New York Times Embraces Collaborative Journalism with CUNY Hyperlocal Partnership

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To understand what it means for The New York Times to shift day-to-day management of one of its blogs, The Local, to the City University of New York’s journalism school, you have to consider two things: economics and culture.

First, economics: When the Times started its two hyperlocal blogs last year — one covering two communities in Brooklyn, the other covering three in New Jersey — editors knew they could not pay a Times journalist to work on each blog long-term, said Mary Ann Giordano, the deputy metro editor who oversees both sites. But to get the sites going, the paper assigned a journalist to each site.

One of them has been reassigned, and the other has taken a buyout. So now the Times is turning over day-to-day editing and oversight of the Brooklyn site to an editor paid by CUNY, which is using part of a $300,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
 
Second, culture: Though it’s easy to talk about the Old Gray Lady, with this move the Times is embracing collaborative, citizen-based local journalism. Collaboration Editor Annaliese Griffin, two CUNY professors and a 10-student class (with some input from Giordano) will “figure out how to help the public report on itself,” said CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis.
 
“I’m so impressed with the cultural shift this indicates at The New York Times,” said Jarvis, who has been involved with the CUNY-Times partnership since it started. “Here was The New York Times creating a platform that enables people other than Times people to do journalism,” he said. The paper “got a new relationship with this neighborhood, a collaborative relationship with this neighborhood.”

“I’ve been told,” Giordano said, “that part of my role at The New York Times is to continue to explore these collaborative journalism techniques and find ways to integrate them into coverage in general.”

Since both The Local sites were launched in March, CUNY students have been reporting and writing stories and creating audio slide shows and videos for it.

But they’ve also acted as recruiters and trainers, showing middle schoolers the basics of digital photography and helping to run three-day interactive journalism seminars for high schoolers in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Some of the middle schoolers’ photographs ran on The Local, and some in print.

Under the new arrangement, 10 students will work on The Local as part of a new class called “Interactive: Hyperlocal,” CUNY professor Jere Hester said via e-mail. (They’ll also report on the community for a reporting class.)

The students’ duties “will range from recruiting and cultivating community contributors to conceiving and organizing crowdsourced reporting projects to producing audio webcasts with community members as co-hosts and guests,” Hester said. “This will be in addition to contributing stories/blog posts in various media forms.”

“With CUNY’s increased involvement in the site, you can definitely expect to see more student bylines,” Hester said, “but you’ll also see more student credit lines for helping bring about content from community contributors.”

For example, when people complained last year that soccer players were tearing up a local park, student Jim Flood recruited a frequent soccer player to write a guest post that “took the conversation to a new level,” Hester said.

One of the key challenges with this experiment is posting community contributions on a Times blog without the direct involvement of any Times employee.

Giordano still is involved with the Brooklyn site, but in the coming weeks she will step back from direct involvement with postings. (She still edits all posts on the New Jersey site, but expects to hand more control over to community members in the future.)

“While the J-school will assume the day-to-day editorial leadership of the site, we will be working closely with the Times,” Hester said. “The partnership here is key — producing content on the Times’ platform is both a great opportunity and responsibility.”

Giordano said she is happy with how the community has responded to The Local. Each of The Local sites has about 50 citizen contributors. As of this fall, members of the community had contributed more than 40 percent of the posts.

“We have people in the community tipping us off as soon as they see yellow tape on the street,” Giordano said. “And they’ll stick with us all night, telling us updates, sending us photographs, just reporting out stories.

“Obviously that’s one reason you need a professional journalist, to make sure you can verify, and you can steer the questions and go back to the police and get access to officials who can respond.”

Both CUNY and the Times emphasized the importance of having a professional journalist at the center of the operation. Until last week, that was Andy Newman, who now is running the City Room blog. Now it’s Griffin, a 2007 graduate of CUNY’s journalism program and a senior editor and owner of Brooklyn Based, a blog and e-mail newsletter focusing on lifestyle, entertainment and events in Brooklyn.

Though Griffin expects the students and the community to shape the blog as much as she does, “I don’t believe that blogs of this quality are ever going to be 100 percent volunteer-run,” she said.

There has to be, she continued, “a gatekeeper who is curating and making sure that things are of a certain quality — because journalism isn’t easy. It’s not easy to be a reporter. It’s not easy to write well. And I think it’s not easy to write in a blog style either, when things are more succinct.”

Giordano acknowledged that finances play a part in how the Times is approaching this project. But even when she oversaw seven bureaus from Connecticut to northern New Jersey, the Times didn’t aim to cover the communities at such a micro level as The Local does now.

The Times has closed those bureaus and doesn’t have any reporters dedicated to the outlying communities around New York City, she said, other than one who covers New Jersey.

The economics of this experiment go beyond the Times payroll. Jarvis, who is behind the New Business Models for News project, said he aims to use The Local not only for editorial experimentation, but to test how a network of local blogs can create new revenue opportunities.

Among his ideas: creating an advertising network for The Local and other Brooklyn blogs, asking merchants what types of advertising they want, and training citizen salespeople to sell those ads.

“Now it’s time to figure out what that relationship is with the rest of the bloggers in Brooklyn,” Jarvis said. “Again, the relationship isn’t just content and it isn’t just promotion, it’s also going to be revenue.”

With 31 years in the business and plenty of experience covering beats like crime and politics, Giordano readily describes herself as an “old-school journalist.” Yet working on The Local, she said, “has really shown me there is a way journalists can still be professionals, and can still use their skills and their judgment … and yet work more closely with people in the community, trust the people in the community to a certain degree and work with them to try to find up-from-the-ground information.”

“I think all journalists, not just hyperlocal ones, can incorporate more of these techniques in their reporting,” she said. “I really do believe we are living in a wiki world.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said Annaliese Griffin is a blogger for Brooklyn Based, rather than a senior editor and an owner.

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