I indicated that I had not.
"Well," she said, nodding in dismay, "That's the problem."
Here I was, a journalist in Madison for several years, having reported for two publications downtown, trolled blogs and news sites regularly, participated heavily UW J-school presentations and engaged in conversations like the one above with other reporters and editors who worked and lived in the area. And yet I had not heard of Madison Commons, a project which ambitiously and commendably aims to unite Madison neighborhoods through citizen journalism and traditional journalism from some of the city's most prominent news outlets: the Isthmus, Channel 3000, the Wisconsin State Journal. If I wasn't aware of Madison Commons, who was?
There is an old concept first proposed by ecologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 edition of Science called the "tragedy of the commons." It basically stipulates that overuse of a finite resource may deplete the resource, to the detriment of all those using it. But the tragedy of Madison Commons is quite the opposite, if related: it has the potential to be a near infinite resource, yet nobody uses it.
Check the homepage today and you'll find, billed under "Top Stories" a piece written last January. Under "Recent comments" the most recent of the comments was posted 1 year ago. The headline "A Visit from the President" gave me hope for a compelling, from-the-crowd citizen journalist's coverage of President Obama's visit to Madison last week, but instead I found a Flickr photostream on Obama's appearance at Wright Middle School last November. Forget being underused, the Commons seems virtually abandoned.
Now, I understand that some of the disuse and lack of updates may be due to the site's current renovation. For this I am glad, because I believe the Madison Commons project has enormous potential. It does many things well already.
Off the bat, I like that the Commons is a fusion of work from citizen journalists and schooled traditional reporters alike, not resigning the fate of the industry to one school or another, but strengthening both through collaboration. I like that it maintains its primary focus on news, and not event listings or entertainment calendars, though that would be easy to fall into for a site about neighborhoods. No, that niche is covered (extremely well) by the Isthmus, and even to some degree by the State Journal's 77 Square. Calendars of place-specific events on neighborhood pages (and maybe the occasional feature) would be helpful while remaining unobtrusive and secondary to news coverage. Which leads me to the best thing about Madison Commons: it's emphasis on place. The Commons, fleshed out to its full capacity, is a hub of information from all sides of Madison. This works to enhance community by connecting people downtown with the outer reaches of Madison, and bringing suburbanites into the heart of the city.
These things said, I am heartened to know that positive changes are afoot. Here are some things I hope to see next time I check in on the Commons:
- A deeper involvement in Madison's neighborhoods. The first time I peeked at Madison Commons, I looked up my relatively obscure neighborhood on the west side of Madison, excited that it was even represented. But there were no stories, I found only a blank page. And while some of the more well known neighborhoods near downtown had a page full of articles that gave me a vague feel for the area, I still wanted more detail. At the top of a neighborhood page I want to see a large photo of the district, with vivid, neighborhood descriptions and brief histories excerpted and arranged as clickable links at the top. (For this, Madison Commons could take a cue from the Isthmus neighborhood guide). I wanted to see short profiles of the citizen journalists from each area, with links to their individual blogs and Twitter accounts. All of this could help foster more of a connection with between the reader, the place and the people from that place.
- More images. Again, we need to improve use and comment traffic on the Commons, and nothing gets the masses going like a visual. Citizen journalists could submit photo essays that depicting a day at an area festival or describing the journey of a neighborhood figure. If the site adopted a YouTube account, the citizen journalists and even site users could upload video from neighborhood events, projects, meetings, etc. that could be rotated daily or weekly on the sites homepage, linking to the full collection of videos on a separate page. A large Flash player at the top of the homepage would utilize images to draw readers into news stories, almost all of which currently lack any photos at all. Maps are another excellent way to promote interactivity, and are especially called for with a site so place-oriented. Embedding Google maps on the neighborhood pages and even the homepage is an easy and efficient way to familiarize users with an area. Each article could include a small map pinpointing the areas it mentions in the text, with information that pops out when you scroll over it, such as the neighborhood name, population and other articles about/from that area.
- High-profile promotion of collaborations with other news sources. People who have not heard of Madison Commons have probably heard of the Wisconsin State Journal. I'd like to see the Commons site have separate columns on its neighborhood pages, one with citizen journalism, one with articles from its collaborators. This would serve to highlight pieces coming in from the outside, and perhaps generate dynamic interactions between the citizen journalism pieces and the traditional ones. In addition, when a piece from a source like the State Journal is published on Madison Commons, a footnote on the article at its home site could indicate "You can also find this and other ____-related State Journal pieces at madisoncommons.org." A few readers would click through, and find a wealth of helpful, similar articles. The homepage could indicate at the top the site's association with big name publications in the area, at least until it had more name recognition.
- Direct use of Facebook and Twitter. Finally, while I've suggested the use of social media in various indirect ways above, it is clear that Madison Commons could benefit enormously through the plugging into Facebook and Twitter. Got a new blog post up? Tweet it! A new collaborator has joined the network? Share the news on Facebook. The high-profile promotion of its collaborators will start the Commons off with a few friends, fans or likes to start off with. When the State Journal "likes" Madison Commons on Facebook, loyal readers of the State Journal will be more likely to check it out, and perhaps even "like" it in return. It grows from there. The more FB likes and Twitter followers, the more traffic to the site, the higher demand for quality content.
All of these suggestions, if implemented could play off one another in a cycle that benefits all the players involved. They could boost the Madison Commons brand, increase readership, promote individual writers and strengthen partnerships with traditional media. In the end, it could help the project achieve its goal in fostering discussion, debate and involvement, effectively creating a commons that spans all corners of Madison, growing more and more as its used more and more. No tragedy there.