Founder Sebastian Penthin, Product Manager Alexander Drößler and Reporter Lena Krause received an award with Lokalportal. Photo: Vor Ort NRW

The digital town: A chance for local journalism

We have been awarded with the Vor Ort NRW — Award for Innovation in Local Journalism. Time to talk about our idea. What’s behind our idea of the digital town and what does the concept of a digital news ecosystem mean for local journalism?

In April 2017, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I attended a panel on local journalism and its financing. I remember how Rasmus Kleis Nielsen from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University saw things: “Neither niche nor scaling work sustainably locally.” Instead, local media should reflect on what local journalism means. His advice for local media was to ask which problems of society local journalism could solve. Local media should focus on this specific question and stop publishing a number of content items per day. For him, the business case of local newspapers was quite simple: “bring people together.”

This phrase goes very well with what we do with Lokalportal.de: Behind Lokalportal stand a startup from Hamburg and a regional newspaper, Neue Westfälische from Bielefeld, Germany. Together we build the digital town. We believe in an ecosystem of local news and local conversation, and bring local journalism directly to the neighborhood. We do not see journalism on the classic, rather one-dimensional “transmitter-receiver” news page only, where in the worst case in the comment columns we only have rude discussions behind nicknames. Instead, we look at the local community in their individual parts. What are the goals of their members? What do they contribute to the local community? What does that mean for our platform?

Our mission is to strengthen neighborhoods by giving them access to reliable local information and a place for valuable conversation about it. Lokalportal is an editorial driven and supervised local community based on the participation of all local actors with the direct involvement of local editors and newsrooms. For neighbors Lokalportal provides direct access to local life and its digital participation. We believe this is a key development for the future and sustainability of local news.

News from and for the neighborhood

Neighbors, public figures such as civic clubs, associations, initiatives and authorities, as well as journalists and businesses: they all create the “digital town”. Whether a shop around the corner closes, a road closure is planned or an event takes place on site — local news, neighborly conversation and information from the surrounding area, the city or the city districts, are the center of lokalportal.de.

For us, it is about representing the real local community in a contemporary way. On our platform people meet, who also live close in real life. City and local governments can easily communicate with citizens. Civic clubs reach people in their neighborhood and keep them up to date quickly and easily. They can draw attention to theiy programs, organizational news, publish upcoming events or report on successful events and talk to people from their place about it. For them, Lokalportal is a way to reach people from their area, what they do not always do well in the newspaper, with their own website or on Facebook. Even businesses are part of the digital town. For small and medium businesses, for example local shops, Lokalportal is a chance. Due to high costs, scatter losses and unsuitable target groups they often no longer advertise in the newspaper anyway. They can draw attention to their offers on our platform.

Participatory journalism at eye level

Consistently, journalists no longer have a gatekeeper role in the digital news ecosystem. It is more important to create journalism on an equal footing with our users and to involve them in the journalistic process. Jeff Jarvis has described this in his essay “If I Ran a Newspaper”:

“Rather than merely creating a product called content and attracting an audience to sell to advertisers — our old model — we can now reconceive of journalism as a service to our communities, convening them into informed, civil, and productive conversation and helping them improve their lives. (…)
We must shift from media-centric products — our newspaper, our content, our home page, our comments — to public-centric services: a place for people to come together with residents of their town, a means of connecting with others who are concerned about filthy park to get it fixed; and so on.”

In our two pilots in Paderborn and Bünde editors and reporters of Neue Westfälische moderate the conversation and feed Lokalportal with news from the area. They stimulate, have an open ear for the neighbors and take up their ideas and wishes and ask them to bring their thoughts to a topic. So they not only provide topics, but explore what is on the neighbors minds and involve them in the reporting process, whether through crowdsourcing, surveys or feedback on topic ideas. On Lokalportal, the reporters share their content either as a person or with a brand account directly into the newsfeed and select whether content is visible at the city level or at the city district level. So they act and engage on equal terms with their neighbors in the digital community. In addition, they add verified news to the platform and enrich the digital town with information the local community can not deliver by itself. So at a glance neighbors learn what’s going on locally — and can bring in themselves.

An emerging local digital ecosystem

Lokalportal is intended as a synergetic cooperation approach. This provides a unique opportunity to build a local digital ecosystem in which the local community interacts and creates value. Beyond Paderborn, Bünde and the rest of East Westphalia.