Can we make local news taste less like medicine, more like lunch with friends?
When reader Lanier Chew asked us why the state of Alabama owns such a funny looking bit of beachfront along the Gulf of Mexico, he wasn’t the only one interested in the answer.
At last count, more than 600,000 people watched our video explainer that tracks more than 300 years of history.
We’re used to regularly creating videos that garner several million views apiece in our sports and southern sketch-comedy brands, but this was a great reminder that it’s hard — but possible — to grow a big audience around explanatory journalism, too.
It’s a challenge we’ve been puzzling over for years.
Our public interest and accountability journalism continues to win honors in the state, the region and the nation. It’s what people say they want most. But the posts that perform the best on our general interest statewide AL.com account, or our news brands in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, don’t always reflect those reading habits. It’s easy to just blame the readers, and, I’m sad to say, we often have. But that’s an excuse we use at our peril. It’s not enough to say: eat this, it’s good for you. It’s on us to create in-depth local journalism that Alabamians WANT to interact with in their social feeds — or risk real irrelevance. It’s duty vs. desire; it’s medicine vs. lunch.
Now, thanks to a generous grant from the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund, we’re building a new, statewide brand with a purely social focus, and a mission to create accountability journalism specifically for the Facebook feeds of Alabamians and those with interest in our state.
With this grant we’re building a brand — and a laboratory — to answer a mix of questions big and small aimed at helping us on Facebook, on other social platforms, and at our site, AL.com:
• What happens when you build a brand from the ground up with the aim to put audience at the heart of the journalism?
• What happens when we give journalists used to going it alone a collaborative space and shared goals?
• What happens when you make sharing and conversation not just PART of the metric mix, but the MAIN metric?
• What happens when you turn local, hard-news producers to the work of making journalism for a social audience FIRST?
• What happens when you try to be the hub, and not the OWNER, of the most important news?
Enter Reckon by AL.com — a new, social/video-driven brand that offers a mix of audience-centric, accountability journalism. From video explainers to watchdog reports to podcasts to on-the-news memes to long-form storytelling to data-driven graphics, our goal is to work closely with communities of interest across Alabama to drive discussion, debate and ideas. In an era when journalism is changing faster than ever, we need to FEEL and BE relevant, modern, sharable, interesting, immensely adaptable.
Here’s how we describe it to our readers:
Reckon is a place for big ideas and tough conversations about Alabama. We’re not building a catalog of complaints or a place to pile on about our problems, but providing a platform for the information you need to make the state a better place.
We’re not going it alone.
Our goal is to work with partners across the state, including our launch partner, the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, a non-profit dedicated to including the voices of all of Alabama via in-person forums in all of Alabama’s 67 counties. In the next year, we’ll be part of those forums, listening to thousands of Alabamians face to face.
We’re digging in now with the Solutions Journalism Network-funded deep dive into Alabama’s achievement gap between black and white students, using our partners Spaceship Media as incredibly creative conveners in a conversation with more than 100 teachers across the state.
And, we’re working with the Hearken team as guides as we’ve launched Ask Alabama, a reader-driven series that formalizes what we’ve been learning here at AL.com for years — listening to readers makes for better journalism. Thanks to Ask Alabama, the video and story we served up to Lanier Chew was shared more than 10,000 times, with more than 200 comments. We hope that’s just the beginning of bringing more people into our work — finding things out that people want to know and offering a place for discussion and debate.
A much as we’re excited about building Reckon as a place for discussing big ideas with a passionate community, this effort isn’t just about building a new news product. It’s about changing the way we think, starting with a new structure based on collaboration and accountability.
We’re modeling the leadership structure of this team on a news-startup, with senior managing producer Challen Stephens leading in a role akin to Executive Director with the help of managing producer John Hammontree, reporting to an internal “board of directors” consisting of Alabama Media Group Directors Elizabeth Hoekenga Whitmire, Justin Yurkanin, and Izzy Gould, and me, the company’s vice president of content.
Mostly, we expect this small but excellent and deeply experienced team —made up of video experts, columnists, reporters, a social media producer and an engagement editor — will lead themselves to figuring out how to tell news that matters in a way that engages communities across Alabama and the Deep South. We plan to take some risks. Some plans will fail.
We’re grateful for the support of the Bettinger grant (and it’s namesake Jim Bettinger) for giving journalists the room for creative risks, and to the many industry colleagues who have continued to express interest and support and as we push into new directions for a local media company.
We’re excited and experienced — and also realistic — when it comes to numbers.
Over the last few years we’ve invested heavily in social video, launching the Emmy winning AL.com studios, and focused on building a relationship with readers through deep engagement across our brands.
This intense focus on serving a modern, mobile social audience has allowed us to build an enormous audience for our AL.com social accounts. By the end of May, that adds up to more than 1.7 million followers across our news, sports and culture brands — in a state with fewer than 5 million people.
Reckon, launched in May (with a brand new and carefully grown audience of 10,000 so far) won’t be our biggest brand. But it will be one of the most important.
No, we’re not walking away from AL.com. Far from it. Much of Reckon journalism will find its way there in today’s ultra-connected news ecosystem. We continue to have several dozen top tier journalists across Alabama creating work for our more than 10 million monthly dedicated AL.com readers. We’re committed to continuing what they do so well.
But with Reckon, we’re starting from a different vantage point in an experiment that offers a chance for real learning — experience that we can use to build a community of interest across our social sites, and apply back to our biggest news brand.
We hope you will follow us as we grow, and let us know what you think. We are fighting hard to keep local media vibrant and alive. We think Alabama, and America, desperately needs more voices, more opinions and more ideas from more people. We are committed to serving as conveners, and listeners, and storytellers and watchdogs in the service of a public that deserves clear and transparent news — done up fresh in a way you want to be a part of. We’d love for you to join us.
(PS if that screen shot whetted your appetite for some southern-fried politics, you can watch Reckon by AL.com columnist Kyle Whitmire lose his mind below…)
Ideas? Feedback? Hit me up on twitter Michelle Holmes, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in REAL lunch, I know every vegan option in Birmingham, but I’ll look the other way if you want BBQ.