January 11, 2009

Citizen journalism questions and answers


Where to find citizen journalism sites — and how to start your own

By Christopher Grotke, Mediagiraffe
and Jarah Euston, FresnoFamous

What is citizen journalism?

It is community news and information shared online and/or in print, with contributions written by users and readers. It can be any combination of text, image, audio file, podcast or video. Stories typically include user comments, fostering additional discussion.

What else is it called?

Grassroots journalism, community news, we media, open source journalism, folk journalism, bottom-up journalism, etc.

How does citizen journalism differ from citizens media?

Citizen journalism is a narrow subset of citizens media. Citizen journalism chiefly centers on covering news and events in your community, whether it’s a major news event that someone captures on a camera phone, or a podcast of a political rally, or coverage of a swim meet or little league game. Often, citizen journalism can fill in the gap in local news coverage that newspapers have abandoned.

Citizens media covers a wider swath. It includes any kind of user-created content — from whimsical videos to music to short stories — and isn’t confined to news or journalism.

What do I need to get started in citizen journalism?

You can contribute to an existing website or start your own site or publication. There are hundreds of citizen journalism sites, ranging from hyper-local sites that cover a community — such as Baristanet or iBrattleboro or the New Haven Independent — to broader efforts such as NowPublic or South Korea’s OhmyNews. CyberJournalist.net carries a lengthy list of citizens media projects.

The tools are quite simple and relatively inexpensive. To have a citizen journalism site you will need a Content Management System (CMS), a server to host the site, a domain name, and an Internet connection.

What is a content management system?

It is software that handles the basic tasks of a community site, like story submissions, comments, a calendar of events, links, and administrative tasks such as managing user names and passwords. There are a number of CMS packages that are open source and available to use for free. Geeklog, PHPNuke and Drupal (which runs Ourmedia) are three examples.

What human resources do I need?

To run a site, you will need at least one moderator/editor. It helps to have a web programmer who is familiar with installing scripts on servers. It is handy to have someone who is good at web graphics and design.

Once you get going, your audience will expect your site to be available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. You may want additional moderators to help ease the time burden.

You need an active and engaged audience of contributors for the site to be successful.

How do I attract users?

Think about the people who would find a platform to break news most useful, and target them first. Activists, nonprofit groups, cultural organizations, and people who already blog are good places to start. Send them an email about your project, and invite them to contribute. When they do, make sure they get comments. Comments are the currency of a citizen journalism site (unless your site pays its contributors, like OhmyNews or Gather.com).

Unless your community is very Internet-savvy and has many local blogs that will link to you, offline marketing for a local community journalism site may be your best bet. Print up postcards and pass out buttons, stickers or any other swag you can think of. Clever T-shirts help. Try to partner with other exisiting local media, and connect with the local colleges and community centers.

What is a typical day like for a moderator?

It will vary, but usually the day begins with checking the site to see what submissions and comments have been added. Stories get approved and posted. Comments get read and, if necessary, deleted. This cycle is repeated throughout the day — midday, late afternoon, early evening, late evening. There are sometimes questions from users about the site or a request for a new password that must be handled.

What is a bad day like?

Get up to find the site has been hit by a spam bot, leaving links to Cialis ads on hundreds of stories that must be deleted. Or, a user has made an offensive comment and one must deal with the aftermath of apologies and patching things up. Or, get up to find the site is down, forcing you to spend hours with your tech team and hosting company to figure out what brought on the crash. Meanwhile, users are IMing you messages like, “I think the site is down.”

What is a great day like?

A user of the site breaks a story with solid coverage of an event or issue that concerns them, leading to good discussion and possible community action.

How does citizen journalism mesh with traditional media?

Traditional media are intrigued by grassroots journalism. Some reporters use citizen journalism sites to get ideas for stories to follow up on. Some reporters participate by contributing facts or information they’ve learned about a story. Citizen journalism site users read traditional media and comment on things they have read. The two can peacefully co-exist and support one another.

Christopher Grotke is with Media Giraffe.org. Jarah Euston founded FresnoFamous.com.

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