On September 18th of this year, the fall air temperature in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada was a crisp 5 degrees Celsius (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit). It was a fairly normal Tuesday morning in our city of 700,000. The #24 Express Bus - full with morning commuters – was hustling along its usual route from the western outskirts to downtown. Anyone riding the #24 that morning would likely have described the ride as “uneventful and routine” – people were reading, listening to their iPods, some were chatting with their fellow riders.
Until near the end of #24’s usual route, when something happened that not only startled and shocked its riders, but started a wave of events that are still being calculated. The repercussions have been far reaching.
Kris Doubledee, the 30-something transit driver on route #24 that Tuesday morning, is a regular kind of guy. If you saw him driving the bus in your city, or buying groceries at the market, or attending his kid’s soccer game, you wouldn’t think anything out of the ordinary about him.
Until 7:30 am on Sept 18th, when Kris stopped his express bus full of passengers, pulled over curbside on a busy downtown street during morning rush hour, got off the bus he was driving, and gave his comfortable leather shoes to a barefoot homeless man walking the streets that crisp fall morning.
Passengers on the bus stopped their usual chatter, looked up from their books, some grumbled under their breath about ‘why they were stopping’? “What’s going on?, I’m going to be late…” and such, as they started to watch what was actually happening and couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Kris got back on the bus, carried on his driving responsibilities in his sock feet, and didn’t give his actions much of another thought. A few folks asked him why he did what he did; a few observers had tears in their eyes as they disembarked – offering encouraging comments and congratulations. For Kris, as an ‘awe shucks kind of guy’, his only comment was “he needed the shoes more than I did” and “anyone else would have done the same”.
We all have heart-warming stories like this from all of our communities – they happen every day, everywhere. But what happened as a result of Kris’s one small action may amaze you – I know all of us at our community foundation, and especially those of us closely connected to our citizen journalism project, are still picking our jaws up off the floor.
One of the riders on Express Bus #24 is a coworker that routinely rides that route downtown. She came in to the Foundation and was still so impressed by what she’d witnessed, she sent an email around to everyone on staff at The Winnipeg Foundation, which included our citizen journalism project convener, Noah Erenberg.
Now as a former reporter and film documentary producer, Noah is always on the lookout for great community stories to share. He encouraged our coworker to post the story on the Community News Commons website - which she did.
Our information needs project received a $200,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation's Community Information Challenge in June of 2011. My community Foundation – The Winnipeg Foundation, is equally committed to the initiative. Our project is a bit unique in that we are the first Knight grant made to a Canadian project and our project’s framework has us in partnership with our local college journalism program, our local library system, and with Canada’s first – and only - news café, located in the heart of Winnipeg’s historic Exchange district.
Noah came on board late last year and since then, we’ve been working hard developing the Community News Commons website which launched just 11 weeks ago, providing basic citizen journalism training workshops, doing community outreach, and all the necessary steps to bring the project to life. And so far - right up until the morning of Sept 18th, we’d been feeling pretty good about our progress to date and our ‘small steps’ with CNC. Our number of citizen journalists was growing, people were tweeting about stories on CNC and overall, awareness and growth were happening as we envisioned. (One citizen journalist explains his participation here.)
Noah helped post the story onto the CNC website, about 10 am on Sept 18th and here’s what happened next:
Minutes after CNC ‘broke’ the story, we also tweeted it and then posted it on our CNC Facebook page. The reaction was overwhelming, to say the least. The original tweet from @cncwpg has been retweeted countless times for the entire week following. It’s been shared over 1,300 times on Facebook and has upwards of 29,000 ‘likes’ in just hours.
Within 30 minutes of breaking the story, media outlets in Winnipeg were contacting the citizen journalist to retell her story. Our coworker spent the following few days doing interviews with most of the mainstream Winnipeg media (TV, radio and print) and was also interviewed by several national Canadian media (TV, radio and print) including our version of NPR called CBC – which has a strong national component in all of its programming, so the story has run coast to coast to coast!
Our Google analytics of the CNC website showed more than 134,000 unique visitors the first three weeks of September – compared with just over 2,000 in July and August. Sessions on the CNC website on Sept 18th – the day the story broke, and Sept 19th, the day after, reached more than 95,000 total for the two days.
The transit driver originally did not want to be profiled at all, and said he’d done what anyone would have done. By Wednesday Sept 20th though, he had come forward and the ongoing media hype had everyone talking about the story, and sharing the story.
Less than 24 hours later, Kris Doubledee (the transit driver) had been invited to New York City by a major US television network, and on Saturday, Sept 22nd he, and the mayor of Winnipeg, appeared on CBS’s This Morning show, being interviewed about what he did. His actions have started a public dialogue on homelessness in Winnipeg that has put the spotlight front and centre on an important local issue.
For our emerging project – this story has been a great ‘tipping’ point in our activities, and in interest by and from others. It did more to promote Community News Commons than any well invested advertising campaign could do. We have had a 70% increase in citizen journalist online registrations, CNC’s posts and tweets are routinely re-tweeted and we are confident our local mainstream media continue to ‘monitor’ Community News Commons for other great stories.
It was not lost on us closely involved with Community News Commons, that this ‘break’ for our project happened on the same day seven fulltime reporters were given their pink slips at the local daily newspaper.
We continue to work closely with our other primary partners – CNC assignments have been built into the local college’s journalism curriculum, our local libraries and the News Café, regularly host our citizen journalism training sessions.
Our community outreach efforts this fall include meeting with seniors’ centres, community organizations and local charities. The CNC Advisory Committee -which includes representatives from the primary partners - meets 3x year, and our next agenda item is addressing sustainability of CNC.
As a relatively ‘new’ project – we are a 4th year grantee - CNC has the benefit of learning from and tapping into the expertise of other, more experienced ‘informed and engaged’ community projects.
We have fashioned many of our approaches after our successful colleagues at the Rapidian in Grand Rapids. In closing, I cannot say enough about how helpful and informative our circuit rider Michele McLellan has been, along with all the folks at Knight Foundation and the other successful project grantees we’ve asked for advice and guidance from.
Our Foundation began this project with the premise that ‘a more informed and engaged community is a more caring and generous community.’ This is still the rudder that guides our thinking. We do remind our Board routinely WHY participating in ‘the news business’ is within our mission: Our role is to help citizens be informed about issues that shape their communities - Community News Commons is providing the platform.
As a post script, late last week we met with the News Café (at their prompt) to seriously explore ways we could work more closely together and further our goal of developing a community media centre, located next to, and connected to the news café. We’ll keep you posted – at www.cncwpg.org
This blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.