News Leadership 3.0

November 03, 2009

Western Citizen: News site seeks to connect and engage

This bootstrapped site in the Rocky Mountains wants to bring more citizens into discussions about politics, environment, health and economic issues

Here’s an ambitious formula for a new kind of news site: “Combine investigative reporting with online tools to empower citizens to discover their own opportunities for direct action and to publicly deliberate on finding solutions to community problems.”

That’s Wendy Norris talking about her just-launched Western Citizen news site that will cover culture, politics, the environment, health care and economic issues across the Rocky Mountain States.

Her motivation: She just got tired of watching television broadcasts or reading newspaper stories that didn’t give her any way to take action on issues she cared about. “I would watch on TV and all I could do was throw a sock at the television set. They never said what else I could do. I want to bridge that gap.”

Norris agenda is simple:
- Tell the truth
- Promote action, context and relevancy
- Demand transparency

Norris sees a role for her site in the Rockies, where many of the issues she’s covering interconnect across the states and many solutions come from interstate discussions and compacts at state and local levels that play out well below the radar of the average citizen. Norris wants to give more citizens access to that information via the Web and, down the road, mobile.

“In the West, the land mass is so enormous. It’s hard to get people together.” Norris also hopes to develop tools that enable citizens to interact around information and engage in debate in more meaningful ways than throwing a sock at the TV.

Right now, the site features a news feed aggregating stories from around the region (Norris notes that many dailies and weeklies in the Rockies do not have Web sites, only PDF e-editions) and a blog by Norris highlighting important stories. She has incorporated Apture into the site to offer users context and “help them explore the breadth of an issue.”

She’s working on a hybrid business model: News gathering will be non-profit and she will seek grants and donations to pay for beats. She’ll form a separate business to create applications for citizen engagement and find other commercial revenue. In addition to offering news content, she hopes to develop resources to teach citizens how to blog, crowdsource and otherwise make their voices heard.

She is bootstrapping her site and has spent only a few hundred dollars incorporating her business and building the (she did her own coding) while supporting herself with freelance assignments for national publications.

I met Norris in May, Norris when she was a fellow at Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, funded by the Knight Foundation. Now, as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, I’m eager to see how she develops the civic engagement aspects of her site.

Norris’ wasn’t the only site that launched Tuesday. There’s a lot to like about the just-launched non-profit Texas Tribune news Web site, which also has Knight Foundation support. I suggest you check out the site and this post on Nieman Journalism Lab for an overview.

I want to focus on one feature, TribWire, which you will find on the right hand column of the home page. This is an aggregation feed of important stories from other publications and sources, selected by the staff of the Tribune. If you don’t have a feature like this on your news site, you are missing a chance to provide a great service to readers and help establish your site as a place to get all the important news on your franchise topics.



October 27, 2009

Five tips for training citizen journalists

In a guest post, the editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet discusses how to train non-professionals to gather news and information.

By Mary Turck

Training for citizen journalists is a real-world exercise. They work on real stories, not on lessons or exercises. The plan is to publish their stories, not to certify them as having completed a course. Usually (though not always) their work goes up on line as part of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Based on our successes and failures and continuing work-in-progress, I offer these guidelines for training citizen journalists:

1) Begin with the basics,  No matter how smart someone is, and how well plugged in to their community, they may forget basics - such as the 5Ws or the importance of spelling someone’s name correctly, or just spelling correctly.

We have created twenty very short lessons on topics ranging from focusing a story to transparency to best practices for quotations and paraphrases. We use these in regular writers’ groups and also as resources for writers who need to work on a specific issue.  Our Resources for Citizen Journalists page lists other places that writers can go to find help, including the Knight Citizen News Network and Poynter Online.

2) Show, don’t tell.
The writing workshop is the best tool for citizen journalist training. At the Twin Cities Daily Planet, we offer a wide variety of classes, but the Monday writers’ groups are the best because they include time to workshop articles-in-progress.

