Carnival of Journalism: Providing a forum for new voices

Note: This post is part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

What can we do to increase the number of news sources in our community?

This question drives my fledgling community-journalism project,

Over the past decade, I’ve watched our local media in the Springfield, Mo., area struggle with shrinking resources as they try to cover our expanding community, one of the fastest growing parts of the state.

In recent years, I’ve become convinced a local nonprofit news organization that tapped into citizen and student energy might help fill the coverage gaps.

The dream

I was particularly drawn to models such as the now-defunct Chi-Town Daily News and the University of Wisconsin’s Madison Commons project.

These sites recruited, trained and encouraged citizen journalists, a thought that appealed to me greatly as an editor and educator. Perhaps these new reporters, with the help of an experienced editor, could bring a different perspective with a wider array of voices and sources than what the traditional media tapped into. They might stretch beyond the usual circle of traditional movers and shakers that dominate our newspaper and broadcast stations. We could hear the stories that get missed by newsrooms whose resources have dwindled to surface-scraping levels.

My hope: To develop a community network to complement the work of the existing media.

So I created the Ozarks Community Journalism Foundation last year. With the support of my department at Drury University and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, I began reaching out to bring new voices into the journalistic picture, providing free community training sessions and reporting guides. We connected with our local bloggers association. I teamed with a colleague at Missouri State University to have our students create content for the 2010 midterm election.

With this band of volunteers, I had hoped to dig into areas where traditional outlets couldn’t afford to devote the time or resources.

But turning that dream into reality has proved a huge challenge.

The reality

I have no budget. I have a part-time graduate assistant and me as staffers. And I already have a full-time job as an assistant professor.

In our meetings with community groups, we’ve met a number of enthusiastic people who laud and encourage our efforts. But without direct assignments from me (or the incentive of freelance dollars), I’ve had few people engage with comments and even fewer provide original content.

Yet, I remain hopeful.

Our biggest success has been our Twitter account, @sgfnews. I’ve aggregated a number of local news feeds, including some from area blogs and community weeklies, and I occasionally provide original content through Twitter, either live-tweeting major events or retweeting citizens and local groups. Without marketing or advertising, our account has grown to more than 800 followers and has gained credibility as a local source of news.

During the recent blizzard that hit our area, I curated a number of stories and bits of information for the community. One tweet made me realize the effort was not wasted:

Our news site uses WordPress as its foundation. In an effort to build traffic, I put together a daily roundup of the best of our local journalism that intentionally avoids the quick-and-dirty crime or accident pieces.

I also offer occasional media criticism in the mix:

On our site, I also try to bring alternate voices and perspectives. On an original blog post about a proposed smoking ban, I highlighted the contributions of a commenter:

I’ve done a couple of podcasts with a political-science professor on our campus as well to provide election perspectives in a free-flowing conversation.

The takeaway

Our successes are minor at best. Our original content comes too infrequently to have a large impact.

Still, I’m encouraged that our numbers are growing, albeit slowly. We’ve risen from 201 monthly page views when we launched in August 2010 to 575 in January, and original content drives traffic. We add 10 to 20 followers a week on Twitter, and a greater percentage these days are actual Ozarkers (rather than spambots) interested in our news feed.

My more realistic goal? Perhaps our modest efforts will inspire others, whether their content appears on our site or elsewhere.


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