Melanie Coulson spent the past four months researching community newsrooms and citizen journalism while a journalist-in-residence as a Michener-Deacon Fellow at Carleton University.

By Melanie Coulson

I’ve spent the past four months researching community newsrooms and citizen journalism while a journalist-in-residence as a Michener-Deacon Fellow at Carleton University – and loved every minute of teaching and research. But now my time is up. At the beginning of May, I’ll be moving on to my next challenge in the Ottawa Citizen newsroom. Bring on the adrenaline rush of daily news.

As this fellowship draws to a close, I’ve come to the following conclusions about community newsrooms:

1. Host the conversation, but don’t try to start it. Rather than try to ‘create’ a new community, news organizations need to look at existing community groups, and see how they can become a destination or hub. Gastropost does a good job of this – tapping into Toronto’s already vibrant existing community of food lovers.

2. Size (and geography) matters. Newsrooms need to remember this when thinking about the communities they’d like to cater to. MySteinbach.ca has a successful community hub because it’s catering to a city of 13,000 people, with close ties to one another. A major news organization in a major city – or national reach – should consider trying to appeal to one or two groups within the region.

3. Think beyond text when planning for community contributions. News organizations aren’t likely to get the 500-word story from a community newsroom on the transit committee at City Hall. What they are more likely to see are photos, video, blog posts, opinion pieces and quick dispatches. These submissions are just as (if not more) valuable than straight reporting, and are a way to connect with the audience. If newsrooms are looking for a more traditional story, an editor or reporter will need to give this information context and build a story package around it.

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4. The community would love to be trained. It goes without saying that there are certain skills that journalists bring to the table: the technical ones of course, but also the objective and ethical thinking that is behind every well-balanced article. The Winnipeg Foundation’s Community News Commons and Torrington, Connecticut’s Register Citizen have seen a huge uptake on their training sessions for would-be contributors.

 5. Don’t see this as solely an editorial exercise. This is not about getting more content for your site/app/newspaper. Again, and again, community newsroom leaders stated that the connection they are making with the audience is more important than the content. This connection means the audience is more engaged in the process, the product – and the news that’s being covered. Randy Parker at the York Daily News is blunter about his NewsVroom, a mobile community initiative: It’s a marketing endeavour.

6. Successful community partnerships can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Of the community newsrooms I’ve studied, only one was making a profit – the small news hub in Steinbach, Manitoba. That said, none of the news organizations consider their community newsroom initiatives a failure: they all see their projects as successful marketing initiatives that have influence over how the community perceives their news organizations, and a means to remain relevant to the audience. There is value in letting the audience in on the news gathering and news reporting process.

7. Put on a lab coat and experiment. When setting out to create a community newsroom, a news organization needs to designate a period of time for trial and error. It must be ready to try different things, accept that there will be mistakes and be ready to make them, ready to learn from them. A news organization should take inspiration from other community newsrooms, keeping in mind that a project that works for one community will likely not for work for all, and it should consider customizing its community initiative to be in line with its audience.

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Melanie Coulson is the first Michener-Deacon Fellow for journalism education and Senior Editor at the Ottawa Citizen. This article was reprinted here with Coulson's permission.