At APME, Panel Probes ‘Citzen Journalism’

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Community-driven citizen journalism can satisfy a hunger for local news that traditional newspapers can’t, but holding onto those volunteer reporters, and knowing how much freedom to give them, can be challenging, several with experience in the emerging field told newspaper editors Friday.

“We want to open the gates below but still keep some control above,” Lew Friedland, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in an interview.

Friedland participated in a panel discussion on citizen journalism, held during a gathering here of the Associated Press Managing Editors, that featured a barrage of questions ? about decisions to allow unvetted forum postings; whether an online-citizen paper would consider being added to a mainstream paper’s Web site; and why an editor of a traditional paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, would share content freely with a citizen site. (To learn more about the community and to attract more readers to the paper, Wisconsin State Journal editor Ellen Foley said.)

That site, http://www.madisoncommons.org, is only updated weekly, and writers can’t post their stories directly. Friedland, who’s involved with the project, said the no-direct-posting element is being reconsidered.

At http://www.news-press.com, the pace is quicker and the freedom for citizen journalists considerable: Kate Marymount, the executive editor of The News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla., said a sense of urgency propels postings to the sites ? even if the posting is about a blaring siren in a neighborhood. “I don’t think you can be too local,” she said in an interview.

The site relies on trained, mobile journalists ? “MoJos” ? to update links constantly, she said. MoJos also train and recruit community members, for such work as posting scores from a neighborhood Little League game.

“We can only do so much,” she said.

Marymount also has used “crowd sourcing,” gathering information from citizens and professional journalists. She cited, as an example, a call for tips on an investigative story on a water, sewer and irrigation system expansion. That led to a tipster giving reporters information they needed to break a story, she said.

Holding onto citizen journalists isn’t easy, said Friedland and Deb Boisvert, a school technology coordinator who moonlights for the New Hampshire-based http://www.forumhome.org.

Friedland said that for every 10 community members trained in journalistic practices and ethics, his site manages to keep two. “When you’ve got a day job, going out and reporting is really hard,” he said.

Boisvert can attest: she recently took a day off work to finish laying-out one of the print news publications the 14-month-old site puts out ? and distributes freely ? a few times throughout the year.

But, she said she enjoys the work; the site was born, in large part, by community members wanting more information on local politics. Its volunteer reporters ? who cover what interests them ? wear press badges and hand out business cards.

“I feel like the public needs to know, and in a small town, I want to be an informed citizen,” she said in an interview. “And it’s nice to move beyond that did-you-hear gossip.”

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