Media Monday Edmonton: Meet The Yards

There’s a new, hyperlocal magazine now available in Edmonton focused on our city’s central neighbourhoods. The Yards launched last week at an event downtown, and soon it’ll find its way into more than 24,000 mailboxes in the Oliver and Downtown neighbourhoods. A collaboration between the Oliver and Downtown community leagues, The Yards will attempt to document and impact the major changes taking place in central neighbourhoods by redefining what it means to be a community publication.

The Yards Cover

I attended the launch event last Thursday and have since had the opportunity to speak with Jarrett Campbell, President of the Oliver Community League, and Omar Mouallem, editor of The Yards, about the project.

The Idea

The core idea behind The Yards is that central Edmonton is special. Downtown has been called “Edmonton’s living room” by more than a few community leaders, and together, Downtown and Oliver are home to many more people than the thousands who live there; thousands more work, eat, shop, and seek entertainment in the two neighbourhoods. Additionally, both neighbourhoods are undergoing significant changes. Multiple new investments, both private and public, are having a major impact and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Yards is a way for the community to chronicle those changes, and to shape the conversation around them. “A newsmagazine gives us the opportunity to showcase why living centrally is not only possible but favourable,” is what DECL President Chris Buyze wrote in his first message in the magazine. “We’re excited about telling our neighbourhood’s stories and discussing it with the broader community,” added Jarrett in his.

The idea initially wasn’t quite as grand, however. When Jarrett became president of the community league in 2012, he had a long list of things he wanted to get done, and while improving and modernizing the community newspaper was on the list, it wasn’t near the top. It wasn’t until about November 2013 that discussions began about what could be.

Jarrett simultaneously led his community league’s effort to handover the production of its newsletter to a third party and led the creation of The Yards, a balancing act which was definitely tricky at times. In the end the community league had to choose between two proposals, one of which was The Yards. “We [at The Yards] operated under the assumption this was going to happen,” said Jarrett, who recused himself from the community league’s decision on the matter. He was confident the idea and team would win the board over. The board’s final decision to move ahead came in July, and The Yards was born.

The Model

The Yards is published by the Central Edmonton News Society (CENS) in partnership with the Oliver Community League (OCL) and the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL). As a non-profit organization, CENS is made up of volunteers, but The Yards does have paid staff, and they do pay their writers. Omar is the magazine’s editor, while Vikki Wiercinski is the artistic director. No one is involved to get rich. “Everyone is doing this out of passion,” Omar said. “It isn’t lucrative!”

Jarrett serves as the primary link between the community leagues and CENS. He is President of the OCL Board of Directors and is Chair of the CENS Editorial Committee (DECL President Chris Buyze is Vice Chair of the Editorial Committee). Jarrett is listed as the publisher of The Yards, but hopes to see someone else move into that position in the future.

The Yards Launch
Omar, Jarrett, Vikki, and Chris

The masthead says “the Editorial Committee consults on story ideas and offers strategic support, leaving the decision-making and final content to The Yards staff.” Members include Alex Abboud, Justin Archer, Lisa Baroldi, David Cournoyer, Emerson Csorba, Cory Haller, Myrna Kostash, Milap Petigara, and Anne Stevenson.

In addition to advertising revenue, The Yards is funded by the two community leagues. OCL contributes $15,000 per year, which is what it was already paying for the community newspaper. DECL contributes another $5,000, and this is the first printed communication it has ever had. It’s the community leagues that make advertising appealing too. Their involvement means the publication can be sent to 24,300 mailboxes, which is far more than other organizations are able to achieve with Canada Post. Combined with high quality content, that distribution is appealing. “The value proposition is there,” Jarrett said.

When I asked why it was important for CENS to be a non-profit, Omar and Jarrett both seemed surprised at the question, as if they couldn’t see it working any other way. “Having a non-profit mandate allows us to support issues in a different manner,” Omar told me. “As a non-profit, we can be advocates.”

The Name

As Omar wrote in his first editor’s note, the name “harkens back to the old Canadian National rail yards along 104 Avenue” and serves as a way to look ahead without ignoring the past. On the website, the name is described as “a loving tribute” both to the rail yards and to “the role downtown has always played, as a gathering place for the whole city.” Fitting as it may sound, naming the magazine was no easy process.

“The Yards wasn’t even an option at first,” Jarrett admitted. Names like “53”, “Magpie”, “Centric”, and “The Crux” were considered and voted upon. After one round of voting, no clear winner emerged. That’s when Chris suggested “The Yards”. It wasn’t an immediate hit either. “I really didn’t like it at first,” admitted Jarrett. “But it is growing on me.” Omar loves that the name prompts a conversation with people about the history of the area, but agreed that “it needed to percolate a bit more” before the team felt confident it was the right name for the project.

