How ‘Citizen Stringers’ Can Help You Hyper-Localize

By: Steve Outing

Hardly a week goes by without news of more newspaper layoffs — some quite substantial, like the recent cuts by the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Don’t look for any break in this trend.

Obviously this is impacting coverage, and not for the better.

But the obvious problem of fewer resources for “serious journalism” — i.e., investigative, watchdog reporting — isn’t the only trouble faced by the newspaper industry.

I’m also worried about the scope of newspaper coverage narrowing, and squeezing out the stuff that didn’t always get noticed even in newspapers’ heydays. Shrinking newsroom editorial staffs and budgets mean that events and issues that might have warranted a reporter’s brief attention in the past now will get none at all.

I think, though, that there is a fairly simple solution — provided that newspaper editors expand their thinking about the kind of coverage they allow to be published under their brand name.

Ignored By The Mainstream

I’ll insert a disclaimer here, because I’m going to mention my company, the Enthusiast Group, which publishes several social networking-based websites devoted to adventure sports (e.g., YourClimbing.com, YourMTB.com). A program we initiated recently has relevance to the newspaper industry. Forgive me if this appears self-serving, but I think there are some lessons for newspapers in what we’re doing. (And I’ll keep mention of our program brief.)

Recently we started offering “grassroots media coverage” to sport events. For things like mountain bike races and festivals, and climbing competitions, we recruit our users to take photos and videos and blog about the events. We work with the event organizers, and typically give free entry to our “correspondents” — most of whom are racers or competitors (though spectators are welcome to do this as well).

What got me thinking of newspapers was whenever I would search for news of our partner events in the days after an event. If a race is lucky, it might get one short mention in a local paper; if the event organizer is really fortunate, maybe a local TV news camera crew will pop by for a short visit and produce a short clip and an accompanying short story on its website.

But most events get no coverage at all from mainstream media. Zip. Nada.

It’s common for an event that attracts a thousand or more people to be ignored by traditional media. Coverage is left to blogs, sport-specific websites, monthly niche-sport magazines, and perhaps offbeat organizations like mine.

Worth Covering?

Should a newspaper — dealing with recent editorial and budget cutbacks — worry about covering things that don’t register in the “grand scheme of things”? Is a bike race that attracts 1,500 passionate souls in your community worthy of tapping into that smaller budget to cover?

From a practical standpoint, probably not. It’s not worth assigning a reporter from your thinned ranks to spend a day watching a bike race that’s not a national championship.

But from the standpoint of serving your community, definitely. You should figure out how to cover it without taking reporters off more significant assignments.

There’s probably little argument that local newspapers should endeavor to cover more things that are happening in their communities: races, competitions, festivals, pet shows, flower shows, music festivals, art shows, speeches, etc. A common demoninator in all of those is that the people who show up — often numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands — share a passion. A local news organization should acknowledge the passions running within its community. It sends a bad message by ignoring them.

Covering such “small” things harks back to the community weekly, which exists largely to cover the issues and events that the neighboring metro papers considered too unimportant — or perhaps not that, but not economically feasible — to cover. But even with community weeklies, the coverage of these small events typically is brief and unsatisfying to those who attended the event.

So, yeah, I’m advocating that newspapers dig deeper with local coverage. Newspaper executives have long realized that local is their bread and butter, and they need to do a better job. The grassroots media/citizen journalism approach makes this possible.

Time To Get Creative

With staff reporters out of the picture, we’re obviously looking at community members to provide coverage of all the hyper-local stuff that’s serving people’s passions.

I’m not a big fan of the approach of asking people to “cover” things, though, without some incentive. Sure, it can work — and well — in certain instances where there’s high motivation to share with the world what you’ve seen. The major hurricane or other backyard disaster these days inevitably brings in a wave of eyewitness photos and personal accounts.

As for asking people to cover more routine things like local events, I think you need to figure out an incentive program.

When you think about it, what we’re really talking about is expanding and loosening up the “stringer” programs that newspapers have had for decades. If you want to be able to cover all sorts of local events in your community, then get a LOT of “citizen” stringers.

Compensation? That’s where we need to get creative.

One thing I find in my current work is that it doesn’t take a lot to incentivize people when they’re being asked to cover (blog, take photos, video) what they’re passionate about. If there’s a flower show coming up, perhaps you should have some flower aficionados that you’ve recruited or have signed up for a citizen correspondent program. Pay them $5 each for a blog item, and/or a few bucks for some photos.

Consider establishing a program that pays small amounts for coverage of such events. Have people apply to be reporters for you and select the ones that look best. Pick the applicants that seem to have passion for the topic, as well as express an interest in writing, photography and/or video. (That’s been the experience with my company’s program; lots of athletes possess communications skills, or are writing or photography hobbyists, and appreciate an outlet for that.)

Think about all the public speeches and workshops that take place in your community, but never get covered. A newspaper website could create a directory of upcoming events and recruit community members to blog about ones they want to attend. (You probably already have a community calendar; simply glom this program on top of it.)

This could be in partnership with the events directly — sort of a “citizen press pass” program where citizen reporters get in free — or the newspaper could pay a few bucks for the coverage.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve missed a speech that looked interesting, and of course there was no coverage afterward. This would be a wonderful public service.

The Quality Issue

That last point is a good segue to the quality issue. Which leads to an important question. What would you rather have: no coverage of a speech or event, or coverage by a non-professional “citizen correspondent” that may be of dubious quality and accuracy?

My money is on something is better than nothing. Besides, my own experience in grassroots media dispels the myth that “non-professionals” can’t write anything worth reading, or that unleashing unedited content on the world is a horrid thing. The blog revolution should have gotten you well past that line of thinking.

And compensating citizen correspondents in some way — albeit modestly — seems, again in my experience, to motivate them to submit decent quality content.

Grassroots reporting will be a mix of good, sometimes excellent quality, and absolute crap. But the latter is what editors are there to protect against, and they can keep the crap from being highlighted and position the best stuff prominently. And there’s no reason that a program like the one I’m espousing can’t include some copy editing.

Also important is labeling. I’m a big fan of labeling the source of content — especially in an environment where there’s a mix of stuff from professional journalists and community members. Something along the lines of a byline like this is appropriate: “By Jane Jones, citizen correspondent,” where the title is linked to an explanation that this person is not a professional journalist and the newspaper does not vet or warrant her submission.

I’ll make just one last point, and it’s about passion. There’s a darn good chance that a citizen correspondent who, for example, is a serious flower hobbyist, and who you pay $5 per blog post, will do a much better job of covering a local flower show than some poor staff reporter who’s assigned to cover it and provides sleepy, dull coverage.

OK, so you’ve lost some reporters. Times are tough. But you have options, believe it or not, for expanding your newspaper’s coverage, not reducing it. But you’ve got to loosen up.

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