Eugenia Chien

Eugenia Chien runs Muni Diaries with Jeff Hunt and Tara Ramroop Hunt. Muni Diaries is a website where riders share their experiences on public transit in San Francisco. Muni Diaries was voted "Best Local Blog" by the readers of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SFWeekly.

4 ways Muni Diaries readers document San Francisco bus riding

Complaining about riding the bus is sport in San Francisco. So when we started Muni Diaries, a website documenting stories that happen on public transit, there was a high chance that our website could devolve into a cesspool of whining and bigoted rants.

But the exact opposite happened: For the last three-and-a-half years, our readers have contributed the majority of the content on our site, and we’ve turned a significant slice of the transit-riding population in San Francisco into our contributor base.

Our readers have helped us break news, be the first to tweet about accidents, and provide other useful information to San Franciscans who depend on public transit.

So how do you get the best from your readers? And how do you cultivate a focused audience that consistently shares ideas and contributes to conversations? Here are some tips we’ve learned along the way.

Listen to what people want to talk about.

The most lively conversation might not be about the newest topic at City Hall. Pay attention to Facebook comments, tweets and comments on stories to get a better sense of what people want to talk about. We’ve found that buzz from readers is one of the best indicators of a trend story.

This is especially true if you write about a topic that touches on your city’s everyday life. For example, when we started seeing tweets and questions in our comments section about the distribution of fare inspectors in San Francisco, we realized that this was a concern for many San Franciscans. In a post about the fairness of fare inspection, commenters weighed in on where they see fare inspectors and why they think fare inspectors target certain lines.

Twitter can be a great way to guide conversation and understand buzz. When the San Francisco Police Department decided to borrow Muni buses to shuttle police officers to the OccupySF encampment, we saw hilarious comments on Twitter. We later turned tweets into one of the most highly-trafficked posts of that month.

Within the conversations on your news site, there are tips about news, public-safety, or cultural trends. Conversations are happening increasingly online, and it pays to listen to what your readers have to say.

Respect your audience

Though we do contact government officials for stories, we always try to be accessible to the community, the greatest source of stories and tips. There are a few ways to reward your audience:

  • Always credit readers for tips, Facebook comments and submissions.
  • Give your readers a shoutout as often as possible. On Muni Diaries, readers who submit stories have their names displayed in the byline, though stories are always vetted and edited.
  • Ask readers how to attribute to them or link to their personal websites or projects.
  • Promote stories submitted by your audience to other publications.

Do the heavy lifting yourself.

Your readers are not your staff. You can get the best content from your readers by taking tips and stories from them and doing the heavy lifting yourself. On Muni Diaries, we don’t expect our readers to do the type of reporting that paid journalists do. We don’t assign stories, provide journalism training or otherwise expect readers to do what journalists get paid to do.

Instead, we provide a forum for readers to talk about their transit-riding experience, and curate the conversation to choose stories and tips that would be interesting to a wider audience. Though most blog posts are submitted by readers, we research and verify the stories, ask more questions about the stories, then write headlines, choose photos and even copy edit.

Be available and responsive to conversations.

Conversations happen if you cultivate them. Participate in conversations in your comments section, Facebook page, and on Twitter. You can even turn notable comments into stories. For example, when we posted about the inaugural party for Muni in the 1980s, a reader commented that he was actually there at the party and sent us videos of the event.

Countless stories have been spawned from our comments section. Transforming great comments into stories makes your readers feel heard and encourages them to continue participating in conversations on your website.

List your email address prominently on your website so that readers can get in touch with you easily via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

By getting a community talking, you can build a website that features content people can relate to. The idea of “citizen journalism” has changed in the age of social media. Rather than turning citizens into unpaid journalists, you can get the best out of your readers by creating a space where conversations lead to ideas and stories. Read more


4 things news sites should know before partnering with a local blog

For the last three years, I’ve been running the website Muni Diaries, where public transit riders in San Francisco submit stories that happened on the bus. Along the way, we have been approached by several large news organizations for content partnerships. This has become more and more common, as many news organizations don’t have the staff or resources to cover hyperlocal news quickly and adequately anymore.

