Catawba River Views
A former Charlotte Observer journalist will spearhead a news and information website about a community-driven environmental makeover of the endangered Catawba River District near Charlotte, N.C. Content will come from volunteers, freelancers, and involved groups such as the local parks and recreation department, agricultural extension service and the energy company. Future support is expected from federal environmental sustainability grants, and a fee-based certification program to acknowledge energy-efficient construction and environmentally protective landscaping.
Check back for future news and updates.
River District News Engages Bloggers and More to Cover Catawba River News
Based on the Final Report from Rich Haag, editor.
As Catawba River Views turns 2 years old, it has overhauled its initial website, developed a multi-contributor blog site and is helping its parent organization raise funds to support its efforts to cover news around the river near Charlotte, N.C.
“Our still-developing community news operation not only exists but has begun to inform and connect our communities along the Catawba River,” said editor Rich Haag. “This has happened even as the one weekly newspaper for our area recently switched back to monthly due to lack of advertising.”
However, he added, “We have much more to do before I’m willing to say we have a successful community news operation.”
The site now focuses on community and environmental news, such as recent reports on a coming rail-trail on a small college currently isolated from a nearby town; efforts by local schools to begin hands-on learning gardens; and the ability of new artwork in downtown Charlotte to improve the water quality of the Catawba River 10 miles away.
The Catawba River Views news operation includes:
The website, updated weekly or more often.
An extensive community calendar.
A community bloggers page, with seven writers, updated daily.
A YouTube video channel with news videos.
An e-newsletter sent roughly each week to groups and individuals within the River District.
Facebook and Twitter feeds via HootSuite.
A broad community-groups directory.
The site promote the activities of many other local environmental and community groups
and shares news on regional and global efforts to improve Earth’s health.
Among its successes, Haag reported, are:
Growing awareness and credibility across the site’s diverse and divided (by the river) target community.
Growing support from established green groups such as the Catawba Riverkeeper and NC Wildlife Federation.
A diverse and synchronized media system with multiple channels to support one another.
Database functionality for the local-news portion of website.
Growing relationship with Belmont Abbey College, community groups and local government.
Creation of a reporting model that uses community bloggers, college interns and local freelancers.
The website has used volunteers for many tasks and harnesses free online services such as Blogger and YouTube.
Its biggest challenges are finding lasting funding for its parent organization, Catawba River District, and adding staff. Currently, the news operation consists of one full-time staff person who oversees the community bloggers, one or two college interns per semester, and one or two paid freelancers as needed. The staff person serves as editor, main reporter, photographer, videographer and website manager. The site is also looking to grow its audience.
Editorial independence continues to be a goal, Haag said. “Two years ago when we applied for the New Voices grant, the Catawba River District Executive Board agreed that Catawba River Views must maintain an independent voice. We have done so. However, the news operation would benefit from establishing its own oversight board of community members. Such a group could build important ties across our community and provide a sounding board for dealing with tough issues involving environmental threats and local businesses – most notably the utility that built our lakes a century ago.“
Progress Report: River District News
Forgive me if this report seems a bit disjointed. I am trying to get out our next e-newsletter this afternoon, update the news website to match the newsletter, and prepare the ground rules for the first meeting of our blog team next week. In other words, we are hard at work building the community news voice that J-Lab hoped we might become when you awarded our New Voices grant way back in May 2010.
We have made major progress since our last report. Here are some high points:
Name evolution - We have decided that Catawba RiverViews better represents what we are about. The play on the word "Views" is intentional, of course. Living along the river, we spend a lot of time enjoying the many views of water and wildlife. On the other hand, this is a highly diverse community with tree-huggers, retired textile mill workers, descendants of pioneers and newcomers from up North and south of the border. Our goal is to represent those many views as our community leaders and the River District work to protect the Catawba and build an environmentally sustainable future.
