New Desk in the Newsroom: The Citizen Editor’s

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By: Steve Outing

Clear out some more office space in the newsroom. Knock out a wall. Buy some new desks.

Make room for the new citizen editor(s).

We have a bona fide news-industry trend in “citizen journalism” — the notion that it’s an admirable thing and in a news organization’s self-interest to encourage members of the public to participate in news publishing. News Web sites and initiatives in newsrooms are asking citizens (that is, the audience) to contribute not only their opinions but even to submit their own personal “news.” The theory is that this citizen content and enhanced interaction complement professional journalism.

Citizen-journalism initiatives are popping up over the place at newspapers. And even if those publishers plying these uncharted waters are still a small minority, the trend is unmistakable.

Ergo, there’s a new position opening up in some newsrooms: the citizen editor. While their ranks are small now, they are certain to grow in number. Journalism graduates seeking work in the field in the years ahead well may choose traditional reporting and editing, or veer toward the newer and very different line of editing the work of citizen journalists. Traditional journalists seeking new challenges or a change in work routine will have another option.

Like no other job

What exactly is a “citizen editor”? “In a lot of ways, it’s unlike any other job in the newsroom,” says Rich Gordon, chair of Newspapers and New Media at Northwestern University’s Medill School and the faculty advisor for GoSkokie.com, an experimental student-run citizen-journalism website set up to serve the city of Skokie, Ill. “The job isn’t to find stuff out and package it; it’s to solicit other people to provide information and encourage interactivity among your [online] users.”

In other words, you can’t just build a citizen-journalism Web site and expect people to find it and start submitting amateur content in droves. It takes, typically, a committed and energetic citizen editor (or staff of editors) to go out and promote the site and make it visible; to encourage community members to submit their information and news; to educate them on what kind of content they can contribute and why they would want to; and to watch community news and happenings and recruit participants to submit words or images covering them.

Then there’s the job of monitoring citizen content. Most citizen-journalism sites operate with the model that citizen contributions are published unedited — warts and all. Others exert more control, with editors doing some surface editing — fixing obvious errors, watching for potential libel problems and dealing with them, etc. But even with no editing allowed, someone with sound publishing and journalism judgment still, ideally, needs to be keeping an eye on what’s going online, pulling the plug on stuff that’s objectionable or violates a site’s terms of service, and responding to reader complaints about objectionable content.

And design and news judgment are big parts of the job. Someone needs to be in place to identify the best of citizen contributions and package that on the home page or section front. Citizen journalists need not have any formal journalism training or background, but it sure helps for the citizen editor to have that.

A C-J staff builds in the Rockies

At the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, a Scripps newspaper, a citizen-journalism site debuted about a month ago. YourHub.com is comprised of about 40 Web sites, each covering a city or town in the Denver metro area. Content is a mix of contributions from community members, the occasional staff-written story, and hand-picked links to other publications’ articles about YourHub.com cities.

What may strike you as remarkable (it did me) is that in these early days, the site has a staff of 11 full-time editors. Led by managing editor Travis Henry, YourHub employs one “community editor,” one “producer,” four “community journalists,” and four “community assistants.” They are responsible for producing not only the 40 community Web sites that are part of YourHub.com, but also 15 zoned print editions featuring the best content from the sites, which are inserted into the newspaper.

Henry says the staff is a mix of seasoned journalists and recent journalism graduates. Some have worked for daily and weekly newspapers, in radio, and in media/public relations. Community assistant Kevin Hamm, who has a journalism degree, has a resume that includes bookstore manager, mortgage banker, ski bum, and stay-at-home dad. Everyone on the staff has some sort of journalism background.

Henry acknowledges that the jobs in his department are different than the traditional, and describes them as a cross between doing journalistic tasks like editing and design and marketing the site in order to recruit community content contributors.

A big part of working for YourHub.com is acting in an “ambassador” role, he says, not solely as a journalist. That means encouraging people to submit content. For example, an editor might note that a community event is taking place and contact the organizers to urge that they submit text or photographs (or request that of event participants). A story might run where a community journalist or assistant adds a call for readers to add what they know about the topic or event, expanding on the original story.

YourHub.com editors also write for the site on occasion, acting as “citizen reporters” themselves (albeit paid) — even using the same publishing interface to file a story as do community members. It might surprise you to know that such staff articles are edited before publication. Citizen articles, on the other hand, are left untouched — except for some minor spelling and grammar editing (or occasional cuts due to space limitations) on articles to be included in the zoned print editions.

An appealing job?

Will classically trained journalists find such work appealing? “I would hope so,” says Henry, whose resume includes stints in writing and editing at a number of Colorado weekly and daily newspapers. What’s exciting about the new citizen-journalism field, he thinks, is the chance to tap the power of grassroots journalism — to be in on the ground floor of what could be an important component of the future of journalism.

