SeeClickFix and the Journal Inquirer

(Guest post by Doug Hardy from the Journal Inquirer)

There is a tremendous role for SeeClickFix at every local newspaper. At the Journal Inquirer we're scratching the surface by using local SeeClickFix reports as story topics and also as a way to develop new sources. I've become something like a consumer advocacy columnist, but it's more like a "homeowner" or "resident" or even a "taxpayer" advocacy columnist. We found that there is real interest in this stuff. I've gotten more responses on my first 8 or 9 SeeClickFix columns than on anything else I've ever done in journalism. It's been fun getting back out into the field.

We haven't completely carried this through to its conclusion yet as a circulation booster or revenue generator. But I'm working on those final steps with our ad people and circulation department.

Why is this valuable? Does it fit with our mission? I won't belabor the overarching truth of the print news industry's situation ... but my assessment of the JI's problems is simple: we're losing core readers with every obit we publish, and we're not adding new readers. We're nowhere near as interactive as we can be. We're losing print advertisers and we're not gaining online advertisers. We're an old product in a new world. Essentially, for a long time we had been putting our print product up on the Web, as is. It's not very interesting to a Web user.

On coverage choices, we're stuck in a local politics rut. Most people don't care about local politics at all, even during election season, but it remains the focus of our coverage. We cover the budget process to death. We tailor our coverage to "locals" but we're tailoring it only to locals who care about, or who are involved in, local gov't. That's no longer good enough. We won't abandon that coverage, but SeeClickFix is a way to insert the JI into neighborhood conversations again and to make us interactive.

When people bump into each other as they walk their dogs, what do they talk about? Potholes, graffiti, speeders, eyesore properties, etc.

I want those people to say, "Hey, I reported that graffiti on and the guy from the JI wrote a story about it, and then the town came out and cleaned it up." So it's true that on some level this is marketing as well as journalism. We're basically trying everything now, within reason, to see what will get people to subscribe. The goal is to improve both our print and online product as inexpensively as possible, and to make them work together rather than undercut each other.

I'd heard about SeeClickFix early on when the New Haven Independent started using it. I kept an eye on it and it really does empower readers to clean up their neighborhoods. Last year I built a JI-Land map on the SeeClickFix site. And then I let it sit for a while. There was maybe a single report in our map when I built it.

Then the Hartford Courant published a story about SeeClickFix's early success as a startup - and basically notified everyone in our region about this new online tool. The day the Courant's story ran, I started receiving emails from new SeeClickFix users who were posting issues within our JI-Land map.

But I began communicating with the people reporting stuff in JI-Land and we eventually added the widget to our home page. We got a SeeClickFixPro account (for $38/month) to better brand everyone with a red JI on my messages. I keep handy our annual Discovery section (with phone numbers for all of our town officials), and started directing people to the departments and staff who could solve their problems, making it as easy as possible for them.

The SeeClickFix widget allows people to report stuff right there on the JI's Web site, and we get that traffic. They can click all the way through to the SeeClickFix site, but it's a good widget that does help keep traffic on our site and can be sized pretty much however you need it.

Pretty soon I was shooting photos and writing columns for print about the issues people were reporting. I posted links to my copy on SeeClickFix to prompt people to subscribe, even if only for 24 hours of access through our paywall, to read what I wrote about their problem. I don't know if that worked, but it was worth trying.

One of our towns requested a meeting with us because they felt that the JI was making it seem like we were responding on their behalf. They wanted us to direct people to their online Citizen Request System, which is great but offers no public comment. We showed the town how to build their own map and now they get notifications and post their own links to their Web site on the issues reported there. We're working with them, rather than against, and believe me they seem to be quickly responding to every SeeClickFix complaint on which I post a comment.

Truth is, a lot of the time town officials simply don't know there's a new pothole or whatever. They just need to be informed and the JI is playing a role in that notification. When I comment on an issue, the town knows we're watching and they know they have to respond or face negative publicity. When I do write for print, we've been starting the columns on Page 1 and that seems to help.

I wrote about an algae-covered pond in a public park in Windsor, and as it turned out the town was about to dredge it anyway. We got the town of Vernon to start the clean-up process on a foreclosed house and yard, and the town got the bank that owned the house to finish the job (as the bank is supposed to do anyway). And then we did 3 or 4 pieces on speeding issues throughout our area. We published a picture of a woman's cat, which had been killed, and I was flooded with emails and phone calls at my desk. We were then contacted by a guy with MS who is in a scooter and has to wear an orange vest and lights to get across the street safely in Windsor Locks. He even added 8-foot orange flags to his scooter to ensure he isn't struck in the crosswalk or in a parking lot. Really compelling stuff.

In South Windsor, people were fed up waiting for the completion of a bridge and we had quite a dialogue about that construction process. People thought the project was abandoned when the workers were off-site, fabricating large pieces.

In another town, an historic mill building is a terrible, empty eyesore and there's been plenty of dialogue on it. The mayor appears to have been sitting on information about the ongoing process of obtaining multiple permits for the building's redevelopment -- controlling information. I'm told that he even threatened a council member with an ethics complaint for bringing up questions about the mill building during a council meeting. He really didn't want the info out there, or so it seemed. But local residents started the dialogue about the mill online, and I responded with a few thoughts and links to background info from the JI's archives. Within 24 hours the mayor responded to me by email and both the developer and town administrator posted public responses about the status of the redevelopment. Good stuff. It's important to note that this is a mayor who has basically stopped communicating with the reporter we'd assigned to the town.

Frankly, I think every reporter who covers a community should be using SeeClickFix, but so far it's just me and one other reporter at the JI, and I'm on the layout desk so it's tough to find the time to do this. You may want to approach it as a team project.

Now the trick is - how do we monetize it?

Our circulation director thinks our SeeClickFix coverage is a strong, new selling point for our newspaper. We're talking about adding it to our sales dialogue and maybe even offering a discount to new subscribers who find us through SeeClickFix by posting an issue - or something along those lines. If we add a hard code in our circulation database we can track the people who subscribe because of SeeClickFix.

Further, our circulation managers "sample" neighborhoods all the time - delivering papers for free for three weeks or a month to nonsubscribers. We're looking at ways to coordinate SeeClickFix coverage in those sampling areas to increase our yield when those same managers go door-to-door to try to pick up new subscribers. It'll be pretty powerful to say something like, "we're already looking out for your neighborhood - here's a story."

On sponsors ... we are adding a spot for an ad in the SeeClickFix tab on our home page. We're also planning an "eyesore" project, where I'll write about the worst eyesores in each of our 17 towns. Aside from print, we'll try to produce a short video story about each eyesore as well. Our advertising VP thinks he can sell that kind of package - a print ad for each story, a 5-second pre-roll commercial for each video, and maybe an overall sponsor for the SeeClickFix tab online. Potential advertisers can be any community-minded bank or other business, a local landscaping company, a muffler or tire shop, or even a community organization. We can try to sell to an umbrella sponsor or go town by town.

Doug Hardy
Associate Editor/Internet supervisor
Journal Inquirer
Manchester, CT
860-646-0500 x305

dhardy at journalinquirer dot com