The Content

Each edition of The Yards will contain messages from OCL and DECL, but the focus is on high quality, professionally written content. And while that content will certainly reflect the issues that are important to residents, it’ll go beyond what might have appeared in the old community newspaper. “The reality is many people come to Oliver and Downtown to work, to eat, for entertainment,” Omar said. He wants the magazine to reflect that, and to reach a broader audience.

Whereas the old community newspaper was often made up of submissions from non-profits, the new magazine is “run like a magazine”, to use Omar’s phrase. Instead of accepting submissions (and basically printing all of them), the magazine may choose to interview people to present more context around issues that are deemed worthy of coverage. If there’s an issue the community would like to see covered, they need to let the editorial staff know.

The goal is to have something that is relevant for much longer than the old community newspaper. “You could pick this up in six months and it’ll still be relevant,” says Jarrett. The first issue includes an article on empty nesters considering a move to downtown, a list of restaurant deals that can be found in central Edmonton, an events calendar, “a biography of downtown”, and opinion pieces on a “wet shelter” and designing safer crosswalks.

Omar also sees education as part of the magazine’s mandate. “I want readers to walk away from The Yards feeling like they have increased literacy on municipal issues,” Omar told me.

The Approach

While you can read The Yards online, it’s currently available only through Issuu, rather than via a developed website with permalinks for each article. But an improved website is in the works, and the team definitely want to have linkable articles. “I’d rather put money into content,” Omar told me. Right now, the focus is on growing the magazine.

“The Yards is modern and very visual,” Omar said. Vikki is largely responsible for that, drawing on her expertise as a graphic designer (she also organizes the popular Royal Bison craft fairs). For the first issue, they worked with local firm Studio Tipi on the illustrations. They’ve worked with Monocle, Alberta Oil Magazine, and many other publications in the past. Their flat, 2D-style illustration on the cover uses a limited color palette and feels both modern and timeless.

Another area of focus for The Yards has been social media. The magazine currently has about 450 likes on Facebook and more than 1000 followers on Twitter. “I think we’re already developing a credible voice on the area for those online communities,” he said. It’s through social media that many people find out about news and events, Omar pointed out, so it’s important for The Yards to have a presence there.

The Yards Launch

The launch event last week wasn’t just a way to build awareness about the new magazine, but is indeed a sign of things to come. “We’re applying some knowledge from modern magazines,” says Omar, pointing out that they have come to view events as a critical part of a successful magazine. “There’s a lot of value in events, because they bring the community together.” The plan is to host an event with a guest speaker in conjunction with the launch of each new issue.

The interview with Mayor Iveson at the launch event was recorded for The Yards podcast, another component that Jarrett and Omar hope to explore. They’re aiming to do one podcast per month for now, but again, the priority is the magazine and ensuring that grows successfully.

In addition to showing up in the mailboxes of residents in the two neighbourhoods, The Yards will also be available at restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses in the area.

The Community

Throughout our conversation, Jarrett and Omar reiterated that The Yards is a work in progress and they’re still figuring out how things are going to work. That applies especially to the relationship between The Yards and the community leagues. Right now the relationship is great, with lots of alignment between the community leagues and the editorial team. But a new community league board could change that dynamic, Jarrett admitted.

There’s also the matter of ensuring that the magazine reflects the entire community and not just the community league boards. “The community league doesn’t always reflect the makeup of the community,” Omar pointed out, noting the editorial committee is made up primarily of community representatives.

Though Oliver and Downtown are the communities behind The Yards, the stated aim is to serve central Edmonton, which includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Queen Mary Park and McCauley. “Downtown is all of the intrinsically connected central neighbourhoods,” Omar wrote in his editor’s note. “We believe it does us good to consider the sum of the parts and not get hung up on invisible lines.” It’ll be interesting to see how effectively the magazine reflects those varied communities.

Despite the risks, those involved see The Yards as a better model that will ultimately benefit the community. “For neighbourhoods that are changing so rapidly, the [old community] newspaper is not the best way to engage citizens on the issues,” Omar said.

The Yards

The primary goal is to produce quality content, which Omar and Jarrett hope will allow the magazine to grow. Having more advertisers will allow the magazine to include more pages, and Jarrett is confident that will happen. “Once people see the product,” he said, “they’ll get it.”

