Not a member? Sign up

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.

 

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Michele McLellan

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

Events
Submit an event

Media that Matters: Story, Money, Impact

Wed, June 1, 2016 5:00 pm - Sun, June 5, 2016 2:00 pm

Media That Matters: Story Money Impact is a practical workshop for media-makers, principled funders, and highly motivated activists who want to ensure their work makes an undeniable difference.  This intimate conference illuminates the spark of engagement at the core of these three pursuits. Structured around case studies from the front lines, Story Money Impact reveals best practices in the areas of documentary, digital content, and independent journalism. 

[email protected] Conference

Thu, June 2, 2016 9:00 am - Sat, June 4, 2016 2:00 pm

[email protected] is a three-day gathering tied to the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. The conference will explore FOIA’s origins, importance, and its role in American law, politics and society. [email protected] is co-sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Marketing Analytics & Data Science 2016

Wed, June 8, 2016 8:00 am - Fri, June 10, 2016 3:30 pm

The conference is designed to help you navigate an age where consumers demand more personalized communications, experiences and products, and internal stakeholders require more predictive intelligence to inform decisions, analytics and data science have emerged as silver bullets to uncover the human side of data.

Social Media Weekend 2016

Fri, June 10, 2016 9:00 am - Sat, June 11, 2016 6:00 pm

At the Social Media Weekend catch up on the latest social media trends, tools and people with @Sree Sreenivasan and friends at CUNY J-School. This June's #smwknd will offer two very full days of insights and networking, Q&As with social stars, Sree's State of Social presentation, free consultations with Social Media doctors, and more.

Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference

Thu, June 16, 2016 9:00 am - Sun, June 19, 2016 12:30 pm

The best in the business will gather for the Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference for more than 150 panels, hands-on classes and special presentations about covering business, public safety, government, health care, education, the military, the environment and other key beats. Speakers will share strategies for locating documents and gaining access to public records, finding the best stories and managing investigations. Join the discussion about how to practice investigative journalism in print, broadcast, Web and alternative newsroom models. 

Submit an event

Tools that help reporters with routine tasks

By Nancy Yoshihara
5/22/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

Digging up leads, tracking developments and transcribing interviews are all made easier with five tools that Rob Tornoe at Editor...

A Guide to SecureDrop, a tool to protect sources and reporters

By Nancy Yoshihara
5/15/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

SecureDrop is a free and open source software specifically designed for news organizations to securely communicate with and receive documents...