Local Biz - SeeClickFix Makes News
(1/5/2010) From Jan. 4, 2010 New York Times
News Sites Dabble With a Web Tool for Nudging Local Officials
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Doug Hardy, an associate editor and Internet supervisor for The Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., wanted to increase page views on its Web site.
Mr. Hardy had heard about SeeClickFix.com, a local advocacy Web site that lets users write about issues to encourage communication between residents and local government. SeeClickFix users post a complaint about problems that occur within a set of boundaries on a Google Map, like graffiti at a bus stop or potholes on a busy street, and the site communicates the problem to the appropriate government agency and marks the problem on the map.
Users can comment on the issue or label it resolved. Government agencies can post on the site to respond to residents, and journalists can use the site to communicate with readers and see which issues are most pressing to people.
Ben Berkowitz, the chief executive of SeeClickFix, said the tool went beyond government: “Anyone can be held accountable: a business, nonprofit, even a private citizen.”
The Journal Inquirer, which covers the area around Manchester, invested in its Web site, and then paid circulation plummeted. So the editors put online content behind a pay wall.
There seemed to be a trade-off. Once visitors could no longer read articles without paying, circulation stabilized — but page views dropped by about 30 percent. It fell to Mr. Hardy, the associate editor, to attract more visitors.
“We needed new strategies,” Mr. Hardy said. “We needed new ways to draw traffic to our site and to improve our product and make it more compelling.”
He thought SeeClickFix could help. Mr. Hardy drew a SeeClickFix map of the paper’s coverage area last spring and posted some sample issues, but the map did not receive responses until an article about the site ran in The Hartford Courant. After the article, Mr. Hardy noticed new issues on his map and added a SeeClickFix widget to the Journal Inquirer site last August, where it drew many comments.
The basic service is free, but Mr. Hardy spends $38 a month for SeeClickFix Pro, which features The Journal Inquirer’s logo on issues the paper selects and allows access to an advanced management dashboard.
Mr. Hardy decided to write a column based on issues that arose on the SeeClickFix widget, using either his own posts or compelling ideas from other users. Topics include long-delayed repairs to a bridge, which were completed after the article ran, and roads where dangerous speeding seemed to go unrestrained. Mr. Hardy is working on a project involving articles and video on eyesores in the area, including a dilapidated structure in Windsor, Conn., that is visible from Interstate 91.
“You look back at some of the stuff you’ve done over the years as a journalist, and you go, ‘I’ve written some important stories; no one ever called or wrote,’ ” Mr. Hardy said. “I’ve just gotten tons and tons of response to some of the stories I’ve written” using SeeClickFix.
SeeClickFix is not unique in its hyperlocal focus. Other sites, like EveryBlock.com and CrimeReports.com, post data from government organizations and news outlets. FixMyStreet.com features discussion between residents and government officials, but only in Britain.
Mr. Berkowitz says that what sets SeeClickFix apart from other hyperlocal sites is that, anywhere in the world, it can foster interaction among government, news media and residents.
Issues were first reported on SeeClickFix in March 2008, and the site was incorporated as a business in September of that year. The four founders paid for the start-up themselves and used any revenue to develop the site. The company received an undisclosed amount of money from a group of angel investors last September but remains privately owned. Last March, it won a $25,000 Pitch It prize from We Media, a company that supports media entrepreneurship.
The site is used mostly in Philadelphia, New Haven and parts of New Jersey. But Mr. Berkowitz, who has ambitious plans, recently released an iPhone application similar to two that serve Pittsburgh and Boston. He offers the site in 72 languages and is seeking volunteer translators.
“A few weeks ago we launched home pages for 25,000 cities and about 8,000 neighborhoods,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “If your neighborhood isn’t on there, you can add it. You can even create your own free-form geography.” An e-mail alert is sent to all users in the same neighborhood when an issue is posted about it. SeeClickFix has received posts from countries as distant as Australia.
Other newspapers, large and small, have also tried the site. The New York Times uses it on one of its blog, The Local, that covers neighborhoods in New Jersey.
Mr. Hardy said SeeClickFix was invaluable because it provided a broader forum beyond just writing about an issue.
“We printed a paragraph from a woman’s complaint about a deteriorated mill building in Vernon,” Mr. Hardy wrote in an e-mail message. “I got responses from the mayor, town administrator and the architect who is redeveloping the building — all within 24 hours.” The Journal Inquirer had written about the mill before but had never received such a response.
“It’s just such a natural thing for us to be doing as a local paper,” Mr. Hardy said. “The ideas are basically generated by readers.”
Mr. Hardy said he had rarely seen malicious or incorrect information on SeeClickFix, and Mr. Berkowitz concurred.
Mr. Hardy said he was convinced that SeeClickFix was an invaluable tool for struggling local journalists.
“The writing is on the wall,” Mr. Hardy said. “If we can’t remain competitive, you know, we’re not going to be around. That’s the way it is; that’s the way the economy is. So if local papers are looking for a way to add their brand to the conversations people are having, this is it.”
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