Some journalists look at these citizen-editor jobs and decide that they’re not appealing because there’s no writing, reporting, or actual content creation involved — just working with amateur writers and photographers, educating them, and packaging what they produce. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Henry’s community editors at YourHub.com do get to write, and this “staff-written citizen journalism” is included in the editorial mix of the site. He wonders if as the site grows to the point where citizen contributions are coming in at a healthy clip and less aggressive marketing is necessary to solicit submissions, the site’s editors will be able to spend more time writing and creating themselves.

YourHub.com operates under the model of an independent news entity. (Its staff is located on the first floor of the Rocky Mountain News building; the newspaper staff is two floors up.) While Henry admits that in the site’s young life it hasn’t happened yet, he expected that community members occasionally will “scoop” the newspaper and its Web site. Indeed, when that happens, he says, YourHub.com will be the first venue of publication — not the Rocky Mountain News’ site, nor the print edition.

Of course, there’s not yet one, single model for citizen journalism. Not all sites will take the hands-off editing approach, which means that for some operations the role of citizen editor will involve more traditional line editing; the job will be more like conventional editing, but with a different flavor of reporter to work with.

Creativity required

Where does citizen content come from? There are many possibilities, and figuring them out requires creativity on the citizen editor’s part, says Mark Potts, co-founder of Backfence.com, an independent citizen-journalism Web site service that recently debuted its first two community sites in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Potts is another classically trained journalist; he was one of the original founders of washingtonpost.com a decade ago.

If someone has posted an intriguing calendar event, he suggests, then the citizen editor might follow up and suggest that the person write up a text report and submit photos when the event happens. The citizen editor might visit local high schools and convince a coach or player to submit reports from games that otherwise go uncovered by traditional local media outlets.

A public affairs specialist for a police department inquired to Backfence.com about a spot for officers to place their content. Now that could result in some compelling and interesting content being submitted. Or perhaps the manager of a taxi company could be encouraged to get drivers to submit stories. It’s all about being creative.

The citizen editor, Potts says, is not at all like a traditional line-editing role. Rather, it’s a sort of “weird” version of being an assignment editor — one with an unpaid “staff” that comes and goes, that comprises people from all walks of life, some of whom can write and tell stories, and some who may struggle at that and need guidance.

Another misconception about citizen editing is that the content you’ll get to work with will be mostly dreck. But Backfence.com’s experience is contrary to that notion. “The content we’ve received [so far] is better than what you’d expect,” says Potts. Non-journalists “can write,” he says — “not in the classic journalism style, but it is readable, and it’s not written in third-grade language.”

In other words, get rid of the old thinking that only trained journalists can tell stories. Accept the notion that people at the grassroots level have lots to communicate and offer, and help them do that. Then you will be a competent citizen editor.

What’s required

What does it take to be a citizen editor? Everyone I spoke to for this column suggested that being young helps. “I bet some younger journalists will find this to be really interesting, because they’ve grown up with the Web,” says Dan Gillmor, a well-known blogger and technology columnist who wrote the book “We the Media” and recently left traditional journalism to found a citizens-media start-up, Grassroots Media Inc. A younger mindset might find it easier to accept the concept that the conversations generated by citizen media can be as interesting as anything else that a news organization does.

Gillmor also suggests that while journalism skills and background are helpful in filling the role of citizen editor, they are not mandatory; non-journalists indeed might excel in such jobs. And understanding of and experience in online communities could be extremely valuable to any citizen-journalism operation, so publishers might be wise to seek out such experience when hiring.

On a more practical level, everyone involved in these early days of citizen journalism can benefit from basic computer and Internet skills. The job of citizen editor typically means lots of production work, and the technology skills and understanding to know how to make a citizens-media site evolve and grow to meet the demands of the citizen journalists who use it. YourHub.com’s Henry ranks computer skills at the top of his list of requirements in hiring.

Good editing skills are highly prized. The citizen editor’s job is, in part, to select the best citizen submissions and highlight them, so the the ability to write good headlines is a major plus. And for those sites that do edit citizen submissions, basic line-editing skills are a must.

Marketing skills and understanding also are crucial. As Potts suggests, citizen editors need to be out in the community, talking to community leaders and members, constantly promoting their site. And they must work closely with ad and marketing people on the staff. Citizen journalism has an unproven business model, so everyone must chip in to make it work.

And because citizen journalism goes so deep into the community, citizen editors will do best if they have intimate knowledge of the community. It helps to know the people and location. I wonder, then, if citizen-editor jobs might best be given to local candidates, rather than to outsiders who move to a city to take a new job.

Your new career?

If you believe that citizen journalism has a future (and count me as one who does), this is a good time to enter the field. These are the early days of what many believe represent the start of a revolution in journalism.

The jobs are just now starting to appear. Good luck.

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