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Citizen reporting: Sweet spot for local information and engagement?

by: Michele McLellan |

Mainstream news organizations have had mixed results with citizen news reporting. While crowd-sourcing efforts such as CNN’s iReport and Help Me Investigate have yielded valuable information, many other efforts have foundered, often on journalists’ expectation that citizen-created news must look like what the professionals produce to have value.

Enter community foundation-supported initiatives to enable citizens to report news in their communities.

Projects such as Akronist.com, The Rapidian and Winnipeg’s Community News Commons are demonstrating that may not always, walk or quack like the duck of mainstream journalism – but the stories that citizens tell about themselves and their communities engage and inform nonetheless. The three projects are winners of the Knight Community Information Challenge.

Engagement is a key word here. Generally, the professional newsroom is focused on content and has a tradition of one-way delivery of that content. As digital has opened up the pathways for two-way interaction, newsrooms are challenged to envision and implement direct engagement with people.

The foundation-led efforts, on the other hand, generally start with a primary goal of engagement – They want local people to get involved in their community and information and producing content is a vehicle for that. 

Chris Miller, directs Akron Digital Media Center, which trains residents in digital media, and The Akronist website, which publishes their work. Miller says engagement in civic issues is always at the forefront.

“The focus on community engagement is an important driving force for the Akron Digital Media Center and Akronist.com,” Miller said in an e-mail. “I completely agree that the engagement should be made before the content is created, which is how we’ve approached this program from day one.”

In Akron, citizen news engagement goes hand-in-hand with efforts by the Akron Community Foundation to focus and coordinate community players on important local issues such as homelessness.

The foundation has convened key community stakeholders and helped nonprofits, agencies and charities work together in service to larger goals. Akronist.com has reported on these efforts with articles, podcasts and videos, Miller notes. Reports that crack stereotypes are key.

“We plan to adapt this model to other social issues, like ex-prisoner re-entry programs, food availability, working poor and mental health, to name a few,” Miller said. The foundation will use the digital tools and platforms it has created to produce PSAs and media campaigns to draw attention to these issues.

Akronist.com and the digital media center were launched in 2011. It has trained about 700 citizen reporters. The site averages about 4,000 unique visitors a month.

In Winnipeg, Noah Erenberg, convenor of the Community News Commons, agrees with the notion that engagement comes first.

"Fact: citizen reproters are NOT professional journalists," he said in an email. So the quality of the work varies widely and not all meet the standard of a daily newspaper. "In the end, though, this doesn't really seem to matter much to the citizen reporters. They really just like the opportunity to publish their stuff and to tell stories about things that matter to them and people in their community."

The Community News Commons, a project of The Winnipeg Foundation, is the youngest of the three sites. It launched earlier this year and got a big visibility boost when a story about a local samaritan went viral. In October, the site had 4,000 plus unique visitors.

The Rapidian, in Grand Rapids, Michigan launched more than three years ago and boasts an average of 16,000 unique monthly visitors. The site has 600 registered reporters, about 130 of them actively contributing.

Laurie Cirivello, director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and publisher of The Rapidian agrees that engagement is central.

“Yes, we are more geared toward engagement,” Cirivello said. “We also find the citizen reporting aligns very closely with the findings of the Knight “Soul of the Community” report. People are very interested in things that connect them with their community; place-making types of things.”

Cirivello notes that a high level of local engagement has not yet translated into financial sustainability for The Rapidian, which was created with matching grants from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Knight Community Information Challenge.
She said advertisers want greater reach than the relatively small site can provide. The Rapidian has attracted underwiting support and recent began fundraising through a monthly "Night Out for The Rapidian," where bars and restaurants contribute 20 percent of their nightly sales to support the site.
Interested in citizen reporting? Check out our on-demand learned module - Working with Citizen Reporters, by Denise Cheng, former citizen journalism coordinator at The Rapidian.
This blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

 

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Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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