News site in operation - We now have a robust though still crude news website in operation, with an extensive community calendar, mixture of local community and environmental news, links to national and global information and a growing database of community groups. Our goal has always been to update the site at least weekly and we are finally at that point. With parts of three cities, two counties, arguably America's most threatened river, America's only manmade whitewater rapids and the crossroads of an emerging 200-plus-mile long greenway trail network all within our 16,000-acre district, we have plenty of news to report. Add in the continued decline of local print, radio and TV news reporting (the one weekly paper covering part of our district just switched back to monthly), and you can see that there is a need here for community journalism.
E-newsletter publishing at least twice monthly - The newsletter going out today, God willing and the Mac don't die, will actually be just a week since our last one. News stories range from "Green Christmas" (how to celebrate the holidays AND protect the environment) to reports on both the relaunch of an old train line that could one day carry commuters to Charlotte, and the Rail-Trail greenway that planners hope to build in the same corridor. The newsletter is one way to drive readers to the website.
First freelance reporter - We have begun working with a young journalist who attends college within our district, lives in a restored mill home nearby and just finished an internship with the Charlotte Observer. Chris Lux will generate regular profiles on people helping to protect our environment and also help us increase our social-media efforts. Chris set up our Facebook page several months ago, facebook.com/CatawbaRiverDistrict.
Launch of YouTube channel - We shot, edited and posted our first community-news videos in October on our YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/CatawbaRiverDistrict. The videos cover an event staged by our parent organization to promote science and math learning among our largely low-income schools. The videos also gave us our first experience in amateur recording and editing for publication. Apple's imovie software makes this a snap. We will move forward with more frequent community news videos with help from the Canon digital camcorder we purchased a few weeks ago with New Voices grant funds. The device has some great pro-sumer features such as the ability to take external mikes and shoot well in low light. It also can be fully automatic so that team members with limited training will still be able to make usable recordings.
Progress on database functionality with website - We hired a freelance programmer to build and test a database-driven way to easily update our news website. We have had the first trial of that work ready for us to build upon for more than a month. I had hoped to incorporate that improvement into the site in November but lost several weeks of time to care for my mom, who passed away in late October. We should be able to get back to this improvement in December. Meanwhile, the news site functions OK in its more limited format.
Among activities about to take off:
Adding Facebook feeds to website - This is actually a simple improvement to make, once I find the time. With our increased emphasis on social media we will be able to provide Facebook updates daily AND have the newest ones appear on our homepage.
Adding newsletter feeds to Facebook - Another step that will happen over the next couple of weeks is driving our e-newsletter audience by promoting much more extensively on Facebook, both when the newsletter publishes and with daily teases to recently posted news.
Launching a blog team - CatawbaRiverViewss.org's website will add a daily blog post sometime in the next month. Our initial team will have its first meeting next week. Members include a former business writer for the region's main business paper, the Business Journal, plus people involved in urban farming, wellness, small-business promotion, green construction, STEM school programming and wildlife. Our plan is to have each person write weekly, giving us a fresh topic to promote daily via website and social media.
Increasing marketing and audience-building efforts - We have done this throughout the year informally, after holding community meetings last winter. We will become much more intentional in the next two months. Chris Lux will begin calling key civic, church and business leaders to enlist their support in sharing our news with their members, and vice versa. We also will use New Voices funds to hold several community meetings in January-February.
Expenses & Budget
We have continued to preserve much of the original grant money while we sorted out larger issues regarding the mission and funding of our parent group, the Catawba River District. More detail on that follows. We are now at the point where the news operation can move forward at the level envisioned in the New Voices grant.
We have consumed most of the $6,000 we allocated in grant funds to get our website up and running and to buy some basic equipment.
We now are beginning to tap the operational funds we allocated for freelance reporting, photography and editing, plus some basic expenses such as phone service, web hosting, community meetings and marketing materials. We have about $5,600 remaining of the $11,000 initially budgeted here and will spend that over then next couple of months on news gathering, editing and posting.
