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Tools for Citizen Journalists

Deeper reporting builds community

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How to keep writers

Have them suggest topics

Pick hot subjects

Hold writing workshops

Seek commitments, but not a lot

Don't be a pest

Don't over-edit

Give them attention

Managing a staff (when there isn’t one)

Fame, pay and training help

Ever wonder how the most successful citizen media sites find people to actually write the articles?

Baristanet screen grab: Good topics draw eyes
The best sites rely on a combination of passion (as documented by J-Lab's Jan Schaffer in a report earlier this year), pay, politics and parties, backed up with training and workshops.

The passion part is easiest to grasp. Many CitJ sites are created because some folks in the community say they find the mainstream media coverage absent or lacking when it comes to hyperlocal news.

And when community media fill in the gaps, editors say it works. On its third birthday May 21, 2007, Baristanet editors noted that "these days a 57-comment post isn't unusual," (the item was about school gardens in New Jersey). Baristanet writer and founder Debbie Galant describes the site, which focuses on three New Jersey suburbs (pop: 100,000), as your local weekly newspaper meets The Daily Show. In other words, the writers present local news with personality.

"We get 5-10 tips a week on a regular basis," Galant says, eight tips alone on a recent police chase. People take personal ownership of the site, which can draw up to 11,000 visits a day. Even the rabbi's daughter sent in pictures.

Money and other motivators

Baristanet relies on five people, mostly part-time, on about $3,000-$4,000 total in monthly salaries for writing, graphic design, technical consulting and hosting. (The money comes from advertising sales.) Specific reporting time shifts are covered. The person manning the calendar has "one-click approval" but all other content goes through the principles, Galant and co-owner Liz George (who only get paid if there is money left over). There are also commissions through ad sales.

Still, there are those who don't depend on cash. Instead they are driven to post photos more for ego and fun. "There is nothing like a fire or blizzard to attract digital cameras," Galant says.

Political stories also motivate people, including sometimes those with axes to grind. One of the things this has done is to make a lot of the workings of government very transparent, particularly in terms of development, Galant says. "People take sides, particularly preservationists. Politics will bring out a lot of people."

Try holding writing workshops

Still, as any manager knows, an investment in training is critical.

Madison Commons is a Wisconsin-based collaboration between citizens, the University of Wisconsin journalism school, area planning councils and local commercial and public media. It relies on just two people to pull the site together and others for the 10 percent of the content that is created new rather than aggregated from other sources.

Madison Commons Training Agenda

So Madison Commons runs workshops twice a year ($35 fee, but scholarships are offered) for anyone who wants to attend, says Managing Editor Cathy DeShano, a graduate student on stipend who pulls the content together and who taught the recent sessions.

"First teach skills."
— Cathy DeShano,
Madison Commons

Her goal? First teach skill sets, and a little confidence along the way. "We had numbers of people who felt like, 'Who am I to go out and report? No one would want to talk to me.' But by the end of the session, they had a completely different attitude and realized they didn't have to be an expert to tell a story." Here is a sample training session agenda in Microsoft Word format.

The six-week workshops cover profiles, issue stories, blogs and ethics. DeShano also helps participants with other writing work, whether it is for her site or a neighborhood newsletter.

It's important to make people feel comfortable with their abilities, DeShano says. She also encourages peer feedback because citizen reporters have unique challenges in reporting about people they bump into at the post office or see while shoveling snow.

Finally, DeShano sends out mass e-mails with assignments every three weeks or so ("I don't want to be a pest," she says) and asks participants to commit to least two articles in the year following training.

That commitment is the hardest part, adds University of Wisconsin professor Lew Friedland, director of madisoncommons.org, which depends on media partners and others for the bulk of its content. While the workshops fill, some people write only once or twice — or not at all. "That's been the flaw in our design. We assumed it would be harder to recruit and train but that once we did, they would develop a relationship and loyalty to the site."

Friedland says he understands the paradox but doesn't yet have an answer. He is considering more blogs about community issues. But in the end, he is not unhappy with his model. "We are going to keep working at this issue."

Grow your own writers

The bottom line on retaining writers? Experts say some of the traditional motivators ring true.

Jonathan Weber, publisher and editor in chief of NewWest.net , says the best way to keep writers is "to give them a lot of care and feeding and attention, and help them get traffic/readers, and also maybe the possibility of a few dollars." He knows what he is talking about: Weber was co-founder and editor in chief of The Industry Standard, the bible of the first tech boom.

"Give them a lot of care and feeding and attention."
— Jonathan Weber,
NewWest.net

"People are motivated by fame (readers) or by learning (care and feeding), or by money," he writes. He suggests urging people to write a story a week.

Gordon Joseloff, another national news veteran (CBS News, UPI), who founded WestportNow.com in Connecticut, harvests writers by training them to meet professional standards. His site draws 5,000-7,000 readers a day. When he has a full staff, the site uses a paid editor and two web masters to make it sing and up to a dozen writer/photographers to deliver 90 percent of the content. (Joseloff is also looking for someone to take over as publisher because he wants to avoid conflicts with his other job, First Selectman of Westport, similar to mayor.)

"They like being noticed, they like being publicly seen," says Joseloff, who trains his photographers and turns to high school journalism classes for new writers. One of his photographers now has a one-woman show at the library.

Praise goes a long way

Maureen Mann, managing editor of The Forum in Deerfield, N.H., is so energetic, she can wow you over the phone. So you assume it was the strength of her personality that made the number of Forum contributors with bylines jump from 77 in May 2006 to 220 more than a year later.

Nope, she says her secret was more than that.

"We found one parent with two kids in every sport."
&mdash Maureen Mann,
the Deerfield Forum

"Harassment," she says. "Shameless self-promotion and harassment."

In other words, if she sees someone at a meeting, she collars them and says, "We'd love to have you cover it" and grows writers that way. "We found one parent with two kids in every sport you can imagine," Mann says. "She goes to every soccer game, baseball game, basketball game …"

Another secret? Timing. Mann knows she is more likely to win the attention of one pool of potential writers — school teachers — during the summer.

And she knows praise goes a long way. "When they first contribute, we work with them and say 'this is great.'"

Her site has grown enough to support several print editions a year. In 2006 she wrote a a guide called "How to start a newspaper with no skills" that still is a helpful resource today.

Clearly her sense of humor and passion help.

Mann says potential writers sometimes approach editors wondering whether their stories are good enough to publish. But she says, "Our answer is 'it is always good.' Because if five people read it, it is good."


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