Local journalism is all about location: No matter if you’re covering a city or a neighborhood, reporting is always focused on a community within a geographic footprint. How can we leverage that to build better news products?

In setting up the Lenfest Local Lab, we wanted to devote a small interdisciplinary team to building prototypes for more relevant and engaging local news products.

Local news. Location, we thought. It seemed like a natural place to start.

Creating a lab meant we were free to think about product from first principles: What product would you build if you started from scratch today, using all we’ve learned about user experience, interactive design and applying the latest technology? What if we were less constrained by integrating with legacy processes or systems? Could this liberate us to imagine an entirely new local news experience?

We’re now a few decades since the birth of the Web and more than a decade since the iPhone’s debut. We know so much about how people are experiencing news on these incredibly personal devices. What if we could take everything we know about users to build a better news product?

When we talked about more relevant local news products, early discussions kept coming back to location. If we knew where you lived and worked, how might we serve you better with local news and information? How could we improve if we knew which issues were important to you in the neighborhood where you spend time, and how you consume information differently at home vs. elsewhere?

Two early ideas for local news products that respond to where readers live, by Sarah Schmalbach

If we had access to your location — with your consent and solely to create a better experience for you — how could we help you as you went about your day, knowing the path you take and how you’re getting there?

It opened up all kinds of questions. Do people want location-targeted information when they are near something relevant, or later when they aren’t driving or walking somewhere? A map seems like an obvious interface for location-based apps — what other interfaces make sense? What technologies can we adapt, and what do we need to build to serve our users? How do story formats need to be adapted for people on the go to be quickly scannable? How might we incorporate media formats like audio for city residents who walk around with earphones constantly plugged into their skulls?

Thinking about location-based products also has implications for newsrooms and how journalists cover their communities. If we link stories to locations, what does this show us about coverage? Are some parts of the city covered differently, or more frequently than others? Putting stories into a location-based experience may help uncover areas of improvement or point towards ways to make coverage more relevant to people in the area.

A map of where HERE app users travel most often in Center City Philadelphia.

And once we know that a group of people shares something in common, like living in the same neighborhood, how might we help them come together both online or in person?

Local news organizations are uniquely suited to capitalize on this opportunity. Local knowledge is difficult to scale and isn’t something the technology giants can easily acquire. But local news organizations have deeply sourced, quality information about their community. They have boots on the ground and the historical knowledge to back it up. They know where to get the information they need if they don’t already have it, and can verify the accuracy of data if anything looks fishy.

What if we could take this expertise and build it into a product? Could we create products that leverage high-quality, vetted local information, paired with compelling user experience and design?

The Lenfest Local Lab has so far launched one location-based experiment, an application called HERE to give users location-based notifications when they walk by places written about by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer-winning architecture writer, Inga Saffron. The next experiment will explore food and restaurants, and how an app with professional reviews and news can offer a more curated experience than similar products that rely on community reviews.

What are we missing? Are you thinking about these issues too? If so, reach out to the Lenfest Local Lab — you can find us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lenfestlab where we’ll be posting more questions like this one in an effort to keep the conversation going about how product development can be a driving force of innovation in local news.

The Lenfest Local Lab is a small, multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia, PA supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.

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