The Yards Launch

Omar feels the passion of those involved will shine through and will ultimately allow the publication to fulfill its mandate. “We’re civic-minded, engaged, and proud of our community, and we want to share that,” he said. “The magazine is a great way for us to shape the conversation.”

You can read the first issue of The Yards online now. Follow them on Twitter and on Facebook for updates.

Media Monday Edmonton: Meet the new West Edmonton Local

Last week a new media organization launched here in Edmonton, one that is quite unlike any of the others. West Edmonton Local is a project of Grant MacEwan University’s journalism program focusing on news in the west end of our city. It’s a website, an experiment in hyperlocal news, and a fantastic learning tool for MacEwan students. I talked to the new site’s editor-in-chief Archie McLean and two of its journalists about the project.

“As much as possible, we want to be an authoritative voice for the west end,” Archie told me. I think that statement says a lot about the new project – it might be easy to dismiss it as just thing for students, but to do so would be a mistake. West Edmonton Local is the real deal. “There’s a market for local news,” he declared. Chelsey Smith, one of the site’s contributors, agreed saying “there’s definitely a need for something like West Edmonton Local.”

Archie became the chair of the program back in August, and even then he was thinking about the idea of a local news site. “What’s the best way to channel the output and collective interest of 20 journalism students?” Traditionally, students would have had to write a couple of big articles during the term, giving them limited opportunity to work with editors. For Archie, that would mean 20 big articles all coming in at the same time. “It doesn’t reflect the media reality,” he told me. West Edmonton Local changes the approach – instead of learning to do journalism, students are doing journalism and learning from that experience.

Students are tasked with writing articles every week, and they also need to include a multimedia component. They’ll also do a few feature pieces throughout the term. They’re using Flickr for photos, and might also include Google Maps, video, slideshows, and other rich content. Chelsey told me “it’s a major time commitment, but everyone is so excited about it.” I also talked with Pamela Di Pinto, who highlighted the big head start the project is giving students career-wise. “It’s not often that my work gets published anywhere, so to actually have my name online is pretty cool.” Archie echoed that, saying that the skills students are gaining with West Edmonton Local will be valuable when they move to other organizations.

In addition to Archie wearing the editor-in-chief hat, the site has two student editors that alternate every two weeks. The Managing Editor helps with the articles and content, and the Community Engagement Editor (apparently the title has changed a few times now) focuses on Twitter, Facebook, and other aspects of the project. Chelsey is the Community Engagement Editor until Wednesday, and said she has focused on tweeting links and posting stories to Facebook, so that more than just the feature articles are read. “We want people commenting on our stories on the website, so it’s important to spread the news.”

The site officially went live on February 7. Archie and the team decided to focus on the west end partly because that’s where the MacEwan program exists, but also because the community seemed like it might be receptive to the idea. “It has a distinctive feel, it was Jasper Place until really not that long ago,” Archie told me. The project’s “boundaries” are west of 124 Street, and south of 111 Avenue to the river. There’s lots of potential news stories in the area, such as the Stony Plain revitalization, the LRT extension, etc. The boundaries are just guidelines, however. If there’s news that is relevant to the west end communities, West Edmonton Local will cover it.

While hyperlocal sites are nothing new, there aren’t many of them here in Canada, and certainly not from journalism schools. One of the sites Archie looked at was Mission Local, a hyperlocal site focused on the Mission district in San Francisco. The “trouble” section was borrowed from that site. Crime is one aspect, but there are other things covered in the trouble section, such as noise bylaw complaints, graffiti, etc. Stuff that is relevant to people in the community, but which might not meet the threshold to be covered in something like the Edmonton Journal.

Archie told me that the biggest challenges the project has faced so far are quality control and workflow. “It’s an ongoing challenge to keep a consistent voice.” The journalists are students of course, so they’re learning as they go, and they all have different abilities and experience. Workflow has also been a challenge, partially because the site is running on WordPress. Students pitch their own story ideas, and post the article in draft form. An editor comes in and checks things over, making any necessary adjustments (Chelsey commented that one of things she has learned so far is the importance of editing). Final approval is given from either Archie or Lucas Timmons, the production editor, and then the article goes live. Multimedia follows a slightly different workflow.

One of the most obvious questions about West Edmonton Local is what happens after school is over. “Worst case scenario is that it lives for a few months and then goes away, but ideally we want to keep it going over the summer,” Archie told me. He has applied for some grant money that would allow a student to work over the summer, carrying it through until the next term. Eventually advertising revenue could cover the operational costs, which at this point are quite small. Partnerships is another aspect of the site that Archie and the team are exploring. They’ve focused primarily on getting everything up and running so far, but are eager to speak with organizations in the community about how to work together.

