Last summer, Long Beach, California’s downtown was drastically renovated. Additions were made to buildings overnight and random, colorful murals popped up all over the place.
These new additions didn’t happen in real life though — they were made in a version of Long Beach created in the video game Minecraft as part of a series of events organized by the Long Beach Post, a digital news site.
As communities quarantined last year, the Post developed a virtual version of Long Beach as a way to create engagement opportunities for its journalists to connect with younger audiences at a time when there was no way to connect with community members in-person.
Participants were invited to help create new structures and build up the virtual Long Beach as Post reporters shared insights into their reporting, chatted with guests, and answered questions.
This week in Solution Set, we’re going to cover how the Long Beach Post went from developing the concept for Virtual Long Beach into creating a final product with hundreds of creative minds.
Solution Set is a weeklyish newsletter from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. We take an in-depth look at one worthwhile strategy in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: At the height of the pandemic last year, the Long Beach Post wanted to find creative ways to connect with its community virtually while also attracting a younger audience.
• The Strategy: The Post built Long Beach in Minecraft in May 2020, inviting anyone to join in to creatively build within the city while listening to weekly live-streamed interviews with reporters and others in the community.
• The Numbers: About 400 people signed up for the Long Beach Minecraft server, and some are still consistently building today even after the Post held its last event in August 2020.
• The Lessons: The people within your community are not just sources of information — it can pay off to build community even when you’re not looking for a source. And as you think about how to facilitate community building, it’s important to think about how your audiences already access information.
• The Future: The Post hopes to bring back in-person community events as soon as it’s safe to do so, and it is thinking about other ways it can continue to engage with younger community members.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of Long Beach Post’s virtual Minecraft server and other ways that Minecraft has been used to educate and target younger audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Anything to add?: Join us for the inaugural News Philanthropy Summit this November. The fully virtual summit will focus on strategies for successful journalism fundraising. It’s free to attend and open to all. Keep scrolling to learn more about how you can participate and pitch a session on
The Long Beach Post is a for-profit online news site covering the Southern California city, and community engagement is a big part of its approach to local news coverage. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, reporters hosted regular Office Hours at local cafes. Residents were invited to come chat with staffers, learn more about the website, meet neighbors, and share news tips.
But when the world went into lockdown in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, the Post canceled Office Hours because they could no longer be held face to face. As the days of quarantine stretched into weeks, many children and adults were also forced to stay home, bored, and without any human interaction.
With so many Long Beach residents stuck at home, Valerie Osier, the Post’s social media and newsletter manager, wanted to foster some creativity and fun during the drudgery and help connect community members with Post staffers.
Osier is an avid watcher of live-streaming videos of the Sims, a video game that allows players to customize characters and build their own houses and cities. The game provides players a way to form their own reality using their computers and pure imagination, and Osier thought that the game could be a fun way to connect with audiences. What if they could build a smaller version of Long Beach in the game? She thought it’d be exciting for audiences to both watch and participate.
Osier began to research the idea, but she found that what she wanted to do was not technically possible. However, when Osier brought the challenge to her colleagues, reporter Asia Morris suggested that they could utilize Minecraft to build a virtual Long Beach.
Minecraft is a video game that allows users to collaborate with others to build anything that they want using pixelated cubes of “materials” — including water, marble, clay, and more. Anyone on the platform can collaborate with one another to build whatever they’d like — even a city like Long Beach.
The Post ultimately decided to use Minecraft because the game was easily accessible and many people can participate at once on a multiplayer server — a private area in Minecraft that is only available to those invited.
Not everyone has access to a computer, which the Sims requires, and the cost of the game can be expensive. Minecraft is readily available on several different technological platforms and varies in price — from about $7 to $50 — based on the platform a player chooses to play on. Minecraft is also easy to learn. The game itself only requires the player to use several keys or buttons to begin to build worlds. As a result, Minecraft can easily be taught to younger audiences and audiences who have never engaged with video games.
With help from one of the Post’s programmers, Josh Reed, the team was able to understand what it would take to build a to-scale version of Long Beach within Minecraft. Reed contacted GeoBoxers, a Danish firm that specializes in creating real-world locations in Minecraft. He asked if they’d be able to build a virtual Downtown Long Beach. With a little geo mapping — a process that converts real-world data into a way to visualize the data in form of design — and coding the GeoBoxers team was able to build a fully constructed Long Beach.
But the Long Beach that the GeoBoxers team created was a simplified version of the city’s layout with only gray and white buildings that lacked any features. Even though they were able to depict what street or building you saw, the personality and liveliness of Long Beach was lacking.
