Community Media Labs Top 1,000 Bloggers

JRC’s outreach to expand local voices is poised to triple by year’s end


When Jon Cooper and Matt DeRienzo took center stage at a recent SNA Foundation-sponsored webinar to talk about the new open newsroom environment at The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., attendees got a bonus of hearing much more about a variety of initiatives having to do with engaging audience. Cooper, V.P. of Content for Journal Register Company, and DeRienzo, Publisher in Torrington, freely shared many elements of the evolving culture shift within their newsrooms and their communities at large including details of how they now routinely invite the general public to participate in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.

My, oh my, how times of changed. The authoritarian voice of the newsroom deigning what content would be shared with readers has given way to a purposeful and productive two-way dialogue. Editors now sincerely want to hear from readers – the Sally Fields refrain ‘you like me’ comes to mind – not just to rejoice that people are still reading but also to help mold and shape the news that’s important to them; and to build out community far beyond the confines of the printed newspaper and breaking news website.

One of the shining examples of this outreach is what JRC terms the Community Media Lab, actively up and running at twenty JRC properties currently with over 1,000 local contributors so far. By the end of this year, JRC plans growth to numerous other properties and to triple the ranks of local bloggers.

One of the training tools that SNA makes available to new contributors is a free, self-paced e-course entitled Contributing to a Local Publication.Editors can direct amateur contributors to this e-course and they’ll learn things like how to:

  • Identify the basics of effective writing, editing, interviewing, and multimedia production
  • Describe the editorial process and ethical decisions that journalists make
  • Pinpoint the ingredients for success in reporting and writing

The companion course, Strategies for Managing Local Contributors, is intended for newsroom managers to help them develop and sustain a UGC program.

Sponsored by the SNA Foundation, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this e-course is professionally produced by the Poynter Institute’s NewsU division and is free to users.

What is a CML?
While the literal definition of a Community Media Lab means a physical space in a newsroom where community members can freely come to learn the basics of contributing and to use available equipment, Cooper says a fundamental aspect is more a state of mind. These labs espouse a philosophy of embracing the notion and practice of expanding audience via local bloggers and to put the local newspaper front and center as THE meeting spot for these local voices. The impact of this change is significant for both newsroom staff and amateur community writers and the Community Media Labs are very purposeful in signaling this major shift in culture.
As master plans go, this certainly sounds like a solid one but Cooper is quick to point out that the CML program is definitely a work in progress. What began in early 2010 as a means to simply add more voices to content has now morphed into also providing physical meeting space for folks to come in and work with editors and reporters, to get trained in the basics of blogging and to even learn about how to use freeware and other devices in their blogging quest. Involved newsrooms are taking over the role of teacher in some cases to guide the students, a.k.a. locals with a passion for a topic that they want to blog about.Who Participates
For many newsroom professionals, this core mission involves a serious culture shift; the upside is that the callouts to members of the community signals a new openness that can only breed increased engagement and it’s working.

Take a look at active CML’s at the Delaware County Daily Times (PA) or Heritage Newspapers (MI) and you’ll find a host of local bloggers and how they’re presented on their websites. One of Delco’s more popular blogs is a Top Ten written by a local Mom with two kids, described on her blog as “not a perfect person but is female so it’s as close as you can get.”

Delco Times editor Phil Heron says that when he made his original callout for local bloggers about a year ago, he got a reply from Mary Ann Fiebert who pitched the idea of a list-style blog. “To be honest with you, I don’t even remember what (the original list) was about,” says Herron. “What I do remember is that I immediately seized on it as fulfilling something I always wanted – our very own version of a Letterman Top 10 List.”

Thus, a local star was born and The Delco Top 10 has appeared on the website ever Monday-Friday ever since and has proven increasingly popular. Remember a while back when a professor revealed a study that basically said the Zodiac signs were out of whack and another sign needed to be added and the whole calendar shifted? Mary Ann did a Top 10 Signs of the Zodiac list and by early afternoon it had drawn 17,000 hits.

Cooper says one key to their success of their CML’s so far is diversity. People with a penchant for any number of topics are encouraged to join the blogging ranks in these labs. (TIP: Use Google to search for already established local bloggers and reach out to them; leverage your existing resources by having your sports editor reach out to local sports aficionados, etc.) These writers set their own pace and are encouraged to write away with gusto. “The involvement ranges from parents who are interested in writing about schools to retired journos covering communities where we have cut staff,” says Cooper. “The so-called “mommy blog” is the model that has proven popular for many but, as with any blog, it’s about finding a writer/blogger who is passionate about their topic and is professional about their presentation of information.”

Rules for the partnerships
Acknowledging the fluidity of the CML program, Cooper reminds that things may and will change over time but for now there are a few basic principles that guide participation.

First off, while editors are not the blog gatekeepers, they do engage in developing the relationship with local bloggers and set a few ground rules at the outset.

  1. Stated alignment of values: What is each party’s expectation? “We have political bloggers but have guidelines for them to work within … when they cross those lines we discuss. We haven’t come to the point where we’ve had to cut ties,” reports Cooper.
  2. Partnerships must benefit both parties: If JRC papers are going to link to a blogger and provide them access to their thousands of daily visitors they expect the blogger to link back to them. That link should be more than a blogroll listing. “Work with your blogger to create a widget (use and your public RSS feeds if you don’t have a developer) that pulls your headlines onto their blog,” advises Cooper.
  3. Relationships take work: This isn’t a “set it and forget it” process. Cooper lays it out logically. “You have to maintain your relationships. The better you work together the more allies you have in the community. The more allies you have the more readers you have. The more readers, the more audience. The more audience, the more your sales team and publisher think you are the genius you are.”

He reminds that not all this will work out and that’s okay. Learn from the process and be willing to keep trying.

Jon Cooper, VP Content for Journal Register Company

A Callout from Cooper to Other Community Newspapers

“The level of openness and the tactics to accomplish openness will be determined by your organization and your community. Collaboration and community is key to all of this so share what works and share what doesn’t work — so someone else doesn’t fall in the same hole or maybe they know a way out and can help you. We’re making progress at Journal Register Company because our teams are trying and are willing to take that first leap. Feel free to email ideas and questions and tweet to folks in our organization with the hash tag #JRC and someone will offer you some feedback. Thanks for the time and best of luck. Please let us know what works (and what doesn’t) and give a call or email or tweet.”