Thanks again for recognizing our fund-raising efforts by awarding us the final $8,000 matching funds under the New Voices grant. Catawba River District is beginning to attract community support in the form of sponsorships, including funding related to our first RiverTime three-day series of activities in mid-October. We since have added two more substantial River District sponsorships totaling $35,000 over the next three years and have two more under discussion.
We have allocated $8,000 of that sponsorship money over the next six months to cover part of the costs of generating, editing and posting content, along with providing tools including cell-phones and service.
Spending Matching-Grant Funds
We originally proposed using the final $8,000 from the New Voices grant for a laptop, software and monitor for the publisher ($4,000); office rent ($2,000); content and design related to a printed newsletter ($1,500); and two community classes on video shooting and editing ($500).
We now see better uses for $6,500 of that funding.
NO RENT - We do not need help with rent, thanks to a local business that has offered us free office space for at least the next year or two, if we choose to use it. Truthfully, we have operated well in a virtual-office environment and have convenient community spaces that can host our meetings, when needed.
NO COMPUTER - The publisher (me) has determined that he can make do without a new computer, monitor and software, at least for the next year. I will continue to use personal equipment and software at least for the next year, so that these funds can go for more immediate needs.
NO VIDEO TRAINING - While helping civic and neighborhood groups shoot video for publication will be useful down the road, our more immediate need is reaching out to the many communities that have no groups at all. We greatly overestimated the number of neighborhood groups actually functioning in the River District. We have come up with a plan to contact residents in these neighborhoods via mail and/or flyers and hold multi-neighborhood events. The $500 currently budgeted for video-training classes would help with that effort.
USES FOR REMAINING $6,000 - We understand that you do not require a line-item budget for how we will spend every dollar, and we appreciate that flexibility.
Our best estimate now is that we will spend $5,000 on generating, editing and posting news content.
We will spend the remaining $1,000 (plus $500 not spent on video training) on meetings and materials needed to build awareness of the Catawba RiverViews among our 16,000 residents.
Ongoing Financial Outlook
The final New Voices funding match seeks to reward groups that have found ways to sustain themselves long term. Catawba RiverViews and its parent group, the Catawba River District, appear headed toward a funding model similar to public television and radio. We see the River District's future revenue coming from a mix of corporate sponsors and individual members.
The River District's first major sponsor, a local hospital, is helping underwrite programs to encourage healthy living. The district's second major sponsor, a high-tech manufacturer, supports our programs pushing science and math learning among lower-income children. Two local utilities are helping the River District launch a regional campaign for family memberships based on protecting the Catawba River, our region's primary source of water. Catawba RiverViews funding over the next year will come almost exclusively from its parent group, the Catawba River District.
After months of receiving community suggestions and performing high-tech code wrangling, the Catawba River District in North Carolina is very close to launching Catawba RiverViews, a source for local environmental news.
Project manager Rich Haag spent countless hours developing the technology in the Expression Engine content management system. “I feel like I am building a car and have a decent set of tires, seats, windows,” he said. “I just need to get the motor running so I finally can see how everything works together.”
When it appears in June 2011, the site will feature profiles of ‘people going green,’ community-contributed stories and resources for sustainable living. It also invites user-submitted questions that a series of experts will answer. And an interactive events calendar will let users find activities under the headers ‘Do,’ ‘Learn,’ and ‘Play’.
While he built the backbone of the site, Haag also worked to build up a network around the site. He joined The Charlotte Observer’s Networked Journalism project, another J-Lab initiative partnering legacy news organizations with hyperlocal news publishers. Also launched was an internship program with Belmont Abbey College, a small liberal arts school in the middle of the Catawba River District. Interns are beginning to contribute to the site behind-the-scenes.
Haag has also hit the road, holding community gatherings to get specific ideas for how to share news about environmental issues in the district. He has compiled a list of leaders in neighborhood, civic, school, church and environmental groups and has already begun reaching out with an electronic newsletter. And he shared information about the project at several other community events, including a recent Earth Day event at Gastonia’s Schiele Science Museum.
