I’m a huge fan of driving engagement by getting the community involved.
I have always argued that there are more folks on the ground than reporters, and often they can tell their story better than any outsider can.
Case in point: The @UW_Cameras twitter account from United Way Ottawa, where I work. United Way Ottawa gave some of the agencies it funds a wifi-enabled iPhone (dubbed a ‘community camera’) and gave access to this twitter account. We then asked them to show the world how they are changing lives on a daily basis.
The photos are stunning, and they tell a story better than we at United Way ever could. Take a look:
Journalism is an art that requires practice. I tell students it is a muscle, and like athletes they are training.
Yes, this means endless writing, but it also means feeding the curiosity that comes so naturally to all journalists. You wake up with questions, ask more questions throughout the day and even when you drag your sorry self to bed… still, more questions.
Learning more about where you live, and the people who make up your city is a way to start answering these questions.
At the same time, journalists are always curious about new tools to find and tell sotries.
The training in journalism never ends – reporters who have been in the business more than a decade will remember ‘training days/courses’ (I was once sent on a fabulous week-long course in D.C. called ‘Managing the 24/7 newsroom’ at the American Press Institute).
These days, however, skills are self-taught, or learned through support networks with colleagues who have figured out something new and are willing to pass along the knowledge.
When I ask journalists (and communications professionals) what they’d like to learn next, they often tell me they’d like to become more comfortable with ‘Big data.’ To them I say, roll up your sleeves and get started. It’s time to work some muscle. You have to just do it. (Getting comfortable with spreadsheets is a start.)
Trust is what many traditional news organizations use to promote their relevance, stating they are a trusted brand to cut through the noise.
The pitch goes something like this: ‘We are a trusted brand, we have been a part of the community for x years… We will continue to tell you what you need to know.’
Toronto startup Newsana (think of it as a nirvana for news junkies) places its trust in the hands of its community of virtual editors.
Newsana is a nirvana for news junkies, curated by news junkies, co-founder Ben Peterson explained in an interview from his Kensington office.
To become a Newsana member, there is a rigorous application process where candidates are verified as actual people with credible social media accounts and a general interest in news. (Peterson said the goal is to weed out trolls and create a community of the most engaged news readers.)
Once a member of the Newsana’s community, contributors/editors have free access to ‘pitch’ links to stories in their choice of five of Newsana’s 40 sections (ie social media, future of news, Canadian politics, etc.).
Why access to only five? Peterson said this ensures community editors focus on areas they know best.
Links to stories are not just posted to Newsana’s site, they are annotated by members. Community Editors making the pitch must give a brief intro to the piece, this may also include editorial comment.
Why submit/share/pitch to Newsana? Other editors can vote on your story, which will elevate it on Newsana’s site, thus giving an editor more credibility, and increasing their standing in the Newsana community.
Pandering to a journalist’s ego and competitiveness is a clever move – I was skeptical until I pitched a story on the senate in Canadian politics section and saw it – and consequently my Newsana rep – elevate.
Naturally this made me want to pitch more stories to the Newsana community of about 1,500 members.
Peterson said he knows this isn’t a large community – yet – but as the site is just in beta, he is confident it will grow.
There are a couple of issues with Newsana: first, it’s only as strong as its members.
Also Newsana’s biggest competitors are the more established, traditional larger social media networks like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.
How Newsana differs from these competitors are by its “quality” community news curators, Peterson said. These aren’t just old high school pals.
“Our audience is news junkies. These are people who read the news, comment on news… They want the best, highest quality journalism.”
“At the end of the day, people have to figure out where to allocate their time,” Peterson said.
As with all startups, Newsana is focused on establishing a sustainable business model as it builds.
The goal is to build an active, informed community and monetize around that, Peterson said.
Newsana is exploring native-branded content, which might include custom content in one of Newsana’s sections; Premium elements for paying subscribers/editors; and story sponsorship (As an example, Peterson said readers might find the top five innovation stories sponsored by IBM.)
