On October 25, the Edmonton Journal launched its community newsroom initiative called ‘The Bridge.” Before and since then they have been inviting citizen journalists to test out and submit stories to the newsroom. I got to take a close look at the newsroom myself when, as a member of the Get Publishing Communications Society, I attended their Citizen Journalism Workshop at the Edmonton Journal on Saturday morning October 29.
Fifteen other participants attended the workshop that was, for the most part, conducted by Karen Unland, former online editor for the Edmonton Journal, now co-project manager for their new media lab. She was joined by Barb Wilkinson, Deputy Editor, Innovation and Engagement at the Journal, the project manager for the community newsroom.
The workshop started with a tour of the Edmonton Journal’s newsroom — dark and quiet early on a Saturday morning.
Karen began by defining citizen journalism from a number of different perspectives but generally proposed that citizen journalism is when:
the people formerly known as the audience are now contributing to the news.
She pointed to some “great examples of the future of journalism” such as the way that Andy Carvin of NPR curated tweets during the Arab Spring and to the OpenFile.ca initiative, a community-powered news organization operating in seven Canadian cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. The stories the journalists cover start out as suggestions from citizens.
All media is going to the web,” she said. “The internet is more powerful than any other tools we’ve had to work with — print or broadcast.
Karen also pointed to Charles Rusnell, formerly with the Edmonton Journal now with CBC, as someone to watch. According to her, it was Rusnellwho broke the story of towns in Alberta contributing to the PC Party campaign.
He had heard about these campaign contributions being made by the St. Paul town council. He couldn’t cover the entire province of Alberta so he took it one step further and crowdsourced it. He posted an announcement on Twitter asking people to find out if the same situation was also happening in other towns and cities in Alberta. He reached out to make investigative journalism better.
They both seem to agree with Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live who I heard interviewed on CNN’s Reliable Sources this morning. He thinks that the media are as much the beneficiary of the possibilities of citizens as journalists. Reporters can now talk directly to victims and “witnesses who now have a portal to the whole world.” Trained journalists are still required to vet, review, substantiate and add context for their audiences and they now have more first party subjects to interview in person,on the phone or on Skype.
After some thoughtful discussion about the role of the reporter in the interview process, we got down to the business of discussing how to write in a journalistic style so we could file stories on ‘The Bridge.” Our special assignment for the day was to interview people for a story on the Journal and United Way’s Hallowe’een fundraising venture set up in the lobby of the Journal building.
In a nutshell this is what Karen encouraged us to do when preparing to file or publish newsworthy stories:
- Prepare interview questions in advance not forgetting to cover all the typical basis of a news story: who, what, where, when and how
- Begin with asking the interview subject How, What or Why and other open ended questions so as not to elicit either simple agreement or a yes or no answers to the questions
- Keep your questions short and neutral
- Focus your story by asking What’s the news expressed in a sentence with a subject and a verb. Who is doing what and what’s new about it?
- Ask yourself the question: So What? Why should readers care about the story? What makes the story interesting for them?
- Ask yourself the question What’s Next? What makes the story relevant for the future?
- Structure your news like a story and use what is often called the inverted pyramid with the lead for the story at the top with the supporting details elaborated below.
- Include direct quotes to advance the story and bring in the emotion of the subject or the news event. Make sure the quotes are colourful and revealing not just a paraphrase of the situation.
- Conclude with a kicker or a call to action, something that makes the reader glad to have read the story or that calls them to take a particular action e.g. buy tickets, view the website for more information, etc.
- Keep in mind that as the writer, you are the surrogate for the reader and your number one allegiance is to them.
What is “The Bridge”
“The Bidge” is a special area on the Edmonton Journal’s website that allows readers to share information of all kinds with the Journal and the rest of the community. Every day on The Bridge (edmontonjournal.com/thebridge), there will be new assignments that solicit readers input, whether it is neighbourhood news or personal photographs. The initiative is an important part of the Edmonton Journal’s goal to create greater collaboration in the community. They believe if they widen the circle of information gathering that the broader range of facts and opinions will make The Journal a stronger, richer and more in-depth source of information and they are probably right.
Currently there are several assignments posted on “The Bridge”. Some are just plain fun (you can send photos of you or your pets dressed up for Halloween) and some require more thought (tell us how you would redesign Churchill Square to create better connections with other public spaces downtown). Readers are invited to share photos of your children playing high school sports or minor hockey, and send some tips for surviving the parental juggling act. It’s cold and flu season, so the Journal wants to know if you have any secret remedies. They also want to know if your children been affected by standardized school testing.
There is also an opportunity on the “The Bridge” for readers to suggest story assignment ideas.
In order to files stories, upload videos or post photos, readers must register to file a report and set up a user name. It’s a pretty simple process: you can use a current Edmonton Journal account or most online and social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google). You need to include an email address which they assure will never be made public. If you file a story, you will receive a confirmation email advising that your report has been successfully submitted or if there is a problem. If you submit a story about a breaking news event, there may be a time when a Journal reporter will want to contact you directly for more information or photos to be included in his or her story.
Each report comes with a map, which will eventually let the Journal do some data mapping and interesting geolocating of breaking news events. You will not be asked to enter your house number, but the community newsroom tool can take just about any kind of information, such as common sites, postal codes, cross streets, neighbourhood name, or longitude and latitude.
Reports will be edited by a Journal copy editor before they are published.
Some of the most recently posted reports will show up on the main page of The Bridge. From there you can navigate to the Reports page for the 10 most recently posted reports.
When you click on a story assignment, you can see related reports. You can also locate reports by searching by keyword. Reports may also be pointed to from the home page of edmontonjournal.com when they receive timely or relevant submissions, or as they fit into larger news packages. Some reports will be published in the print version of The Journal.
As to Barb Wilkinson’s plans for the future of the community newsroom, she hopes that soon, the content will be optimized for reading on mobile devices and that they will be able to offer incentives and rewards to people who file stories often.