Haag remains optimistic about the need for this information. He recently emailed an announcement about an upcoming event to 500 community leaders and asked them to pass it along. Within a few hours, his message reached thousands. “Now I’m getting a rebound of sorts,” he said, “people sending me invitations to their events.”
His goal continues to be an exceptional and flawless site, but he recently arrived at the conclusion that at some point, the site needs to go live. As a fellow board member put it to him, “A Chevy will work just fine right now even if our dream is to have a Cadillac.”
Catawba RiverViews is expected to launch in late June 2011.
Most news sites simply aim to cover their communities and report the latest stories. The River District News, however, has loftier aspirations: to “help drive an innovative environmental makeover along one of America’s most endangered rivers.”
Rich Haag is communications director for the Catawba River District, the nonprofit group leading the effort to bring sustainable living to a 16,000-acre stretch of the river, the source of drinking water for more than a million people in the Charlotte, N.C. region.
Sponsored by the Catawba River District, the River District News will support the effort by facilitating a community dialogue to share news, give feedback and build a common vision for the area. Their methods of news distribution will include a central website, PTA newsletters, group websites, citizen-activist e- news blasts and community gatherings.
According to Haag, the River District News has already accomplished much in building bridges, growing skills and gaining allies. Over the summer, they laid the groundwork for a successful launch in four parts:
Building ties with groups, media and freelancers Relationships are developing with several cornerstone groups active in the River District and officials in three adjacent cities, and the RD News plans to bring them together in early 2011. These groups include the local chapter of the Sierra Club, foundations, and other groups with wide networks. The group is also connecting with local environmental websites and freelancers who will publish photos, video and text about activities within the district.
Strengthening technical skills Haag rebuilt and expanded Catawbariverdistrict.org and a second site, and is currently building a third site related to the Catawba River District. He contacts readers using HTML newsletters for mass mailings, as well as YouTube and Facebook for event promotion and coverage.
Website planning In an effort to learn from and connect with other websites, Haag has gathered many examples of sites with features that could benefit the RD News.
Promoting through others’ activities The CRD has built name recognition for its activities and its news arm through cooperation with other groups. They have sponsored and presented at environmental events in the Charlotte area, and plan to announce the River District News launch at the Northwest Charlotte Chamber’s environmental event in late October.
Though the River District News has made significant progress, they are struggling with common obstacles as well.
“Our two biggest challenges since receiving the New Voices grant will sound familiar: finding more funding and juggling limited time from our volunteers,” Haag said.
The national recession has stopped most construction across the Charlotte region, proving problematic for a funding model that depends largely on new construction. The executive committee has spent 2010 changing the project’s strategy, but not its mission.
“This refocusing has taken many hours of work by all volunteers, including me, to identify and pursue grant opportunities and business sponsorships,” he said. “This funding is also essential for us to continue RD News beyond next spring.”
Haag said the district would promote ways to improve the environment around existing structures, including suburban tract homes, historic village centers and century-old houses built for textile workers.
Next on the District’s agenda is making the move from laying groundwork to building the foundation.
Develop website in two stages - preliminary in Fall 2010, advanced by March 2011
Meet with local media about content sharing
Begin monthly email newsletter to community contacts
Begin individual discussions with group leaders to build a network
Hold group meetings with multiple leaders
Begin quarterly meetings with information contributors
Begin Facebook network development
As for the website, Haag says the first iteration will serve as a stake in the ground and be a talking point in discussions with other groups. It will have core functionality for posting news, promoting activities, linking to others and publicizing the Facebook connection.
The Catawba River District has identified several major funding opportunities, including a Sustainable Communities planning grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development; federal weatherization grants and creation of a job-training center at the ReVenture renewable energy facility.
Haag hopes to capitalize on these opportunities, as they would greatly affect the progress and exposure of River District News.
- Rachel Karas
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