What’s working for community engagement at Michigan nonprofit local news site

Block by Block will be hosting this week its second annual Block by Block Community News Summit (#bxb11), an independent, online local news publishers gathering in Chicago, Sep. 29-Oct. 1. In the days leading up to the summit, we are featuring here a short blog series on different publishers in the BxB network, their sites and entrepreneurial journalism experience.

Our third installment is by Denise Cheng, citizen journalism coordinator at The Rapidian, a nonprofit community news site in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Rapidian is a service of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center.

By Denise Cheng

One year ago, 145 participants answered two questions prior to the inaugural Block by Block summit. To pierce the heart of the issue, event organizer Michele McLellan asked us: “What do you want to learn? What do you have to offer?”

Over in Grand Rapids, Mich., we were forming a groove in community engagement. Starting with the premise that every person’s contribution from participating only by pinning Rapidian “flair” to a lapel to taking up the gauntlet as a regular news contributor should be recognized and celebrated, our goal is to generate civic engagement and open dialogue in Grand Rapids through the vehicle of news and community information. 

Now two years old, The Rapidian’s scope has grown, and yet our team size remains the same. Cultivating and maintaining citizen reporters continues to be a high touch process. We had formed perhaps a stable enough cadre of citizen reporters to apportion effort to other goals, most of all empowering underserved communities to determine the news agenda on The Rapidian.

Groups that traditionally have been marginalized or misrepresented by the media have additional unfamiliarities to grapple with when invited to the table. It can take a while to realize that we are serious when we say we’re here to support their news agenda. Becoming accustomed to the idea, becoming comfortable with the platform, willingness to participate in the process and become intimate with new tools, there are many hurdles that require patience (note: if your focus is to feed a relentless news cycle, this might not be the most effective approach for you). It can take a while to grow into the power of a media creator and identify as a media creator. This is important work.

Meanwhile, we still need to develop a more efficient way of maintaining and reaching out to folks who are predisposed to The Rapidian, and I suspect it is the same for many others. We want everyone who participates at whatever level to have a fulfilling experience. Which has me thinking lately: What can we take from customer relationship management (CRM) systems?

We work in a world of relationships where it is necessary to imbue our newsrooms with a sense of warmth. There is no algorithm or automated email that can mimic genuine contact. It is hard to pass on institutional knowledge, and as each of us BxBers grow in scope and expand in facets of our operations as more people come to rely on us how can we automate the reminders to ourselves to connect consistently? I can only speak for myself in my role as the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, but that is what has my attention lately.

Series articles


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