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Tapping into social media groups can play key role in source building
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By David Arkin
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For a little over a year, the subdivision I live in has had a Facebook page and from time to time residents would post questions, seeking advice on things like lawn care and home owner association fees.

I didn't pay much attention to it until about a month ago. That's when a controversial school boundary issue bubbled up in my community. And I actually learned about the issue through my subdivision's Facebook page.

Residents started posting information about the possibility that elementary school kids may potentially have to attend a new school, about five miles from our subdivision, not the school they currently attend, which is located about one mile from us.

The subdivision we live in is less than five years old and it was amazing to watch, through Facebook, neighbors meeting neighbors and working together on a letter and proposal for the school boundary committee to consider. And in fact, it looks like (we'll find out Monday night), that the school board may consider allowing kids who live in our subdivision to stay at their current school.

During the whole ordeal, I watched neighbors go through a variety of emotions: Anger, jubilation and worry. And I saw an awful lot of misinformation.

This all brings me to the role of the community newspaper. While some of our neighbors did comment on stories on newspaper sites that were reporting about the issue, the conversation stayed very private. But it didn't need to and portions of it could have been valuable to have played out in front of the public.

Here's what I would have loved to have seen happen by local media that could have tapped neighborhood sources:

1. An invitation to someone in our subdivision — and the subdivision that was angry that our kids would be coming to their school — to launch a blog to make their cases. They could have been neighborhood blogs and residents from both subdivisions could have commented. I have long believed that neighborhood news could have a crucial role in our hyper-local world. I would imagine that every one of my neighbors would love to see what folks in our subdivision are posting on the public neighborhood blog.

2. Reaching out to representatives in each neighborhood and invite each to submit their questions on the issue. The newspaper becomes the fact checker and provides useful, accurate information to those who want to be in the know. You also could allow residents to submit questions to the committee that came up with the recommendations and allow the paper to manage the Q&A.

3. A guide online and in print that offers FAQ on the boundary issue, a timeline, related content to past coverage, the opportunity to ask questions and an ongoing portal to talk about the issue. It's so hard to find all the info you want on this issue, anywhere, that's not the school board's website.

4. Twitter's hashtag usage could be a big benefit through the coverage of this issue. A simple hashtag #schoolboundry would help organize this content.

The coverage of this issue hasn't been bad, but pretty ultra traditional. Preview stories, meeting coverage and that's about it. Here's coverage from the Ledger Sentinel and Patch on the issue. It was not a two-way conversation and should have been. If you have a similar issue, that involves neighborhoods or different areas of your community, consider how to get them to take their concerns and ideas public and reach out to leaders in each subdivision or neighborhood to get them involved in the coverage. Being involved in coverage has to be more than the ability to comment at the bottom of a story.

The point of this blog post is to recognize that what we traditionally think of as sourcing has to change and where we find those sources, is changing greatly. Social media is a hot spot, not just to find sources, but to discover the issues that really matter in a community. All of that happened on my subdivision's Facebook page. We need to be plugged into those social circles.

David Arkin is Vice President of Content & Audience  for GateHouse Media. Contact him at darkin@gatehousemedia.com

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