Before the digital age, journalists reported the news, then readers and viewers consumed it. Audience participation was mostly limited to writing letters to the editor or calling the newsroom with a story tip.
Today, though, journalism is a two-way street, and engaging community is a key part of a newsroom's mission. Community engagement is most effective when news organizations "make it a top priority to listen, join, lead and enable conversation to elevate journalism,” wrote digital media expert and veteran journalist Steve Buttry on his blog.
From surveys to crowdsourcing, news organizations around the world are learning how to engage citizens in newsgathering. Below are seven outstanding examples of news organizations and projects with community engagement at their core.
California Watch (now part of its founding organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting): Since its launch in 2009, the organization has been committed to engaging communities and reaching new audiences. It handed out flyers on college campuses to inform about earthquake safety, held free lead testing and built a kids’ page.
CGNet Swara: Former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary’s mobile news service CGnet Swara (Voice of Chhattisgarh) has transformed how people in remote areas of India receive and share news. CGNet Swara is a voice portal for citizen journalists to report or listen to audio bytes about the Chhattisgarh region in their local languages. Read more about CGnet Swara.
The New York Times' interactive commenting: When the Vatican announced a new Pope, Times readers who went to the paper’s story on the election of Pope Francis were asked to define themselves three ways: Were they happy with the decision or not? Were they surprised by the choice or not? And, were they Catholic or not?
“It’s something for stories we think will get a significant amount of reaction that we can then build something around,” Times’ deputy editor for interactive news Sasha Koren told Nieman Lab.
Tracking cicadas: WYNC’s data team paired up with the radio program Radiolab to build the Cicada Tracker, a project that used do-it-yourself soil monitors to predict the re-emergence of 17-year cicada swarms. The monitors were placed--by listeners--eight inches into the ground, where they tracked changes in soil temperature. When the readings were constant at 64°F, the cicadas would start to emerge from the ground.
John Keefe, then senior editor of data news at WNYC, told Columbia Journalism Review: “What we wanted to know was, ‘Can we distribute simple sensors and little micro controllers to a bunch of people who will participate and then share the data, report back to us?” The Cicada Tracker ultimately received nearly 1,500 temperature readings from listeners, many of whom used the kits distributed by the radio station or made their own, according to Nieman Lab.
Kompasiana, a “social blog for the community”: Kompas, one of Indonesia’s largest newspapers, has cultivated a committed network of citizen journalists who post news, opinion and even works of fiction online. Since its launch in 2008, the citizen journalism site, Kompasiana, has become the largest citizen media initiative in Indonesia, with 200,000 contributors who collectively publish 800 articles daily on kompasiana.com. Read more about Kompasiana.
ProPublica’s ‘Get Involved’: To investigate 2012 political campaign spending in the U.S., the staff of ProPublica, a New York City-based nonprofit news organization that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, asked readers to help "Free the Files.”
ProPublica pulled files from the FCC website, and asked its community to help extract key data points. These ranged from identifying which groups bought ads and where, to details on the nonprofits that played a large role in the election. More than 1,000 people donated time to the “Free the Files” project, which revealed details about more than US$1 billion in political ad spending. Read more about how ProPublica invites readers to get involved..
Storyful and the social web: Since 2010, Dublin-based Storyful has helped news organizations use social media to strengthen newsgathering, reporting and storytelling.
Because journalists are “not experts in every subject,” Storyful finds the people who are. Its founding commandment: “There is always someone closer to the story.” In a March blog post, Storyful’s founder and CEO Mark Little wrote: “Reporters used to be an elite speaking to a passive audience; in the social newsroom, they are only as good as the depth of engagement with their online community.”
Jessica Weiss is a Bogota-based freelancer.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Alessandro Prada under a Creative Commons license.