The Akronist local news site is not quite a year old, but since its January soft launch editor Chris Miller has built a grassroots network of more than 300 contributors, including 160 media trainees. The site specializes in video reporting and offers free training and equipment lending to the public.
We’ve done very little-to-no advertising,” Miller said. “Much of this has been spread through word of mouth.”
Despite a small pool of paid writers and a relatively large volunteer base, the 10-20 percent retention rate is a challenge to production. He said patience and exposure are key to keeping enough staff to provide fresh content by citizen journalists.
“There’s a lot of one-on-one time spent, a lot of hand-holding,” Miller said. “You have to be visible in the community, you have to go where they are, you have to give them a compelling reason to contribute. Not to help us, but to help their community. A big part is showing how it will help them.”
Miller said this fall he will promote the site at homeless shelters and halfway houses.
“We are trying to reach populations who don’t have access,” he said.
Miller, who worked in print journalism for over a decade, runs Akronist through the Akron Digital Media Center, which is funded by the Akron Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The site and media center operates with a budget of $80,000, Miller said. The site gets about 2,000 unique visitors and 3,000 video-view minutes per month.
“The goal now is to get our name out there and demonstrate some pro-bono work of quality we produce, and I think we can monetize that in the near future,” Miller said.
Akronist was grant funded after organizers identified gaps in the local information ecosystem, particularly a dearth of news about nonprofit groups, arts and entertainment, and neighborhood news. Miller said the Akron community media operation is modeled after citizen journalism site The Rapidian, run by Grand Rapids Media Center in Michigan.
Miller said recruitment and marketing occurs with public meetings at the Akron Community Foundation, the library, community meetings and events such as picnics and political rallies. Some trainees come from local universities and nonprofit organizations; some are retired people; and some do not have digital media resources at home.
Miller collects story ideas through tips, contributor leads, calendar listings, community newsletters, and local government. He sends a list of story ideas to his contributors in a bi-weekly e-mail to volunteers.
“We try to remove as many barriers as possible for this,” he said. “We make the user-end as easy as possible. The more barriers you can remove, more they participate.”.