included, however, an experimental focus on covering, from the ground up, the community news of one collection of Philadelphia neighborhoods: Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Germantown, West Oak Lane, Manayunk, Roxborough and East Falls.

    So, at one year old, how are we doing?

    Well, that judgment is best made collectively by all of you out there.

    But here’s what see and hear, based on the site’s traffic and the steady flow of your comments.

    Here’s what you’ve liked, what you’ve not liked, and the steps we’ve taken to do more of what you like, and less of that other stuff:

    People seem to love the idea of a site that’s about local news, and proud of it; a site that doesn’t bury its substance beneath annoying pop-up ads or click-hungry nonsense like cheesecake slideshows. Some of you still find the site a little cluttered and hard to navigate, though. So we’re hard at work on an even cleaner, more intuitive design, which we’ll roll out next year.

    Users tell us they like our multi-pronged approach to story-telling, where text mingles with video and audio, plus links, comments and a poll. But many have told us that the site’s design doesn’t do enough to point them to the interesting video and audio that percolates beneath its surface. So, as part of a general tweaking of the design, we’ll include some icons that will tell what to expect to find when you click on a headline.

    People loved the idea of a news site that was interested in what they thought, what tips and ideas they had, and what they had to say. However, a lot of those who wrote us said they didn’t think NewsWorks, in its opening act, quite lived up to that promise.

    We agree; we were so worried about hosting a civil space on-line, not a Star Wars bar, that we went overboard on the controls. The result was a site where it was too hard to figure out how to engage, so not enough people did. So we’ve changed the commenting setup (you don’t have register or log-on to do so), and created a new blog, Speak Easy, to serve as the easy-to-find, simple-to-enjoy hangout for our online community.

    You also told us we needed to more present and more lively on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. We’ve heard you and are doing so. Speak Easy is as much about those platforms as it is about the Web.

    Readers have noticed, and mostly applauded, how we’ve taken on the job of covering seven Philly neighborhoods the way they deserve to be covered—doing everything from digging deep into what’s wrong with local schools, to explaining in depth how city zoning could change the fabric of the ‘hood, to celebrating big community events such as the bike race in Manayunk, the Jazz Festival in West Oak Lane, or the street fair in Chestnut Hill. Mostly, what people wonder is: This is good, but why just those neighborhoods? Why not mine?

    To answer the first question, in short, this was a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded pilot project, which, like all pilots, had to begin small. We picked the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia because they were diverse but contiguous; they have a strong civic life, meaning lots to cover, and enough of a base of NPR-lovers and Web users to give NewsWorks a chance to take hold.

    As for expanding: We like how the journalism and public response have gone; the revenue side has been slower to take shape, so we’re hoping to branch out to new communities next year, but are not yet sure.

    Still, this community coverage initiative has been so promising that both CPB and the Knight Foundation have asked us to share some of our lessons learned with public media newsrooms across the nation.

    People also seem to relish the depth and seriousness of coverage we give the topics where we’re strong, such as health, arts, city government and development, while wishing we would bring the same brio to covering other areas.

    We are rapidly building out our journalistic reach, not just by hiring more reporters here at WHYY, but through a strategy that is one of the most distinctive aspects of Newsworks.

    NewsWorks has reached out to many of the new media (and old media) journalism and information outlets in the region to create content partnerships that enable the site to reach both broader and deeper.

    Whether it’s The School Notebook joining forces with us to probe some dirty dealing in Philly charter school contracts, or PlanPhilly digging deep into what zoning reform means for neighbohoods, or Technically Philly convening the city’s vibrant cadre of young technologists at our place, NewsWorks is a nationally noticed experiment in the potential of collaborative journalism.

    Six months into NewsWorks’ life, we gave it a kid sibling, a nightly news program on WHYY-FM, running from 6 to 6:30 each weekday evening.

    NewsWorks Tonight, hosted by Dave Heller and produced by Shai ben-Yaacov, is a newsmagazine that features not only the work of WHYY’s staff, but of many of those content partners. The show has had a strong start, consistently drawing as large or larger audiences than the national programming that used to appear in the time slot.

    This is another place where WHYY is innovating among public media companies, in creating a news program interwoven so thoroughly with a digital operation.

    It’s been a busy year full of learning. We’ve made some blunders, but that’s an inevitable piece of trying to innovate in a fast-changing space. The key is to correct quickly, learn quickly, and try again quickly in ways that incorporate what you’ve learned.

    It’s also been year blessed by some dynamic story-telling.

    This week, we have selected for you what we think have been some of our better moments—in writing, in video, in still images, blogging, and in community coverage. We’ll be rolling these “top” lists out through the next week. We hope you’ll browse through them to see what you may have missed before you heard of NewsWorks, and to get a better sense of what we have to offer each day.

    And that you’ll keep coming back and keep letting us know what you think. NewsWorks is an operation that is about you, with you and for you. You are part of what powers us every day.

    You’re way more than just a click to us. You’re our partner in an adventure in covering a region on the rise, an adventure that has us very, very pumped up.

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