The team sounded happy with the launch and the attention the site has received thus far. Pamela said the experience has been great, and that she’s excited to see the site grow. She also praised the work Archie and Lucas have put into the site. “They really are helping us out, getting our names out there.” Archie, perhaps unsurprisingly, said it is the students that should get the credit. “They’re putting the content up, and content is king.”

For now the site seems to be running fairly smoothly, but discussions about how to improve it are ongoing. “It’s so young, it could go anywhere,” Chesley remarked. Archie stressed that the team is looking for feedback at this stage. “We genuinely want suggestions from people on what we can do better.” If you have a comment or suggestion, tweet @westedlocal, leave a comment on Facebook, or get in touch with Archie.

For Archie, seeing West Edmonton Local come to life has been a great experience. “It was an opportunity to try building a news site from the ground up,” Archie told me. “It’s potentially an infinite amount of work.” His passion for the project definitely showed during our conversation however, so he seems up to challenge. He also knows this is a unique opportunity. “We don’t have any baggage, so we have the freedom to take chances.”

Congratulations to everyone involved in West Edmonton Local on what you have accomplished so far. I look forward to seeing the project grow and evolve!

Recent media links & thoughts

I read a lot about new media, journalism, publishing, news, etc. I always try to think about the things I read from both a global and a local perspective. Here are some thoughts on the things I’ve read recently.

From Jeff Jarvis:

I’m not so sure journalism is storytelling anymore.

Jeff points out that saying “journalism = storytelling” is limiting. Journalism is about more than the story, it’s a process. I agree completely. Data, algorithms, aggregators – all are aspects of journalism. They always have been, of course, but their importance/visibility has been heightened lately, thanks to new tools and technologies.

From paidContent.org:

Time Warner’s CNN is taking a stake in hyperlocal aggregator Outside.in—the latest example of a big media organization making a play in the hyperlocal space.

Smart move, just like MSNBC’s purchase of EveryBlock. And the news today that Google is in talks to buy Yelp. The dollars are starting to flow toward local/hyperlocal news companies. You know how the saying goes: follow the money.

From TechCrunch:

So what really scares me? It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.

From ReadWriteWeb:

In my view both writers and readers of content will need to work harder to get quality content. Right now ‘quantity’ still rules on the Web, ‘quality’ is hard to find.

Lots of others have already discussed the “content farm” issue that made the rounds in the blogosphere last week. My view on it is pretty simple: readers need to become more active. There’s so much information so easily available that you can’t afford to passively consume the news. You have to seek out sources and recommendations. Certainly we’ll get better tools (aggregators, filters, search engines) but I think readers need to make more of an effort. See also: Content farms v. curating farmers.

From Clay Shirky:

…one of the things up for grabs in the current news environment is the nature of authority. In particular, I noted that people trust new classes of aggregators and filters, whether Google or Twitter or Wikipedia (in its ‘breaking news’ mode.)

I called this tendency algorithmic authority.

Fascinating. I think there’s incredible opportunity, both globally and locally, to take advantage of this. Who do you trust for your news? Is it the same people/organizations that you trusted five years ago?

From Unlikely Words:

Ken Auletta from the New Yorker wrote a book about Google, “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It” and before he published it, he cut the last chapter of 25 media maxims.

Now you can read them online. A few of my favorites:

  • Passion Wins
  • Adapt or Die
  • Digital is Different
  • Don’t Ignore the Human Factor

And finally, one of my favorite new tools: Times Skimmer. We need more innovation like that at the local level!

Friday musings on hyperlocal news

A couple weeks ago, Matthew Hurst created the Hyperlocal page on Wikipedia. Previously, the Hyperlocal redirect went to Local News. Here is Matthew’s rationale for the change:

One of the reasons behind separating these two is that hyperlocal content, and especially blogging, is not simply content about a location and of a particular geographic granularity. It is intended for people resident in that location and, importantly, it is written by residents of the location. Local news does not require the later.

According to the article, hyperlocal content is characterized by three major elements:

  1. It refers to entities and events that are located within a well-defined, community-scale area.
  2. It is intended primarily for consumption by residents of that area.
  3. It is written by an individual resident in that area.

I think this definition is missing a few things.