Current and prospective writers are invited to come, whether or not they have an article to bring. Pens in hand, the group reads through and marks up one story, and then talks about it. After discussion, all of the marked-up copies go back to the writer, and we launch into the next article.

With four or five or six people intently analyzing each article, the lucky writer gets feedback on everything from commas to content. Participants often disagree with one another and with me about what works best. The end result: lots of affirmation, and lots of suggestions for additions and changes, some of which will make the story stronger and the next effort easier.

3) Power of positive feedback
. Whether in the writers’ group or in emails or in one-to-one discussions of articles, starting with a little sugar makes the medicine go down a lot easier. I try to:
* talk about the interesting story idea before pointing out the lack of organization;
* point out the really good quote before launching into the punctuation lesson;
* praise the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter or neighborhood politics before pruning the excess verbiage.

4) Rewards and reinforcement
. Fifteen dollars is not much money, but it motivated our citizen journalists to attend a two-hour training session.  The payment said we valued their time and, despite our small-to-nonexistent training budget, wanted them to know it.
Other rewards:
* Reporters’ notebooks—the long, narrow, spiral-bound kind that are relatively expensive as notebooks, but really make you feel like a reporter. Print up a page or two of stickers with your publication or project name and logo, and slap one on the front of each notebook.
* A writer’s web page, with a photo, a short bio and links to published stories. Our writers and interns love these!
* Business cards, with generic identification of your publication or project. When a cop or a video store owner asks, suspiciously, who the writer is and why they want answers to questions, a business card provides instant, if limited, credibility.
* Press credentials serve a similar purpose. This can be as simple as a printed card with information on your publication or project, the writer’s name and identifying information (“freelance reporter, citizen journalist, education reporter”). Check the rules and customs about press credentials in your area. 

5) Constant contact
. Every phone call, every email, every text message is important. Sometimes all I can say is, “I’m sorry, but I have been so swamped with work that I haven’t had a chance to read your article yet. I promise that I will get to it tomorrow (or over the weekend or first thing Monday morning.)”

What’s important here is responding to every contact. That’s a basic way to show respect.

At the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I work with citizen journalists every day. Some of them have journalism training, some have none; some have written for other publications, some have not; some write extraordinarily well, some need help.

In training citizen journalists, there’s often a fairly big gap between what I know and what I do. I run out of time, run out of energy, forget what I should be doing. So writing this blog is more than giving advice to somebody else - it’s also a way of reminding myself what I know I should be doing. 

(Note: Jeremy Iggers, director of the Twin Cities Media Alliance which operates the Twin Cities Daily Planet, participated in KDMC’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, funded by the Knight Foundation.)

October 12, 2009

Civic engagement 2.0

As digital media change the way people engage with civic issues and causes, can traditional journalists take part and help the public conversation go well? I will use a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to find out.

(This is a revised version of a draft posted earlier. There is new material throughout.)

I spend a lot of time these days talking with local foundations and nonprofit organizations that want to help fill information gaps in their communities. They’re building Web sites designed to engage their communities in news and information (often with funding from the Knight Foundation, which contracts with me to coach these start ups.). These enthusiastic conversations make a heartening counterpoint to the wrenching struggles of established news organizations.

imageThe optimism is not the most important difference, however. The biggest difference is this: Journalists are out to do good journalism. These community start ups put civic engagement first.

At its heart, journalism is about fostering civic engagement by providing news and information that empowers people to act as citizens in a democracy. At least, that’s what we mainstream journalists tell ourselves.

In traditional media, the journalism generally doesn’t look like that. For example, one recent study showed that more than half the coverage of the health care debate focused on political battles and less than 10 percent focused on policy.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise. “We don’t learn,” I wrote recently as I passed the a link to the information along on Twitter. In reply, Jay Rosen nailed it with this admonition: “Face it, @michelemclellan. If 55% of health care coverage is about the politics that’s a statement by our journalists: ‘this is what we do.’ “

Competitiveness, craft imperatives, professional goals and now, the revenue free fall—all important issues— trump the civic. When journalists gather in newsrooms, bars and at conferences, they talk about craft practices, tell war stories, and the shiny bright hopes for a scoop or job stability.

