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Crosscut and Seattle Foundation join up to create new features

Joe Copeland, Crosscut's new managing editor.

Crosscut and the Seattle Foundation are launching two initiatives to better serve the needs of the public for information that is useful in making decisions that are good for local communities and help solve area problems.

Support for both initiatives comes from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation under what is perhaps the nation’s premier program for supporting new media efforts to fill the vacuum created by the weakening of traditional news outlets. Last year, the foundation’s program, the Knight Community Information Challenge, awarded the Seattle Foundation a two-year, $185,000 grant for this project with Crosscut, matched by funds from The Seattle Foundation.

We are also able to make these improvements thanks to support from Crosscut Members. Our Fall Membership drive is under way, so I hope you are inspired to join or renew, enjoying Member benefits such as parties and forums, and putting your name into the daily and weekly drawings. Details in an adjoining article.

The Knight grant supports the Seattle Foundation and Crosscut in efforts to strengthen local news coverage and spur community-driven, public-spirited discussion and engagement with local issues and needs. To meet those goals, we are creating new connections between The Seattle Foundation’s web site and Crosscut; new tools for readers to get information; and deeper Crosscut coverage of community issues, particularly pertaining to economic hard times, with a team of news professionals.

Beginning today, some Crosscut stories will include a box offering links to more information on both Seattle Foundation’s and Crosscut’s web site. In addition, the Foundation is putting links to a Crosscut’s local coverage on its web site, as a way to give visitors there wider access beyond a selection of local media stories relevant to non-profits, the Foundation, and philanthropy.

The Get Involved box (an example is on the right side) will adjoin stories where there is a connection between a topic — such as today’s story by Judy Lightfoot on the challenges created by shrinking state revenues, particularly for human services — and the work of the Foundation and non-profits in the community.

The box is an “Activation Engine,” because the idea is to give people easy ways for gaining more information and for becoming more active as community members. It generates links to the Seattle Foundation’s extensive and quantitative information on non-profits that work in fields like education or health. (The Foundation’s main areas of focus are: basic needs, including housing and food; health and wellness; neighborhoods and communities; the economy, which includes job training and resources for small businesses; arts and culture; education; environment; and global giving.)

By following one of the links, a reader can find out about the work of that charity or others whose performance the Foundation has reviewed. You can also find out more about the Foundation’s work in that area, or go to a Foundation web page for learning more and  getting involved in helping find solutions. Another link allows you to go to other Crosscut coverage of the topic.

Since The Seattle Foundation has reviewed hundreds of non-profits, the box provides for a random, constantly changing list of three charities to appear. If a reader hits a refresh button, he or she will see a different set of non-profits. In some cases, however, an editor may choose a limited set of non-profits to concentrate attention on one or more of particular relevance to the story. We hope that the Get Involved box will prove to be something that can be used as a model in other city websites for deepening community involvement.

The Seattle Foundation has become a national leader in making its Web page a public asset. Easy access to information about local charities is something that is often discussed around the country but it has generally turned out to be difficult to provide. The Foundation and the hundreds of non-profits involved with providing information about their work have taken significant steps to demystify their work and empower potential donors by giving them the tools to direct their donations and volunteering.

We also see the Get Involved box as a gateway for readers to engage with the news and the community in a variety of ways. Some stories will inspire readers to understand a topic more deeply, by exploring Crosscut’s or The Seattle Foundation’s site. Or, when readers find a non-profit whose work interests them, they might, for example, find how to sign up for the organization’s newsletter or learn about opportunities to volunteer. We have in mind a “complete reader,” who moves from curiosity to deeper knowledge, to informed action.

The Crosscut news on The Seattle Foundation’s web site appears on a page that Crosscut editors control and operate, selecting local stories with a view toward what the editors believe will be of most interest to readers using the Foundation web site. Readers clicking on the headlines will be taken to the Crosscut story on its site. Because part of the aim is to give readers a quick exposure to the best of local coverage, Peter Jackson’s new “Midday Scan,” rounding up and contextualizing five top stories from other Northwest media each weekday, will often be the centerpiece for Foundation readers. We hope to give greater attention to excellent work in all local media, ranging from major news outlets to blogs.

Jackson’s new feature, which has been appearing on Crosscut since late August, is part of tbe expanded emphasis on local and community issues supported by the two grants, as well as Membership donations. Jackson is one of several people taking on new or enlarged roles. Journalist and author Eric Scigliano will write frequently about Seattle’s diverse neighborhoods and communities, in addition to writing about a wide variety of local news issues. Many readers will know the range of Scigliano’s knowledge of the city from his previous writing and editing at Seattle Weekly and Seattle Met magazine. In recent months, Crosscut readers have enjoyed his in-depth writing on such issues as digital billboards, development plans in the north lot of Century Link Field, and transit. Judy Lightfoot, who writes today’s lead article on the capacity of non-profits to make up for lagging state spending on human services, is familiar to Crosscut readers because of her prolific writing on issues ranging from homelessness to poetry. She will now do more reporting on social services, human needs, and neighborhood issues in the Seattle area, while also continuing to write about areas in which she takes a personal interest.

These changes are just some of the ways in which Crosscut is striving to offer readers more in-depth and constructive coverage of local issues. This is made possible by the support of the Knight Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, and our growing base of members interested in community-minded, online reporting and commentary. In recent months as part of the Knight grant, we have also launched extensive and balanced coverage of the issues around proposals to ship coal to China’s utilities from Washington ports. And we are looking for similar local “Spotlight” projects to explore important issues in and around King County.

While grant support has been important for Crosscut and similar non-profit local news sites around the country, we are very conscious of the need to make our finances more sustainable. Crosscut Executive Director Terri Hiroshima and Publisher-Editor David Brewster are working to create more and wider revenue streams, including an enlarged membership base and Members-come-free events. We know there is a long way to go in filling the gaps created by losses of older media, and in realizing the tremendous potential of the Web in local journalism.

Speaking of technology, online news operations depend on smart people with excellent technical skills. The software for the Activation Engine was developed by the Web Collective, working with Crosscut, and Redmond Technology Partners, (RedTech) the Seattle Foundation’s web consultant. Mike Wills led RedTech’s work; at the Web Collective, Alex Tokar served as project manager and Johann Heller was the developer. At the Seattle Foundation, Webmaster Tom McIntire oversaw the creation of the partner page and the Get Involved box.  At Crosscut, work on both the Activation Engine and publishing Crosscut content for the Seattle Foundation was done by our former technology director Jon Sayer. He has recently taken his community-minded spirit in a new direction, working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania. The activation engine clearly worked for him!

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