“We’re onto something”

August 27, 2013

imgresThe best newspapers have always reflected the concerns and advanced the interests of their communities. For smaller newsrooms with bare-bones staffs, though, that’s an increasingly tall order. So we’re intrigued by the initiative that’s been brewing this summer at the Bangor (Me.) Daily News.

Last month, the Daily News, a family-owned newspaper with circulation of about 45,000, launched MaineFocus. “Our plan for MaineFocus,” the paper writes, “is straightforward: Confront challenges facing our state, drive public conversations about overcoming them and inspire solutions to create a better Maine.”

MaineFocus connects journalism with community discussions and activities around three issues: domestic and sexual violence, the drug epidemic, and growing Maine’s economy. The paper believes that these challenges are, in themselves, especially urgent for Mainers – and also that they drive many other social problems.

Each issue area is owned by several Daily News staffers, cutting across the paper’s administration and news and editorial pages. Their pieces, which appear on a site linked to the main newspaper platform, are augmented by those from area experts: a mental health and substance abuse counselor, an advocate for sexual assault victims. The paper has enlisted partner organizations that help drive engagement beyond the Daily News’ pages. (It’s collaborating, for example, with Project Aware, a youth leadership program, to produce a festival for teen-made films on the impact of drug abuse.)

MaineFocus launched around a gripping multimedia project called “Proof,” about rape victims and their paths to healing. Not all the site’s content is as strong, but it’s getting traction: over 300 people have signed up to participate in an ongoing conversation through the “MaineFocus Group.” Says news director Anthony Ronzio: “This response shows that we’re onto something here if we can keep up the momentum – which admittedly, given our small staff and resources, is the hardest part.” If they can, MaineFocus has the potential to reshape the public discourse in Bangor – and to change the relationship between the Daily News and its audience.

I spoke with Ronzio and his colleagues about the initiative:

What’s the strategy for MaineFocus?

Ronzio: “We’ve tried to step outside the zone of our usual reporting – keeping the lines between reporting and advocating intact while offering solutions. We want to take the long view, planting a flag in these core issues, providing consistent and steady emphasis by reporting, inviting contributors to lend their voices to the project, and engaging the community.”

Natalie Feulner, newsroom administrator: “MaineFocus is more than a blog. The site looks like a blog, yes, but the project is a company initiative and has many more facets than just the site and related stories. We actually want to try and make a difference in the community by reaching out to organizations and people who need help. For example, our domestic violence team is training with the local shelter and spent 40 hours training with our area rape response organization.”

How did the project start?

Erin Rhoda, editorial page editor: “The idea originally came from our COO [Todd Benoit]. He called me into his office and asked, “What are the biggest problems our state faces? We drew up a list, and we understood that a lot of them overlapped. We didn’t know exactly where we were going with it.”

Ronzio: “It took us six months to figure it out. It evolved into MaineFocus, to give it a home and a brand, moving it from abstract mission to a concrete project. We asked reporters to come up with projects outside their daily reporting that will push people to start talking about these issues.”

How does that play out in the newsroom?

Feulner: “Drug abuse was one of our core issues. We started with a big story on the increase in babies exposed to drugs in utero [http://mainefocus.bangordailynews.com/home/drug-affected-babies-unwitting-victims-of-maines-opiate-problem/]. We focused on that because it was the sort of story that forced us to work back to explore the system. It didn’t fit into the traditional newspaper construct. We knew it was something different, so we wanted to treat it differently.”

Ronzio: “We want reporters to make it a part of their daily routine to think about content that can fit with this project. I asked the team leaders for “Growing Maine’s Economy” to think come up with ideas that can work for the MaineFocus blog and also bigger ideas for newspaper stories that dovetail with the MaineFocus conversation. So they come across reports, interviews with experts; they aggregate content from around the country and apply it to Maine context. Erin and Natalie have made their MaineFocus project, preventing domestic and sexual violence, part of their jobs. Erin has made these issues a major part of what she writes about [on the editorial page].

How have advertisers reacted?

Ronzio: “We’re not running advertising. This is a news content and company project, not a revenue/advertising initiative. MaineFocus is part of our civic mission as a news organization and Maine business.”


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