Much of what I write on this blog could be considered hyperlocal under the above definition (assuming Edmonton falls under the well-defined, community-scale part). The same could be said of The Edmonton Journal, however, which is why I think the current definition on Wikipedia is missing something. The most obvious addition would be a fourth point about being locally owned/operated.

I like that the definition does not mention any particular medium, such as blogging, but rather leaves it open. However, I’m not sure the third point is general enough. The phrase “written by” suggests that we’re talking about the traditional article format, with sentences and paragraphs. I think hyperlocal is much more than that. Consider sites like EveryBlock, which contain hyperlocal news created by software (though I suppose EveryBlock conflicts with the locally owned/operated concept, but you get the idea). Sure humans wrote the software, but the content produced for consumption comes from an algorithm. Shouldn’t that count?

Another thought – what about the people who create hyperlocal content, whether writers or programmers or other creatives? Should we call them Hyperlocal Journalists? Before you journalist types get all defensive, consider that there are twenty types of journalism listed on Wikipedia. What’s the harm in adding one more? 🙂

Finally, I think there’s a place for aggregators and curators in the hyperlocal ecosystem. Perhaps another defining characteristic of hyperlocal content is that it is spread all over the place. Aggregators and curators can sift through all of that content to help make it more discoverable.

Northern Voice 2009: Passionately Local

Of all the sessions at Northern Voice 2009, I was perhaps most looking forward to the one presented by Briana Tomkinson of Tenth to the Fraser titled Passionately local: blogging about your own backyard. As someone who is definitely passionate about my hometown, I was really curious to learn about the experiences of others.

Tenth to the Fraser is a hyperlocal blog focused on New Westminster, a city in the Vancouver area. Briana talked about some of the motivations behind the site, some of the challenges, and some of the rewards.

Here are some notes I took from Briana’s slides:

  • The Greek Chorus of New West
    • Help the ‘audience’ follow the performance
    • Comment on themes
    • React to the drama
    • Provide insight
  • Passion for community
    • A desire to dig in to a place
    • An itch to uncover more
    • A calling to share the results
  • Everyone blogs from a place. The placeblogger blogs about a place.
  • Hyperlocal made interesting
    • Reveal the character of a place
    • Represent diverse perspectives
    • Keep focus narrow
    • Balanced mix of: aggregating local information, publishing original content, relationship-building
  • Finding your nice within the media ecosystem
    • Befriend the local media
    • Extend traditional news coverage
    • Reveal opinions and perspectives that are missed in mainstream coverage
    • Geek out: food, schools, politics, shopping
  • The Rewards
    • Pride of place
    • Local fame
    • Community
    • Knowledge
    • Giving back
  • Be the change you seek in your community

I really liked Briana’s talk, even though the end was a bit rushed as everyone started asking questions and she ran out of time! There were definitely moments when I thought “I know exactly what she means” and others when I thought “that wouldn’t work in Edmonton”.

With a population of nearly 60,000, New Westminster is about 13 times smaller than the City of Edmonton, and almost 20 times smaller than the Edmonton metro area. So while a single, focused blog in New Westminster probably would work very well, I don’t think it would fly in Edmonton. There’s just too much to write about for a single blog. I think, more than ever, that aggregation is the way to go for a city of Edmonton’s size.

There are some similarities, however. Tenth to the Fraser has started the #NewWest hashtag on Twitter, similar to our beloved #yeg. They seem to write a lot about politics, which is perhaps the most popular topic here too. And they have a relatively small, but rapidly growing online community.

I think there are lots of things that hyperlocal bloggers can learn from Tenth to the Fraser. Check it out, and let me know what you think. The first thing you’ll notice is that the site is free of any advertising. Briana and her team do it because they love their city, not because they’re in it for the money. We could use more blogs like Tenth to the Fraser!

Contributing to Techvibes

techvibes I recently accepted an offer to contribute Edmonton-related content to the Techvibes blog. They’re trying to create a destination site with hyperlocal tech content from all of Canada’s major cities. The blog already has some great, unique stuff, such as the Start-up Index series, and I’m excited to be able to help it grow.

I did my first post Saturday, on the official opening of TEC Edmonton’s new TEC Centre. I’m hoping to post a mix of news, analysis, event notifications and reviews, and startup profiles.

If you’ve got an idea or story or event or tip or anything else related to technology in Edmonton, I’d love to hear about it! You can always leave a comment here, you can email me, or you can find me online (for instance, Twitter is a great way to get my attention!).

Joining along with me is Cam Linke, who was the driving force behind our recent DemoCamp event in Edmonton. Rob at Techvibes has written a great introduction post for us, which you can read here.