We’re grateful that our successes have led to partnerships, but I also recall many meetings where both bloggers and media organizations have left frustrated because of misunderstandings and mismatched expectations. Based on my experiences, I’ve come up with some tips on how news organizations can create meaningful collaborations with local blogs.

1. Ask your local blogs what they need.

In any good business partnership, both sides need to be able to articulate their needs. Asking directly is a good first step. Local websites have different needs, and you should know whether you can offer the right incentive before you approach them.

Don’t assume bloggers need remedial training. Most partnership meetings that we attend for Muni Diaries begin with offers of “journalism training” and the opportunity to “work in the newsroom.” As former journalists now trying to build a small business on the content we create, it would be more valuable for us to learn about creative ways to generate revenue and manage the business aspects of publishing.

On the other hand, bloggers including Ken Aaron and Lynnette Fusilier at Neighborhood Notes in Portland, Ore., find journalism training and newsroom time very useful. Neighborhood Notes is a part of the Oregonian News Network, a network of local blogs that partner with the Oregonian. Aaron told me that the training he received from the Oregonian’s news librarian on professional databases “got us up to speed on journalistic practices and research skills.”

So ask, don’t assume, what the needs of your partner blogs are, and be prepared to offer an incentive that fits. You should also be able to articulate what your news organization needs so that the partner blogs have a clear understanding of their role.

2. Be prepared to show specific mockups and plans.

Where will your partner blogs’ stories appear on your site? How many clicks until a reader arrives at the partner blog? Will you display an excerpt or just a headline from the partner blog? Will you talk with partner bloggers about story placement so you can figure out how to drive traffic to them?

These are the first questions that your partner blogs will ask, and you should be prepared to show mockups of how collaboration will look on your website. Or better yet, involve your partner blogs in discussions about how to integrate their content.

3. Understand the business of the Web.

Do you know the numbers of page views and unique visitors of your publication? Do you know the click-through rates of stories on your home page? Do you know what drives the most traffic to your partner sites? For TV and radio stations hoping to partner with local blogs, do you know if an on-air mention will lead to clicks on your partner’s blogs?

Offering a mention or a link to your partner blog is not enough. Understand your own website and be ready to share specific stats such as how much traffic you have driven to similar sites in the past.

Bloggers run their websites out of love for the community, but many bloggers are also entrepreneurs. “It really helps to know your partner blog well and know their business operation,” Cornelius Swart, J-Lab coordinator of The Oregonian News Network, said by phone. Approach your blogging partner as you would any other business and be ready to offer metrics that can help them understand the value proposition of being a partner and the potential for success.

4. Get support from your advertising and marketing departments.

Any time I walk into a collaboration meeting, I always want to know: How will you help promote this partnership and my content? But I have not seen any marketing plans for partnerships, and representatives from the advertising and marketing departments have never participated in the partnership meetings I’ve attended. A meaningful partnership with a local blog goes beyond content exchange; it incorporates cross promotion.

It’s obvious how news organizations benefit from partnering with local blogs: they get to offer their audience more coverage on more topics. But publications need to experiment with the business aspects of such collaborations to make them sustainable, says Bob Payne, who runs the Seattle Times’ News Partner Network.

In a phone interview, Payne said publications should ask themselves: “Can you walk over to the offices of your business, advertising, and marketing folks to get them to agree to support this effort in the same level we are going to support it on the news side?” You need both editorial and business-side buy-in to make the model mutually beneficial.

As local news coverage becomes more fragmented, there is a greater need for collaboration. By understanding the needs of local blogs and approaching these collaborations as an editorial and business partnership, we can ultimately make an impact on the business of journalism. Read more

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