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WellCommons -- a new approach to local health reporting

WellCommons -- a new approach to local health reporting

Picture of Jane Stevens

Most health sites focus on personal health -- what individuals can do to improve their own or their families' health. But at a local level, health is a community issue. For example, we're all supposed to get regular checkups. If everyone in a community does not have access to good health care, however, then the advice is useless. Our kids are supposed to eat healthy food, but if school lunch programs provide mac-and-cheese, French fries and few vegetables, then the community is failing those kids. We're all supposed to exercise, but if a community doesn't have enough safe places to walk, jog, bike and play outdoors, then how can individuals improve their health?

Local health reporters can do a good job at pointing out health problems. But the restrictions of print, TV and radio don't allow enough context, continuity and solution-oriented reporting to assist and engage the community in solving them.

The Internet and the web, however, can change that. We at the Lawrence Journal-World, a family-owned news organization in Lawrence, KS, developed WellCommons as a new approach to local health reporting. It was built with Ellington Community, a new social media publishing system that provides the community with the same tools used by the site's reporters, including tools to help the community set and achieve its goals to improve health.

We think WellCommons is what journalism looks like in a social media world. Some people say it's a touch of WordPress, a little bit Ning, some Facebook and Twitter, all embedded in a safe place and a trusted source, which is what journalism is supposed to be for a community (in addition to the watchdog role). It's unlike anything in the digital news arena, as far as we know.

A group of reporters, editors, programmers, designers, advertising and marketing managers at the Lawrence Journal-World -- with the help and guidance of about 40 members of the local health community -- have been working on developing the site since last summer. We launched it in beta at the end of February, it went "official" in April, and we are now continuing to nurture it and watch it grow.

WellCommons is unique in five ways:

  1. It integrates social media with journalism. Reporters and members of the community alike post to the site through a public-facing interface; participants can follow and message each other; they can repost around the site, and send posts to Facebook and Twitter.
  2. It goes a long way to resolving the signal-to-noise complaint about the web.In other words, its architecture helps people assess the reliability of a particular piece of information. One ingredient of WellCommons' secret sauce is that it is built around groups that all function the same way, whether started by a reporter or a community member. The other is that all participants use their real names. This is how WellCommons works: Anyone can start a group. If you start a group, you put your content into "news" and "resources". People who join your group put their content into the "commons" section. Participants are able to judge the quality of the information, depending on if it's in a group's news or resources section (content posted by the group "owner") or the commons section (where anybody can post), and by knowing who posted the information.
  3. WellCommons' approach to health reporting is community-based and solution-oriented. Organizations and individuals can start groups and add subgroups. Although anyone can have a blog, most of the action takes place in the group pages. At the moment, there are nearly 60 groups at various stages of development. We are working with them to set goals and to grow their own communities to help them achieve those goals, which include enlisting more local restaurants to put local foods on their menus, reducing domestic violence, engaging more people in exercise events, and building more bike trails. We're developing a goal app so that groups can track their goals.
  4. It uses a new advertising model. We believe businesses that provide health products and services are a vital part of the community, and should be included. Businesses can start their own group pages; they pay to do so. They have direct access to and conversations with members of the community. They can sponsor parts of the site, and buy display ads, which, at the moment, look like traditional display ads. Eventually, those ads themselves will become social media-enabled, with content that the business can update with a blog post or a tweet.
  5. We involved community members from the beginning of its development. About 40 people -- from nonprofits and the local hospital, physicians, health advocates, people who were uninsured, locavores, etc. -- met regularly with the news organization's working group, and still meet quarterly.

The site is still in its infancy. We have a long list of changes and additions planned: adding databases and resources, the goals app, allowing people to post photos from their computers (right now they have to post a Flickr url), adding topics pages, quizzes, letting people sign on with their Facebook or Twitter accounts, etc. We'll also be adding another jurno (we have one amazing one now -- Karrey Britt), so that we have the bandwidth to do indepth and investigative stories. (What's a jurno? Go here for more info.)

Check out WellCommons -- sign up, join a few groups, participate. I'd love to know what you think, and, especially, how it can be improved.


Picture of Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou

I like this idea. Thanks for sharing!


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