The related problems of declining relevancy of local news coverage, lack of effective civic engagement, and impediments to local economic development can be solved by rethinking the role of journalism and devising a new business model that recognizes economic value from citizen engagement.

Here are some symptoms of the problems:

  • Local news coverage–for small to medium sized towns–is almost completely non-existent. It survives only through the personal efforts of a few remaining newspapers and hobbyist websites like my and other hyperlocal sites.
  • Large media efforts to solve the local news problem have failed, most recently with AOL’s Patch.
  • Town governments want to communicate with residents, but most web sites are inadequate. Nearly every public meeting, after YEARS of discussion, results in at least one resident who asks, “Why were we never told of this?” Residents are frustrated and suspicious and crave greater transparency. Towns attempt to provide this, but find it difficult to reach everyone.
  • There is a perception that the economic development process–in the form of residential and commercial real estate development in small to medium sized towns–is fraught with “NIMBYism.” Small groups of vocal residents block some projects while others “slide under the radar.” Neither town planners nor residents are happy with the level of communication and quality of information being shared.

I believe that:

A well-informed and engaged citizenry is a vital component not only of governance, but also of economic growth. When residents know what is going on, they recognize the needs of the community and can appreciate the costs and benefits of proposals and will, collectively, make better choices. When this civic ecosystem is healthy, the community can grow in a way that benefits everyone.

Achieving a healthy civic ecosystem is a lofty and idealistic goal with great public value, but who will pay for that value? It used to be part of the mission of most independent local newspapers. Freedom of the press is the bedrock of democracy. But today there is no local press. The purpose of most newsprint publications is to deliver advertising to homes with some content to get people to turn past the first page. Web-based news organizations are driven by advertising placements, pop-up ads, and syndicated, hypersensational content.

For at least a decade, local news has struggled with the problem and failed. Local papers were consolidated. Reporters were spread out over multiple communities and paid subsistence wages. Local media was rolled into big regional websites. Whether it was Gatehouse Media or Patch, the basic idea was to use technology to minimize costs. For a time, Patch was able to throw money at putting good editors in charge of local sites, but ultimately the financial pressures prevailed. Advertising is no longer a sustainable business model for local news because the convertible leads are not worth the cost of paying an editor.

When my web site was popular, a number of residents suggested I charge a subscription fee. Perhaps some people would have paid $120/year to keep the Westwood Blog going? Unfortunately, that model is not sustainable for me. Part of what makes a local site effective is that the editor IS local. In order to really make my site work, I would need it to be a full time job. Did I mention I have three kids and own a house in Westwood? To quit my day job and run the blog full time…I believe I would need to gross at least $10,000 per month. Is there a way to make a blog that is relevant to perhaps 6,000 households worth that much? You can do the math and if you are very optimistic, you could perhaps believe some people would pay $10 a month. Would 1000 people sign up?

But wait a minute…this is not a fraction of the value of the service. It is not just a way for me to make some money. It solves problems that have proven intractable for big media companies and thousands of communities. The solution will be revolutionary and extensible to every small and medium-sized community. It’s not a side job.

I think the following principles could drive the development of a successful model:

1. Local news must be reported locally by people with a stake in the community. The local sites I envision are run by community “partners.” They are not just PR agents for towns, but  stewards of information, helping facilitate discussion of issues. They are more “embedded” than reporters. These editors retain independence and strive for fairness of viewpoints, but they are not charged with holding government accountable. If they serve their role appropriately, the transparency they facilitate will allow traditional media and an active citizenry to perform the accountability function.

2. Advertising is not a component of the offering. Every other form of media provides ample opportunity for commercialization. A huge differentiation for this service is that it will never be beholden to advertising dollars. This is not just a goal, but a fundamental difference with some accountability tradeoffs. Distrustful residents and “traditional” journalists will question the independence of the editor and accuse the editor of trying to “sell” the town’s agenda. The editor will be under pressure to “spin” things in a favorable light for the town. The editor’s job IS in fact to promote ideas that help the town. The check on this bias will be in the online participation component below.