Without a marketing budget, this small start up is relying on what Peterson refers to as the ‘viral co-efficient,’ with members telling their friends about it, and getting the word out.
“Our biggest challenge is to cut through the noise, and make people aware of what we’re doing.”
I’ve spent the past four months researching community newsrooms and citizen journalism while a journalist-in-residence as a Michener-Deacon Fellow at Carleton University – and loved every minute of teaching and research.
But now my time is up. At the beginning of May, I’ll be moving on to my next challenge in the Ottawa Citizen newsroom. Bring on the adrenaline rush of daily news.
As this fellowship draws to a close, I’ve come to the following conclusions about community newsrooms:
The Globe and Mail was one of the first – if not the very first – major news organization in North America to recognize the importance of engaging with its community when it created a newsroom position for someone whose focus was just that.
Mathew Ingram, who became the Globe’s first Communities Editor in late 2008, said he’s “pretty sure it was the first social media editor type job” in the continent.
“At least I haven’t come across a mention of anyone who had one earlier than that. And when the New York Times got one, [Former Communities Editor Jennifer Preston] called me for advice,” said Ingram, who is now a senior writer for Gigaom.
The Globe’s connection to its community continues to run deep. The national news organization now has three communities editors: one in embedded in the newsroom’s Business, News and Features sections.
This is modeled after The Guardian’s newsroom, Jen MacMillan, the Globe’s Senior Communities Editor explained.
“First we had Mathew, one person in the role with fantastic ideas,” MacMillan said in an interview. “It’s great to see how the newsroom evolved.”
Indeed, the twitter account that Ingram set up for @globeandmail now has more than 213,000 followers (and growing), as well as smaller accounts for individual sections; its Facebook page has more than 68,000 fans; and its Instagram account is growing by leaps and bounds.
The Daily Record serves York County, Pennsylvania, an expansive region that includes 72 municipalities (with a population of about 400,000 people) and the City of York, with a population of 35,000 people.
Knowing that his readership was so spread out, Parker knew a traditional community newsroom wasn’t going to work.
People around in the region aren’t likely to travel to the Daily News’ relatively remote location in an industrial area of York, Parker said.
Matt DeRienzo has welcomed the community into his newsroom, unlocking the doors and letting them walk right in.
This hasn’t led to any security concerns, and he has only had to call the police once – when he spotted “a kid watching porn on one of our computers, and refused to leave,” DeRienzo said. (I was lucky enough to join some journalists from the Cape Cod Times for a tour of his Newsroom Café in Torrington, Connecticut in March.)
Opening the doors means learning a lot about your community, he explained. He’s had a homeless man come in to use Google earth on one of the public computers to find a place to sleep.
When some of his staff complained about the homeless using the space in the winter, DeRienzo said he pushed back. “I will address the issue if there is a smell, but not the fact there is a homeless person here.”
Besides, he added “it’s noisiest when my kids are here.”
DeRienzo opened the Register Citizen‘s News Café in December, 2010. To do this, he moved his newsroom to a new location (an abandoned ball bearing and sewing machine parts factory) in downtown Torrington, with an eye to a place that could host a space “for coffee and pastries.”
In this setting, the front door is unlocked, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There is no reception or security desk. But it is one of three locations in town with free wifi.
The public can – and has – walked in and talked to a reporter about a story. Sometimes this is a good thing, DeRienzo said, it can result in story leads. Other times, people have to be reminded they’ve made their point, and that reporters have a job to do.
Ask CBC.ca’s Andrew Yates how his news organization engages with its audience and he answers quickly: “Oh, there are gagillions of ways.”
The public broadcaster’s site uses reader comments, live forums, social media, but its most recent community-building initiative is Your News, which launched last May. Yates, Cbc.ca’s Senior Producer, community and social platforms, described it as a sort of “CBC branded Flickr.”
Canadians create a profile and share photos and videos from their communities and then comment on fellow contributors’ submissions.
Yates said this platform allows Canadians to “share their view of the world with us,” and that his team handles between 20 and 50 submissions a day. Some of the content is pushed out to other CBC platforms – be it online, radio or television.