It is the rare conventional journalist - certainly never me in nearly 30 years in newspapers - who walks into the newsroom on any given day and asked “What can I do to engage my community in civic affairs?” “How can I help make the debate go better?” I wonder how journalism, its place in the hearts of citizens, and public debate itself—might be different if journalists had come to work each day with that goal in mind.

This may be changing. As traditional news organizations falter, new practitioners of journalism are emerging: Citizens, foundations and other donors who are experimenting with models of news and information that put civic engagement is front and center as a priority. At the same time, the Web and social media make some forms of civic engagement easier and more accessible—activities like ratings, commenting, earning points for action.

None of this leaves traditional news organizations out in the cold. I’ve championed the idea that big local news organizations partner with community news start ups rather than treating them like more competition. I was thrilled to see that J-Lab, with Knight Foundation funding, is sponsoring several of these partnerships. I think finding the right mix of craft skills and reach of the traditional organization with the energy and fresh approaches of non-professionals will be important to the future media landscape.

All of this brings me to the fellowship I have just begun at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’m calling my project “Civic engagement 2.0.”

Journalism must recapture its credibility and relevance if it has any hope of providing value to the public. To do this, it is critical that journalists adopt new practices that foster the civic debate we keep telling the public we are all about. The tools are emerging—social networks in particular can transport news and information that engages people in discussion and problem-solving. News organizations - some led by non-professionals and foundations, social activists, politicians, and even marketers are discovering creative ways to engage people online..

Digital media and emerging citizen-led news and information services promise to promote civic engagement in ways traditional media failed to do. But I think there is an important role that journalists can play and I want to catalog and foster tools and practices to help journalists take part in and add value to civic discussions online. I also want to work with journalists and citizens to create new ways to engage online. I’m convinced that the ability to engage and foster community is a strategy that journalism must pursue for the long term even if it cannot be readily monetized today.

Let’s consider three important traditional roles of journalists and the opportunity to recapture them online:
(Note: This list of roles borrows heavily from my friend and RJI colleague Michael Skoler.)

1. Journalism surfaces issues of public concern. The Web offers journalists the opportunity to tap into conversations where important issues first surface. Pre-Web we used to call these “listening posts” where people gathered informally to discuss their concerns. Journalists rarely spent time in these these places, instead opting to listen more regularly to institutional voices and their framing of the issues.

2. Journalism provides facts and options that give citizens shared knowledge. The Web liberates information from print and enables wider sharing and discussion than ever before. Social networking tools in particular enable people to share information.

3. Journalism informs civic debate and solutions on issues of public concern. This brings it full circle; the journalist surfaces the issue and then helps guide the discussion toward solutions. It is a critical role for a trusted journalist, and one that seems to be slipping away in the 24/7 news cycle, if it ever really was being performed. Accomplishing this will take more then technology, it will require a shift in attitude or at least priorities. Some will complain that what I’m talking about sounds like advocacy journalism. But I am not talking about journalists expounding opinions. I am talking about what Jacqui Banaszynski, a friend and RJI fellow, calls “invested journalism,” which I see as a commitment to helping the community understand issue, see options and find a good path. For this, journalists may need to look to emerging citizen-led news organizations, social activists and even political causes for new tools and rules of engagement.

This all sounds very philosophical. But what I hope to produce are tools and best practices that journalists and other news providers can use to foster civic engagement in digital spaces, whether it’s on their own Web sites, in social spaces or all around the Web. I think much of this already exists and I’d like to help gather practitioners, learn from them and help spread the word.

For now, I have these questions (and I hope you will comment and feel free to make suggestions or ask more questions):
Is this the best way to be looking at this issue?
What best practices exist and who is developing them?
Do some of these practices exist outside journalism? Should I see if they can be adapted?
What is most missing in terms of tools and best practices that can help journalists engage in civic discourse online?


Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute


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