3. Free to all. There will be no subscription fees and no premium memberships. There will be no paywall. All content and participation shall be available for free to everyone. The mission is not to sell content but to make our communities stronger by informing and connecting all citizens.

4. These sites are funded through a partnership between business and government. Towns will pay for the service and develop a funding mechanism that includes contributions from business. The business model will be closer to community access television; where a user fee is collected and transferred to an independent entity to ensure independent funding but retain oversight of operations. An example would be to include a surcharge on all permit applications, in addition to a line item contribution from the town, plus a fundraising component undertaken by the local editor.

5. The model must “scale down.” In a town or small city of 50,000 people, there is no shortage of news. In a community of 5,000, it is not realistic to expect a site to have daily updates and advertising/subscriber models fail for lack of audience. But the model must still find a way to hire a full time editor. In smaller communities, the need is even greater, the problem solved even more valuable.

6. The model cannot depend on optimistic expectations of online citizen participation. The people who have the information that needs to be shared have not already done so and no amount of “ease of use” will change their behavior. We serve an uninformed and passive citizenry. If we achieve a somewhat informed and occassionally active citizenry, it will be a gamechanger. But the idea that everyone will start blogging and commenting intelligently on posts needs to be put in perspective. Simply reading articles is an action we can enable because we start from a paucity of news and information.

7. The check and balance on the role of the editor will be in the form of online citizen participation. This is the hardest component to manage because, since the inception of the internet, online “community” has been dominated by bad behavior from anonymous people. Closed community sites have some success, but in this model, we must find a way to keep the site open and allow anonymity.

So what might this idea look like in practice?

  • There would be a technology and publishing platform that requires minimal maintenance and is configured for each community in an initial design phase. There is no magic bullet here; no secret sauce of community engagement, just a core functional offering with a clean, simple design and a focus on the workflow of the editor; to allow a single person to create and publish content without technical wizardry. There would be add-on components–e.g. mailing lists, video integration, social media integration, etc.
  • There will be a well-defined process cookbook for communities to set up workflow.
  • The editor will be a reasonably well-compensated position; e.g. $50-75K/year and typically a person with experience in business communications and management.
  • The company that creates this offering will be a small startup consisting of a web development and infrastructure team and implementation experts. The web developers will use an open source platform like Drupal 7/8 to create the core offering. The implementation experts are more than just account managers; their job is to ensure the success of the editors by designing the best platform configuration and then assisting in the ongoing management of sites until they are up and running successfully.
  • The medium-term business model for the company would be based on licensing fees. Every town site would pay a monthly fee to use the platform. Every engagement will include an initial design phase that breaks even in terms of implementation costs.
  • The long-term business model is brand-equity and content-licensing. I am not sure exactly how this works yet, but as this idea develops traction, I believe it can disrupt and displace traditional media. If we can deliver on the promise of a well-informed and engaged citizenry, we can do anything.

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by Dave Atkins on August 31, 2013

in Uncategorized

I’ve removed some links from this blog and will be reworking as well. I have not disappeared…and I will write again, but for now, I’m pulling back the content from the past year that failed to go anywhere.

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As an early adopter of the iPhone (I remember when there was no such thing as “copy” and “paste.”), I kind of became used to some limitations and never bothered to find out if they had ever been addressed. Many have–years ago, apparantly–including the ability to manage your photos in batches.

Here’s how it works:

[read more…]

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Flipping the Classroom

by Dave Atkins on August 15, 2012

in Education

As the school year rapidly approaches, we are excited to have all three of our children at the same school in Boston. Marshall, who is 4 1/2 years old, will be starting K1, the first year of kindergarten. All the kids are excited.

I need to update this blog because the last post was so long ago and looks pretty negative by the title. The content here has pretty much dried up despite sort of a plan to blog about improving the Boston Public Schools. But I’ve concluded it’s a waste of breath to opine about the lottery or propose complicated solutions to problems that many other people are busy spinning their wheels about. What has caught my attention lately is what exactly we need to do to help our kids learn.