Osier explained that the virtual Long Beach “was just all white boxes, but you can see, oh yea, that was the convention center… Everything was generally in the right area, you just needed to customize it. So we thought, let’s get the community to do this.”
Once the initial framework was built, the Post team decided to host weekly livestreams to engage with audiences, discuss local news around Long Beach, and help continue to build out the virtual city.
The Post used its social media accounts and email newsletter to bring awareness to weekly Minecraft events starting in May 2020. Osier hoped that by sending out its regular newsletter to promote the Minecraft server, Long Beach Post readers would inform their children and friends about it, therefore sparking interest and younger audience engagement.
Then, readers who were interested in participating in the Minecraft builds could sign up for a newly created pop-up newsletter solely about the events to get more details and to receive recaps and updates from each session.
During the first livestream event, Osier was accompanied by Stephanie Rivera, the Post’s community engagement editor, on Twitch, where they both streamed and built on Minecraft. Twitch is an online platform that is widely used by gamers to livestream themselves playing video games and interacting with viewers.
Before the livestream, Osier sent in their newly formulated Minecraft newsletter list the first assignment that they would work on together during the live stream: Everyone would work together to build the Lions Lighthouse, one of the city’s most recognizable locations, which did not render during the initial build.
But by the time the livestream started, to their surprise, the lighthouse was already fully built by the community who had signed onto the server prior to the event.
A new framework was implemented for the summer where participants would build structures on their own time, and then Osier would interview a guest while livestreaming herself on Minecraft showcasing relevant locations in virtual Long Beach.
She interviewed an artist affiliated with the Long Beach Public Library who took participants on a tour inside the Minecraft version of the library; a reporter from a local youth sports news site joined another stream to discuss updates on how the pandemic was affecting students and schools. Bringing on guests not only kept conversations going, but helped to educate audiences about the news circulating throughout the community.
During some of the weekly sessions, there were themes that helped guide new and old Minecraft builders to spread their creativity throughout the virtual city. During Long Beach’s week-long International Mural Festival, many players built their own murals in virtual Long Beach from intricate murals to a few pixelated fish on a wall. Morris, the Post’s arts and culture reporter, then joined the livestream to help judge the murals.
Other weeks, there were no themes, allowing for free creative builds including a dungeon under the Long Beach Post building and a waterslide at the top floor of an office building.
Additionally, there were children turning on the livestream just for fun. A teacher even reached out to Osier to see if they could use the Minecraft server in their class and encourage students to sign up to build within the virtual city. Osier had no objections, and she was excited to hear that teachers were using it as a learning resource.
Osier received emails from parents thanking her and the Long Beach team for developing the livestream that geared to all audiences, including their young children. One mother told Osier that her “7-year-old loves to put on the livestream and play in the pool with their cousins.”
Osier held the livestreams weekly from May through August 2020 and about 400 people signed up to participate. Before the pandemic, only a handful of people would show up to Office Hours, but they were all helpful and friendly faces. In the attempt to bring back a form of Office Hours during a time when face-to-face interaction was unavailable, the livestreams brought people together and engaged a larger audience.
There was no significant increase in web traffic or membership support, Osier said. But Minecraft has more than 130 million average monthly users globally, so there’s potential for audience growth there.
While there was no meaningful change in overall audience growth, there was a change in the way that reporters now view the audience that interacts with them: The audiences they talk to and interact with aren’t just sources, but are real people who are a part of Long Beach.
Osier said it helped reporters see everyone come together in “one place where people could express themselves as a community.”
Your community is NOT a conflict of interest. For local newsrooms to succeed, they need to place their communities at the center of their reporting. Even in 2021, there is still an unfortunate notion in some corners of the industry that journalists should not get too close to the communities they cover. However, Osier hopes that this project with virtual Long Beach has helped to illustrate that there are different ways to connect with the community.
One of the project’s goals was to make sure that the people in the Long Beach community knew that they were being both seen and heard by the Long Beach Post. Osier wanted to ensure that the reporters and guests on the show understood that these were real people and not just sources you went to in order to develop stories.
“Our community is not only not a conflict of interest, but they aren’t just sources too,” she said. “I think journalists need to get past that.”
It’s not just a cliche: meet audiences where they are. When trying to bring in younger audiences, it is important to reach out to the right places to increase audience retention.
For example, Osier initially wanted to partner with local schools to bring the Minecraft server into the classroom, but it was difficult for her to reach teachers because of the pandemic and the shift to online learning.
