Working with citizen contributors

By Mary Turck

The Rapidian gives an award to the reporter “most likely to get a black eye” for their work— and that’s just one of the strategies that surfaced during the breakout discussion on working with citizen contributors. Denise Cheng did a great job of facilitating the discussion and sharing her experiences at The Rapidian.

While people contributed ideas faster than I can type, lots of the most interesting contributions fell in four focuses:

  1. moving people up the ladder
  2. setting contributors up for success
  3. making it social
  4. keeping it real

Moving up the ladder of involvement

“Recruitment” of citizen contributors is both tougher and less successful than moving people up the ladder of involvement. Step one is moving from an anonymous content consumer to a registered user, and one way to entice people to register is to make it a condition of commenting on the site. The Rapidian’s hierarchy of engagement moves from anonymous user to registered user/commenter to contributor to writer to editorial mentor. Three other ways of getting people involved and moving them up the ladder:

  1. Draw people in with crowd-sourced Google maps. One example: WNYC’s survey of the cost of milk, lettuce, and beer.
  2. Invite people to share photos, either directly on the site or through a Flickr feed. Possible topics: “Everything from a Jimmy Buffett concert to a neighborhood church festival.”
  3. Crosscut tries to connect stories with specific groups or nonprofits that connect with an issue.

Setting contributors up for success

Mentoring and feedback is key: meetings with individual writers, a reporter feedback form, workshops, email conversations, writers’ groups.

Assigning stories carefully is also key to success, for both the contributor and the publication. That means newbies get easier stories and open-ended assignments without a short deadline, while reserving “must-have” and deadlined stories for more experienced writers. Another way to help contributors succeed is by defining formulaic stories. One example: Edgeville Buzz has a five-question story with a format that’s easy to follow and has proved interesting to readers.

The Rapidian often suggests a list of questions for a writer for a specific story. The TC Daily Planet uses Google Docs to give information and direction for each story on the assignment list, and potential writers can click through to the Google Doc from the Story Page listing of potential assignments.

Making it social

Participants, or at least those who already work with citizen contributors, reported a high proportion of volunteer participation. Volunteers value their time, and may decide to go elsewhere if they don’t enjoy the experience. So how do you keep those volunteers happy, and coming back for more?

Appreciation, of course, is essential, but just saying thank you or giving out certificates isn’t enough. Some of the most effective approaches are interactive and social.

Beer is good — at least for the food writers at The Rapidian, who get together every two weeks at “a local beer hall” to talk about stories. That, said Denise, builds accountability with one another, as well as with The Rapidian.

Superlatives work, too, in The Rapidian’s annual (okay, they’re only two years old, but it’s a good plan) Superlative Awards Ceremony. Besides the reporter “most likely to get a black eye” (turns out that’s the one who covers amateur boxing), she cited the “celery stalker” award to the writer covering locally grown food.

Give-aways include not only the physical — mugs, t-shirts, business cards, reporters’ notebooks — but also the virtual, with contributor profile pages and email addresses.

Keeping it real

Accountability is crucial, and extends to readers as well as contributors. What if a contributor writes an article about a charitable event — and his wife is one of the organizers of the event? Or someone who reviews a play, and is a part of the local theater community and formerly acted in a different play produced by the theater company?

Full disclosure is important, and far from universal. The Rapidian has a disclosure field on their website, where the writer enters any information about his/her relationship to the story or involvement with anyone in the story. Publishing full disclosure statements is especially important because “we are embedded in our communities.”

Those publications that publish PSAs or have nonprofit partners who provide content also need to identify this information. Nonprofits can be citizen contributors, too!

The energy of the group was great, maybe because it was in the morning, but I think also because this is an energizing experience. Lots of readers are ready to get more involved in our journalism, and opening the door for them can become a passion for local news folks.

[Is there already a blog where people share their ideas and experiences in involving readers as contributors? If not, I’m interested in collaborating with someone to begin one.]

Mary Turck is the editor of Twin Cities Daily Planet, a nonprofit local news site in Minnesota..

About Mary Turck

Mary Turck edits the Twin Cities Daily Planet, which is based in citizen journalism and participation. That's theoretically a part-time job, so she also teaches writing at Metro State University and continues a freelance career that includes many articles and books as well as blogging about both news and class warfare.
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