Almost everyone who talks about education today agrees the industrial model is broken. It makes absolutely no sense to have kids sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture and yet we struggle for years to get the kids to a point where they will do that without acting up.

I was excited to read this article about how Simmons College is “flipping” the classroom by having students watch videos of lectures and then using lecture time to engage in facilitated small group problem-solving. It is far from a radical idea but a recent article in the New York times describes how the concept is taking hold in high school and other classrooms across the country. In addition to video lectures, students are using websites like the Khan Academy to learn about hundred of topics by watching compelling videos where the instructor walks through a topic in an engaging manner that is unlike most lectures I recall.

MIT launched Open Courseware earlier this year, and honestly, I was not impressed. Why would anyone want, and what possible value could someone obtain from being able to download the lecture notes for 6.001? I did not learn anything from attending lectures or reading textbooks. The learning happens in working through problem sets which are impossibly difficult. Students get together in groups to work on them and “tool” for hours into the wee hours of the morning.

But when I looked at the new edX initiative, the light bulb started to flicker on. It’s not just a bunch of materials you can download. The online learning environment is like a regular class where you can work on your own schedule, but there are requirements and online discussions that anchor and stimulate the learning. I was so intrigued I signed up for Berkeley CS course on Software as a Service (SaaS). And then, last night, I found myself playing around with, a site that tutors you in learning the Ruby programming language.

I have been hearing about the value of group projects for 25 years and how some people prefer video tutorials to learn (e.g. for Photoshop, Graphic Design, and many more things now), but when I imagined the “flipped classroom” it started to actually make sense because I began to see how the right structure and tools could support a student’s native love of learning and allow a teacher to be more of a coach.

What if, instead of requiring students to attend lectures where nearly everyone fell asleep and half the students just didn’t bother attending, you told them to watch the lecture in advance and then do the problem sites in class? What if, instead of leaving students to form their own study groups and then struggle through on their own at 4am, you said, “this is what the classroom is for!” Imagine a teaching experience where the teacher is responsible for facilitating learning instead of delivering education? Imagine where tutorials are not just something you go to when you can’t keep up…but they are the real education experience. I think I would have learned much more–and perhaps I’d have even discovered and sustained more enthusiasm for advanced math and hard science if I had an experience like that.

What does any of this mean for little Marshall in K2? I don’t think we are ready to enroll him in 6.001 quite yet, but I think all our kids will face a different kind of education than I did. Marshall will be in an integrated classroom–which means there will be special needs kids along with everyone else. Throughout the school, we have widely varying levels of preparation and at least 1/4 to 1/2 of my other son’s class were English Language Learners (for whom English is not their primary language.) The population is decidedly not “one size fits all.” This requires a more individualized approach.

I do not expect kindergarten children to be getting lectures of any kind and I hope the emphasis will be on play, not preparation for future standardized testing. But I think technology could help teachers deliver a more individualized experience. That could take the form of iPad apps that small groups play together and simple games kids take home. Or it might just be that much learning happens independently. A friend of mine has a startup company that is working to develop true learning apps for the iPad based on guiding principles of individualized learning; I’m looking forward to seeing their beta and how it might work for my kids.

All of this makes me think I should shift the focus of this blog…as my rambling post illustrates, the topic of 21st century learning is full of things to write about and the stakes are high and personal.

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Choosing the Worst Schools

by Dave Atkins on May 4, 2012

in Education,Local to Boston

At our parents meeting on Monday night, we heard from one parent who must have drawn the worst lottery number–both this year and last. His child got nothing for K1 last year after ranking 14 schools, then after ranking 16 elementary schools this year, remains unassigned. They are wait listed at 3 schools, but at least 50 families are ahead. There is no requirement that Boston Public Schools enroll his child until January. And there just are not a lot of options for a child who is too old for preschool. Even if money were no object, the private schools fill up, have early deadlines, and require hefty application fees and deposits.