“We did want to reach out to the schools, but there was so much going on [due to the pandemic] that it was incredibly hard,” Osier explained.
Instead, the Post used its existing audience engagement platforms — which I discuss above in The Strategy — but the experience also taught Osier that it is valuable also to reach younger audiences on platforms such as Instagram or TikTok.
The intended construction of the livestream was to have Osier and her guest build in Minecraft while answering questions that audiences had in the Twitch chat box or the Minecraft chat feature. However, most of the time, instead of replying to questions, and talking to one another, Osier and her guest were trying to figure out how to use Minecraft for the first time.
After reevaluating how to improve the livestream, a new strategy was implemented in which Osier livestreamed her screen as she took viewers to relevant places in Minecraft as the interviewee spoke on their topic of expertise.
It was important to find a way to conduct the livestream effectively, while understanding how to use the platform in order to connect with their audiences.
Accessibility during life online. One of the main reasons the team decided to build its virtual Long Beach on Minecraft was because it was accessible. The platform does not cost a lot to access and it can be played on multiple devices. Many games at the level of Minecraft require a computer or expensive gaming system, which not everyone can afford. Minecraft’s ability to be cross-functional across several different devices allowed the largest possible number of people in the community to participate in virtual Long Beach. Newsrooms should think about building engagement efforts — especially virtual ones — that are accessible.
Minecraft is also a game that is easy to learn for all ages.
“We were targeting a younger audience and we were trying to get kids who were bored at home, who didn’t have a lot to do,” Osier said. “But then also Minecraft is an older game, so a lot of millennials know it. And it isn’t super hard, so older people can use it too.”
Think about community safety: One of Osier’s primary concerns was to maintain safety within the Minecraft server. With such a wide age range participating in the virtual Long Beach Community, it was top priority to keep everyone safe.
On the server, Osier and the Post team had rules against bullying and “griefing”, which “is purposely destroying people’s stuff,” she explained.
She said there were only a few times when she had to moderate the game — such as when someone put flames in a police car.
If there were any hate symbols, or builds that were offensive, Osier would personally seek them out and get rid of them. However, there were also times where the community took it upon themselves to fix what they thought was not appropriate,
Maintaining safety during the Twitch livestream was also a concern. Steven Smith, the Post’s production manager, monitored the chat during the livestream, and Osier and her guest were the only ones allowed to livestream on Twitch, preventing anyone from anonymously joining in during the virtual Office Hours.
After August 2020, virtual Office Hours had to come to a halt due to time constraints, busy scheduling, and lack of resources. Although the weekly livestreams stopped almost a year ago, the building and interactions among the Long Beach Minecraft Server is still active today.
The Long Beach Post turned the server over to the community, and a handful of participants still sign on to continue building. The Post also set up a Discord server to allow the community to stay in contact with each other after the livestreams ended.
Long Beach Post is working to bring back in-person Office Hours as vaccination rates increase, and covid restrictions have begun to be lifted. (Though the city of Long Beach recently reinstated a mask mandate to counteract rising case counts.) But due to changing guidance from authorities, the Post has not set a date for its first in-person gathering.
With no official start date yet due to slowly lifted covid restrictions, there is still some hope for virtual Long Beach livestreams to become active once again. It can be difficult to manage such a large project with the ever changing and fast paced nature of newsroom life. Osier said that, if the project were to continue, it has potential to become bigger than just building downtown Long Beach by including other areas as well.
Want to know more?
- This story is a few years old now, but here’s a 2016 New York Times Magazine story about the appeal of Minecraft to children — and their parents.
- For more background on how Long Beach Post utilized Minecraft during the pandemic, here’s the story it published introducing readers to the project to build Long Beach in Minecraft.
- Curious about other events and builds that occurred during the 3-month run of virtual Office Hours in Minecraft? Take a look at the Post’s numerous articles about virtual Office Hours.
- The NGO Reporters without Borders, which advocates for press freedom globally, created a “safe haven for press freedom” in Minecraft so people all over the world could share books and resources that are censored in many countries around the world.
Anything to add?
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The Summit will be fully virtual this year, and we hope you’ll join us for two days of learning and networking from November 3-4, 2021. Like all News Philanthropy Network events, the Summit will be free to attend and is open to all — regardless of where you live and whether you work for a nonprofit or for-profit news organization.
The Network is a growing community of practice supporting fundraising in news, and we hope the Summit will share key tactics and replicable best practices. If you’d like to pitch a potential session or learn more about how you can attend, please click here.