CommonHealth, produced by WBUR in Boston and part of the Argo Network, focuses on health care reform and other topics related to personal health and medicine.

Statehouse Beat Woes Portend Bad News for Good Government
– Gene Gibbons
Local news initiatives are blossoming online—with the rapid expansion of AOL’s Patch, the launch of Allbritton Communications’ Washington, D.C.-focused TBD, and the collaboration of The New York Times and New York University journalism students on the neighborhood-level Local East Village, to name a few. One of the quieter debuts this year has been NPR’s Argo Network, a group of 12 staff-written blogs at some of the larger member stations in the public broadcaster’s national radio network.

Each blog is pegged to a topic, and those who write for it cover the issues as a beat reporter might—by assembling information, tracking news, and telling stories, some of them quite personal. Even with this local touch, these blogs are intended to appeal as well to a national audience.

The project’s director Joel Sucherman describes the content on the blogs as “high-quality, engaging, public-service journalism” that mimics NPR’s usual mix of “wonk and whimsy.” At Boston’s WBUR, posts on CommonHealth ranged from a discussion of workplace bullies to a “special report”—video included—about a writer’s quest for pain-free sex. In San Francisco, KQED’s blog, MindShift, features emerging digital tools for learning with stories such as “Mashable’s 7 Fantastic Free Social Media Tools.” Some Argo Network members are much more location specific, such as The Key, WXPN’s blog about local underground music in Philadelphia, DCentric in Washington, D.C., and The Empire in New York.

Despite similar layouts and design, these blogs are independent of one another. But all carry a tiny “NPR Argo Network” rectangle at the top of each page, hinting at their shared connection. Part of Argo’s strategy is to use a small staff to cover beats that resonate locally and nationally instead of hiring a larger team to report on these various topics. If enough Argo sites launch with a widening spectrum of topics, then their combined effort could provide fuller coverage across more territory than any one of the stations could do on its own.

The Argo Network is funded by $3 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which will keep it running through the 2011 fiscal year. The Knight Foundation has stipulated that the technology developed for the sites must be released to the general public by 2012, presumably so more online news initiatives can take root.

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