Community News Commons: Winnipeg’s grassroots public media project


There are no ads on the Community News Commons website.

That’s because for this site, the name of the game is not about making money.

Instead, CNC’s goal is undeniably, unabashedly altruistic: engaging Winnipeggers to inform each other about issues they feel are important.

It’s hinged on a belief that if citizens care enough about their community to write, discuss, debate what happens in it, a better city emerges.

It’s this philosophy that won the project funds fromKnight Foundation, after the organization decided to back initiatives  in partnership with community foundations. Knight matched a $200,000 donation from Winnipeg’s philanthropic The Winnipeg Foundation. It was the only Canadian project to win funding from Knight.

“The perspective from the Winnipeg Foundation is that if you are more informed about your community, you care more about it, and you’re going to have a relationship with the community,” said Noah Erenberg, Community News Commons Convener.

The project is a collaboration of efforts, its three primary partners are the Winnipeg Free Press (and its News Cafe), Red River College and the Winnipeg Public Library.

It has also been collaborating with many other groups and constituencies, including school divisions, community groups, other universities (like the Canadian Mennonite University), Creative Retirement, community radio stations, other media, etc.

In the beginning

“The goal was to start a three-year project of citizen journalism, a community engagement project,” Erenberg explained.

When he was hired by The Winnipeg Foundation in December 2011, Erenberg decided his first step was to go out into the community and find out what it wanted CNC to be.

Erenberg met with different community groups and clubs, making his way around the city to talk to different people.

“Anyone who organized a group, I went and asked them what they wanted to see.”

What he found was that people wanted to be a part of CNC, but they wanted training and editorial mentoring. So Erenberg designed the first round of citizen journalism workshops – people wanted digital literacy skills, multimedia training, but they also wanted to learn how to tell stories properly from their communities.

Erenberg worked with Dan Lett, a political columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press who oversees content coming from events held at the Free Press’ News Cafe.

The two came up with a curriculum (Lett said they “went at it like kids left alone for the weekend with parents on holiday.”) Free classes for the community were offered, including a type of community news 101, which was very theoretical, included core principles of journalism such as balance and objectivity.

Writing, videography and podcasting classes were held, the News Cafe’s multimedia editors taught some classes, and Winnipeg Free Press’ photographers have held photo sessions.

“We took them through some basic instruction on economy in writing, efficiency, avoiding repetitions, etc. We gave them writing assignments, told them to come up with story ideas,” Lett said.

The workshops were a reality check for many, he said. Writing and journalism is tough, it’s hard to get used to people seeing your writing, and criticizing your writing, Lett said.

There is no hiding under anonymity, Erenberg added. Under the terms of service with writers, there is no hate speech, no plagiarism, and all contributors follow rules of fairness and integrity.

Erenberg said he plans to hold more workshops in the spring and fall of 2013.

When the site went live in July 2012, it had 24 citizen journalists – some of them Red River College students – and the attitude was “go for it, it will all work out.”

Seven months into the project, CNC has 260 contributors signed up to write a steady stream of content, with 90 of those people actively writing.

Paul S. Graham: One of CNC’s citizen journalists

Community news contributor Paul S. Graham.

One of CNC’s more prolific citizen journalists is Paul S. Graham.

In a letter to the Winnipeg Foundation, he explained why he got involved with Community News Commons, and the importance of creating a space for community contributors, and how working with Erenberg has made him realize he is in fact a citizen journalist.

Here is a portion of that letter, where he explains the importance of what he does:

” ‘Citizen journalist’ is a great moniker. I like it. The ‘citizen’ part speaks to the responsibility we, as citizens, owe to our community, along with the pride we take in our town and the concerns we have for its future. The ‘journalism’ part, in its best sense, embodies a responsibility to tell our stories honestly.

Unlike the mainstream media or the many alternatives, left and right, CNC does not impose a world view. There is no party line to which contributors must adhere. No advertisers influencing content. No editorial board dictating accepted wisdom.

Not only is this refreshing, but it leaves open the possibility that CNC could, one day, truly reflect the multitude of viewpoints and experiences one finds in a city such as ours.”


Who owns the content

Some of CNC’s contributors had written a lot, others hadn’t written a word.  Lett and Erenberg thought there might be a big debate over who owned the content that was going onto the News Commons’ site (in a traditional freelance arrangement, the publisher often buys the content, and all rights to it for republication, etc.).

Erenberg and Lett decided there wasn’t really a debate to be had – the contributor must own the content. But they also realized that ownership of the content wasn’t that that important to the contributor.

“In the end, the content is secondary to the engagement,” Erenberg said. “The process of engagement more important to the person. The story is the most important thing, [rather than] who owns it or who broke it.”

“As journalists, we’re driven by who owns the story – and that just doesn’t matter to the general public,” he said.

It all goes through Erenberg

“I’m the only one who presses publish, and that’s something the contributors want, and something the foundation wants,” Erenberg said.

The content isn’t the kind of stories, photos video you’d see in the Free Press, Erenberg said, but it is journalism.

“These are the stories you never hear about, people want to tell stories about the things they are happy about,” he added.

Writers quickly realize there are two or three huge hurdles to clear before publication, including the toughest: you can’t be in a story and report the story. Writers also learn quickly how much work these stories take, Lett said.

“When we workshop stories, people make claims about what they think people think, and they can’t do that,” Lett said.

CNC’s citizen journalists are often writing comunity profiles, cool things you can do with River Heights Library, stories of philanthropy, writing about something an organization is doing, Erenberg said.

Stories have included posts on philanthropy, including the  Soup Sisters giving soup to a women’s shelter, A Red River College student writing about the IOC removing wrestling from the Olympics, or history – such as the controversy as Winnipeg’s Arlington Bridge turned 100 years old.

Long-term sustainability

Technically, Community News Commons is 18 months into its three-year mandate. Erenberg is already looking into how to keep the program going.

“Sustainability is definitely on the radar,” Erenberg said. “We had a lot of good press in Miami at the Knight Media Learning seminar, and CNC is getting a fair amount of play.”

The Board of the Winnipeg Foundation loves the program, he added. And said the success will help “figure out how to sustain it.”

There will be people who are cynical of the program, Lett conceded, but the program is really about making Winnipeg a more engaged community, which will encourage people to read news, know what’s going on in the world around them… and be more enlightened voters.

“The doomsday scenario is a world where people only care about weather and traffic … This project is a way to maintain our connection with the community,” Lett said.

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