But there’s always the Trotter. Trotter Elementary is in Roxbury, on the northeast edge of the West Zone. It’s one of the few West Zone schools that still has vacant seats. City Councillor John Connolly led a group of unassigned parents on a tour there last month and is excited about it as an option for his kids now because the historical poor performance and reputation has resulted in more resources being poured into this historic school As a “turnaround school,” they have been able to hire the teachers they want and improve the facility dramatically. A growing number of parents are taking another look and thinking perhaps there is an opportunity to be a part of a school community on the rise.

I do not have firsthand knowledge of the Trotter and I do not know if the parent who failed to get any of his top 16 choices considered it, so I do not want to make any assumptions there. What I can observe is the effect our system of choice and crisis reform has on systemically dooming Boston schools and disadvantaged families to a never-ending cycle of halfway improvement. Because the Trotter has been judged by parents, through their lottery “votes,” to be one of the worst schools in Boston, it became a “dumping ground” for lottery losers and parents who don’t have time to figure out how to play the school assignment game. Test scores there track income and demographics–and every time there’s a crime nearby, it’s added to the list of fears parents think about when they size up the school. When you see the demand report…and you see some schools massively oversubscribed and others with vacancies, it’s only natural to ask, “What’s wrong with this school?”

The Curley in JP used to have a bad rep too. Then the school was marked for improvement, being designated a “superintendent’s school” in the parlance of the day. It became a K-8 school with advanced work and expanded its “specials” (art, science, music, etc.). Now it’s a top choice and JP parents agonize that they can’t get in and might get stuck at the Mendel…but that one is actually improving too! Meanwhile, as the focus of reform efforts shifts to the new “worst schools,” parents at the Curley scramble to raise money to keep programs intact while they absorb kids from schools closed last year before the district knew there would be hundreds of kindergarteners looking for space this year…is your head spinning yet?

I want to back off a bit from my earlier blog post where I argued to just eliminate choice altogether, but the current regime of illusory choice and procedural insanity is not just an annoyance for parents who want neighborhood schools, but a systemic disservice to the majority of kids in the system. Something I hear again and again is how parents just want some predictability. We want relief from knowing we don’t have to do another lottery and rejuggle our lives every year. In my case, I feel fortunate to have achieved that for our kids at the Bates–and to feel that the Bates is definitely on the leading edge of the improvement curve, but I think this process and cycle is destined to repeat until we acknowledge the role the system itself plays in suppressing performance and undermining improvements that are happening.

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What’s a Quality School?


I organized a meeting of Boston parents last night to discuss the school assignment process and heard many stories of frustration. We were joined by city councillor John Connolly who is, himself, experiencing the frustration of still having a child unassigned. We didn’t solve any problems, but I believe it was helpful to hear each […]

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Why Kids Vacation?


We wrapped up April vacation week today in Massachusetts, and it started me thinking about the coming summer vacation. I’m not talking about my vacation, of course, but rather the practice of closing the schools for a week in February, a week in April, two weeks in December, and all of July and August. Why […]

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An Unlucky Start to Weekend

Local to Boston

Sometimes, Friday the 13th is actually unlucky. This is not my car: It’s the scene in the parking lot from Friday evening as we grabbed an unhealthy dinner at the BK Steakhouse on Washington Street in Roslindale. This is my car: Around 3:30am Saturday (the 14th) morning, some clown in a white Chevy Impala (based […]

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Time for Solar in Massachusetts

Local to Boston

I’ve been fascinated by solar power since I was a kid and visited one of those model “homes of the future.” With the current financial incentives available, especially in Massachusetts, it not only makes sense to put a solar array on your roof, it might even be worth cutting down a tree to do it. […]

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The Real Value of Primary Education (for parents)


I’m starting a series of posts on education, and I’ll begin with a practical observation that seldom makes it to the top of most education reform discussions: One of the most important functions of elementary education is to provide a safe, supervised environment for parents to leave their kids so they can work. Many parents […]

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