News Leadership 3.0

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.)


Interesting article. We at the Joplin Independent, one of the first news sites accepted by Google for their beta news link, came online over six years ago as a citizen journalism news source. We have found that submissions usually only have to be edited for style.

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

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