I have often thought that the optimal educational experience is one where both the student and the teacher are learning something new. In that regard, the Community News Commons has been that rare experience.
For those who may not have heard, the CNC is, as its name suggests, a place where citizen journalists can obtain training and mentorship to help them tell the stories of their community. The CNC is a three-year project jointly funded by the Winnipeg Foundation and the Knight Foundation in the United States. It is heavily supported by the Winnipeg Free Press, which has hosted the lion's share of training seminars at its News Café in the Exchange District.
I was lucky enough to be involved in the earliest days of the CNC to advise budding citizen scribes on some of the principles of journalism and basic storytelling. These early sessions were enthralling, as both instructor and citizen dug deeper into the very meaning of terms such as "citizen journalism."
Not surprisingly, it became very clear early on that no one was quite sure what it meant. There were community news projects ongoing in the U.S., although each had their own unique take on how to harness community contributors. Private-sector initiatives like AOL's Seed have got into the act as well. But how exactly would legitimate news content be generated by volunteers with no journalism experience?
Those early sessions, held at the News Café and the Millennium Library downtown, forced all of us to confront the essence of what it means to harness the power of the community to tell stories. The solution, forged incrementally over the past year, has professionals offering guidance and expertise to citizen contributors, who are the wellspring of the content.
"We're not trying to compete with the mainstream media," said CNC convener Noah Erenberg, an experienced documentary filmmaker and journalist. "We're trying to partner with them in order to shine some light on various subjects the people care about while providing some opportunities for citizens to build their capacity as online journalists."
The CNC has been a tremendous success by any measurement. In those very early days, only about 30 people were registered through the CNC's website to be contributors; today, 240 are registered and more than 60 of those have contributed online stories. Journalists from the Free Press and CBC have imparted the finer points of writing, photography, videography and investigative journalism.
Some of the CNC stories have become legitimate front-page news. Last September, contributor Denise Campbell contributed a story to the CNC website about a Winnipeg Transit driver who gave his shoes away to a barefooted, homeless man. The traditional media demonstrated its ultimate sign of respect by matching and following the story. CNC's website saw hundreds of thousands of additional page views.
"It showed us that content is still king," Erenberg said. "And that the power of a good story remains, no matter what kind of media you're working for."
If there was something that both professional and citizen journalists shared, it was a bewilderment about why the Free Press would be involved. Citizen journalism has been seen by many in my business as not only an affront to our profession but a threat as well. However, a deeper look into the world of community news reveals, rather, an opportunity for traditional media to rebuild its relationship with the broader community.
News organizations such as the Free Press are under siege right now, forced to invest in digital platforms without any reliable revenue stream from new media. Our brands are still solid and thanks to traditional and digital formats, more people read our content than ever before. However, fewer people are buying newspapers and no one has figured out a way of replacing lost revenue from digital content. Rock, meet hard place.
How does the CNC work into this equation? Engagement is now the name of the game for forward-thinking media companies. If you cannot count on people to buy your newspaper or tune into your newscast, you have to figure out new ways of connecting with the broader community. Without that connection, you cannot tell the stories of that community.
Those of us who have waded into the community newsroom have discovered citizen journalism is not about replacing traditional media; it's about finding new ways of telling compelling stories, while enhancing the way we engage with our audience. Previously, journalists were cast out into the community to talk to citizens, discover their stories and then relate them to our audience. Now, professional journalists are working with citizens to identify compelling stories and then providing support to help those citizens play a more direct role in the production and dissemination of those stories.
The Free Press has no exclusive access to CNC content. However, we will be collaborating with citizen contributors to create opportunities for some of the best stories to gain a wider audience through our newspaper and website.
For the Winnipeg Foundation, the CNC has been no less impactful. As one of Canada's oldest private charitable foundations, the Winnipeg Foundation distributes tens of millions of dollars in grants each year to community groups and projects, supporting everything from community revitalization to social services. The CNC, however, is part of the foundation's bid to become more of an activist force in Winnipeg.
"It boils down to a simple concept," said Rick Frost, chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Foundation. "We believe a more engaged and informed community is a more caring community. This is how you build a better community."
Indeed, it's hard to get beyond the fact that in this age of the death of mass media, fewer people vote, volunteer or make charitable donations. Even though the power of the Internet is now at our fingertips through mobile devices, we are somehow less connected to, and concerned about, our community.
The future of the CNC is very bright. This year, more intensive training, regular workshops to discuss and develop story ideas and issue-oriented forums to help push public debate are planned.
For those of us lucky enough to be involved in this project, there will be lots of opportunities to teach. And just as many opportunities to learn.