citizen journalist tips from chitowndailynews

Last Friday I had the pleasure of spending half an hour speaking by phone with Geoff Dougherty, editor of the ChiTownDailyNews. He’s an interesting and friendly bloke whose doing interesting things in Chicago.

Dougherty, a journalist with 14 years of experience, gave up his job at the Chicago Tribune to pursue his dream of creating an "online newspaper written by and for Chicago residents". The site carries news and features written entirely by a group of volunteer "citizen journalists" which, in itself, doesn’t make the ChiTownNews entirely unique. The non-profit business model is where the ChiTownNews really departs from the usual:

We believe the best way to ensure media organizations carry out their vital public-interest functions is to lead the industry toward a non-profit business model. The Daily News is published by PublicMedia, Inc., an Illinois non-profit corporation.

I spoke with Dougherty because I wanted to learn from his experiences of finding and engaging with user/contributors (aka "citizen journalists") since I’m currently working  on a BBC project that will seek to do the same.

Dougherty suggests that finding contributors can be done using methods a beat journalist might normally employ in finding leads and engaging with communities. He says: "the personal touch is key – you almost have to approach it as a reporting project, go out to community leaders and explain, then ask if they want to participate." He also told me that:

  • ChiTownDailyNews found some of their early contributors by advertising on craigslist
  • Dougherty suggests getting "twice as many potential contributors as you actually need – some will flake off"
  • if quality is important, which it is to ChiTownDailyNews, then getting week’s worth of writing samples can ensure you have clear expectations of would be contributors

More on the project I’m working on when I can post the details…