Who are your target customers?

The 4,000 most curious and influential people who live, work and play in Chatham County by July 2020.

How will you measure influence and curiosity?

We are going to use two questionnaires – a total of about 30 yes/no questions.  – used by Roper (influential) and psychology researchers (who define curiosity as “need for cognition). We anticipate that we will need to contact 40,000 people to find 4,000 who are both “curious” and “influential”.

What is the product?

We will develop product features over the next two years using an iterative process that seeks first to understand our target market’s under-served information needs about their community and then to rapidly minimum viable solutions and test those solutions with our target market.

What are the underserved information needs about their community?

Our initial hypothesis comes from the customer discovery work done by students in Spring 2017. This is what we heard potential customers want:

  • The main content topic of interest is growth and development, which includes concerns about loss of scenic beauty, the availability of clean air & water, the cost of living, and increase in traffic.
  • Coverage of public meetings that is published sooner than a week after the meeting. Next morning or live coverage if possible.
  • Interest in development is prompted by what people see that is visually happening as they drive by a construction site. They want to know “What’s happening there?”
  • A progressive perspective on the county, to counter what many see as a nostalgic and socially conservative perspective in incumbent information sources in the county.

What is your first prototype?

We think that to fill the unmet information needs of the community we first need to discover, aggregate and deliver the information that already exists. Our first prototype is a weekly email newsletter that curates and distills community information from a variety of existing sources. In fact, rather than compete with existing sources of information we believe that we can best serve the market by developing a unique value proposition that leads to an overall increase in community satisfaction rather than merely a shift from existing solutions to our new solutions.

Why email?

With email, we …

  • control the relationship with our customers,
  • push information to them,
  • get to know each of them as individuals,
  • leverage the medium’s inherent virality.

We will use Facebook to engage with them, but the more we rely on Facebook or any external platform the more we increase the risk that global advertising networks will know more about our customers than we do. That’s not good.

Like it or not, today’s news consumers have been conditioned to believe that “if it’s important it’ll come to me.” With email, we can ensure it does.

If we were to start with a website, we would know how many people visit our site but we wouldn’t know their names without forcing them through a cumbersome registration process. If customers who live in Pittsboro are more interested in environmental issues than customers who live in Siler City, we want to know that so we can do a better job getting the right information to the right people at the right time. Email allows us to more easily customize the information we deliver to each person.

Finally, we want to build a service that our customers want to share with others. Our service should not just satisfy their curiosity but also help them influence the community conversation.

Will you ever do original content?

Not unless we have to. 😉

But, yes, our initial hypothesis about un-served information says that there are people in Chatham County whose questions about their community are not being answered. We think that meeting coverage – as dull as that sounds for most people – is important for the curious and influential audience we’re targeting. And we are also going to be soliciting questions from the community that we will use to assign stories for original reporting.

So, you’re just going to do whatever your audience says? That doesn’t seem like the kind of independent journalism that gives voice to the voiceless.

Our hypothesis is that launching a community information service by answering questions makes sense for a few reasons:

  • It bakes ongoing customer discovery into the reporting process and reduces the risk over time that we lose touch with our audience’s needs even as the audience changes.
  • It builds trust, which is critical for a new community information service.
  • It positions us as a solutions provider (answers to questions) rather than just an alert system.
  • It helps train young reporters, who often struggle with coming up with their own story ideas in communities they don’t yet know.

Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, we think that focusing first on the known unknowns will help us more quickly develop capacity to tell our audience about the unknown unknowns in the community.

Who’s going to be doing this reporting anyway?

For the most part, students at the School of Media & Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Our students need real-world reporting experience that takes them off campus. They need to learn modern techniques of journalism beyond the “inverted pyramid.” We’re in a unique position to serve our students better by helping them serve Chatham County.

But we’re also interested in developing a corps of Chatham County residents who can help with basic journalistic tasks such as taking notes at public meetings or gathering public records and data. We plan to hold workshops to help people understand and monitor public deliberations, as well as recruit residents who would be willing to share those new skills with their neighbors.

If hiring professional journalists adds value to our customers, then we will do that.

Speaking of hiring, how is this thing funded anyway?

It is initially being funded with money from the School’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which was created through a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, as well as the School’s Reese News Lab.

Our goal is for the project’s ongoing operations to be self-sustaining with funding from Chatham County residents by July 2020. We will spend the next two years building a viable financial model that is based on delivering value that Chatham residents are able and willing to support.

So even if you’re successful this project is just going to serve the information needs of one relatively small North Carolina county. How does this help the rest of the nation’s news deserts?

As our middle school English teacher told us, “Show, don’t tell.” Having some skin in the game makes the advice we give to other local news publishers much more credible and relevant. This project in Chatham County is going to serve as a “demonstration garden” where other publishers can come and see what’s working and what’s not. Once we get up and running, we can be a working news operation to which other organizations can send their employees for hands-on career development. We believe that the best way to teach our students journalism is to provide them with transformative experiences, and we think that’s the best way to teach mid-career professionals as well.

We will be documenting our experiences along the way, and welcome others to poke and prod us to see how we’re doing.

Across the country there are hundreds of communities that likely have unmet information needs and we want to demonstrate to other local entrepreneurs – social or commercial — one possible way to fill those needs.

Well dang, that all sounds great. Where can I sign up?

Thought you’d never ask.