No Casual Operation:Inside a Citizen Journalism Newsroom

One afternoon a few months ago, my police scanner at the Chi-Town Daily News started burbling with reports that construction workers had been injured in a building collapse in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Most news organizations would have reacted to this in a time-honored tradition — hand the address to the cops reporter, call a photographer. If it’s a TV station, get the helicopter in the air.

To my ongoing dismay, the Daily News doesn’t have a helicopter. Or a cops reporter, or staff photographers. We’re a two-year-old, nonprofit, online newspaper with an annual budget of less than $200,000 and an office full of thrift-store desks.

But we do have a network of three dozen citizen journalists spread throughout the city, and some powerful software that enables us to keep track of where they live and what they’re interested in covering. That system allowed us to find a citizen journalist who lived near the building collapse and get him to the scene — within minutes.

Such a speedy response represents a small but important success story for the Chi-Town Daily News,  where for the past several months, we’ve been experimenting with the best ways to recruit and manage citizen journalists.

The experiment began in March 2007, when the Daily News won a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant (see all winners here) to build a local citizen journalism network that could be replicated in other U.S. cities.

The network, which we’re putting together over the course of two years, eventually will include at least one volunteer journalist in each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. We’re responsible for recruiting and training them. A Daily News editor works with each journalist to plan comprehensive neighborhood coverage and ensure that articles meet traditional standards of accuracy, newsworthiness and fairness.

Once the network is complete, we expect to publish a local news report that is unrivaled in scope and depth.

Getting there has involved some challenges.

We initially thought our recruiting would involve a lot of street-level work: hosting sign-up tables at community events, networking with other volunteer groups and meeting with neighborhood churches and chambers of commerce.

We hired a community organizer to pursue that strategy. He signed up dozens of people at street fairs and music festivals but never heard from them again. Reception from neighborhood organizations was lukewarm.

Because of those lackluster results, we shelved our street-level approach in favor of recruiting online.

Our community organizer, Frank Edwards, began posting weekly notices on Craigslist bulletin boards in Chicago. He reached out to Chicago bloggers and started networking through Facebook and MySpace. We also posted information about our free monthly journalism skills workshops on going.com and upcoming.org.

So far, that approach is yielding more signups, and more productive volunteers, than our street-level work.

We’d hoped to recruit 25 journalists by this month, and we’ve got 36. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from all areas of the city. And the stories they produce are some of the best-read on our Web site.

Managing three dozen inexperienced journalists who work remotely to cover a city like Chicago is no easy task. We’ve had to think carefully about developing procedures to make sure that people and stories don’t fall through the cracks.

A big part of that system is Highrise, Web-based software that was designed for customer-relationship management. It has turned out to be unexpectedly well-suited to managing a newsroom.

While many volunteer-driven organizations run on a casual, catch-as-catch-can basis, we needed to keep everyone in our office updated on what our volunteers were doing — who was looking for a story, who was supposed to be filing this week, and who needed a phone call to make sure they were still on board.

Highrise enables us to collect contact details on our volunteers in one location, assign the volunteer to an editor, track stories to completion and send automated reminders when deadlines are missed.

When a prospective volunteer contacts Frank, he schedules a meeting to explain how the program works, sets the volunteer up with a username on our content management system, finds out what she’s interested in covering, and assigns her to one of our two editors. He also tags volunteers by neighborhood in Highrise, which makes it easy for us to match writers with breaking news or other coverage opportunities.

Frank creates a Highrise task for the editor, who then follows up with a phone call or e-mail suggesting a couple of story possibilities to the writer. We’ve found that covering a meeting is a great first assignment for our volunteers, most of whom have no prior journalism experience or training.

Because the meetings occur at a fixed time and location, they eliminate the possibility of procrastination. The meetings, and the resulting stories, follow a predictable format, so we can provide some tips and and examples to the writer before she arrives at the meeting.

And because we’re familiar with what usually goes on at those meetings, we’re in a good position to spot accuracy problems in stories about them.

Many of our story ideas are drawn from an online civic calendar we created to keep track of the thousands of Local School Council meetings, community policing gatherings and other neighborhood events that occur in Chicago every year. The calendar is searchable by address, so it’s easy for editors and writers to find upcoming events in a particular neighborhood.

Once we’ve talked over the story with the writer, we use Highrise to track deadlines and progress. Highrise allows us to automatically store e-mails to our writers with their other details, so we can instantly pull up someone’s profile and see what he’s working on and what kind of progress he’s making.

Our system also allows us to follow up with writers who, for whatever reason, have missed a deadline or disappeared from view. After two or three attempts at contact, editors assign the writer back to Frank, who follows up to find out if the volunteer is still interested in working with us.

As we fine-tune this system and expand our volunteer network to cover the rest of Chicago, we’re looking to sharpen our ability to respond to breaking news.

Assigning coverage of the Wicker Park building collapse involved identifying our volunteers in the neighborhood and calling them, one by one, until we found someone who was available.

Sending a text message to all of our writers would have been faster and likely more productive. We’re in the process of upgrading our content management system to allow editors to send text messages about breaking news to our writers.

As our network expands, the demands on our two editors will grow significantly. So we’re searching for ways to make sure the copy we get requires less intervention than it does now.

One possibility we’ll be experimenting with in the next month or so is requiring new volunteers to attend a two-hour orientation. That will allow us to provide them with some basic knowledge about reporting and writing, and make sure they’re prepared for and comfortable with their first assignment.

We suspect a mandatory orientation may reduce the number of people who sign up to work with us, but it probably will increase the productivity of those that do.

As for the building collapse, it turned out to be a bust — an unoccupied trench at a construction site had caved in. Even so, it was an eye-opening glimpse at the potential that a network like ours creates. It showed us that creativity and organization can substitute for a big budget (and a helicopter).

Given the financial climate in today’s newsrooms, that’s a valuable lesson.

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