Citizen journalism: here to stay, says Northern Echo

Posted on September 6th, 2009 by Bernie Russell

Press Gazette reported on September 4 that the Northern Echo wants to hire “30 members of the public as contributors to its ultra-local websites“.

Long-term plan
The recruitment drive is part of a long-term plan by the Echo to “increase the amount of ultra-local content on its websites”,  according to assistant editor Nigel Burton.

The new recruits, who range from 17 to 70, will file about three stories a week. They’ll get training in photography, story structure and the site’s content management system.

Each correspondent usually has a journalist mentor, who will be a staffer with several years experience, as a point of contact if they have any problems. And, yes, they get paid.

Not about cost
Nigel Burton was adamant that the project is not about cost, saying “this is definitely not a move to replace our writers with so-called citizen journalists”.

“I cannot see a time when a paper like The Northern Echo would resort to using news submitted by reporters who have no formal NCTJ training.”

Augmented actuality
He makes the point that the Echo has the largest circulation area of any regional newspaper in the country, and that the staffers just couldn’t cover an area that size in detail. The network of local correspondents will augment news coverage by providing “ultra-local news on our community micro-sites”.

And the community has responded positively, though he concedes that there’s a problem with churn, and the Echo needs to keep pushing for new blood.

But, hearteningly, he says that people are keen to write for their local paper.

Talent-spotting
He also said that this is another way to find good journalists, saying that “we have identified three correspondents who have the talent to go all the way, and have held discussions to see if they are interested in the NCTJ pre-entry course”.

J-schools
What about the implications for journalism education? Does it mean we should look more closely at developing networking  and communication skills, maybe even training and project management skills, as well as production skills?

Maybe, says Nigel Burton. But the production skills remain key, especially internet and multimedia skills:

“I think it’s more important to make certain students have a really good understanding of the internet and multi-media. The Echo always looks for people capable of filming and editing video/podcasts etc, as well as crafting a neat turn of phrase or two!”

Next move?
This is obviously a development we need to monitor and respond to in our curriculum development. Note also the stress on NCTJ standards and web skills.

Perhaps we need a brief survey of other local newspapers which could include looking at content, talking to correspondents, etc.?

Full interview
You can read Nigel Burton’s answers in full here:

Q: What level of response are you getting?
Generally, very good. We usually “recruit” about 30-odd community correspondents every six months. The problem is keeping hold of them! There’s a distinct churn – people sign up then find it’s not for them – so we have to keep pushing for new blood all the time.
Q: Are local people enthusiastic about the idea?
Yes. The like the idea of writing for their local paper and, I suspect, describing themselves as part-time journalists to friends and family. They also like the fact that they get paid!
Q: Any indication of the kinds of people who are interested?
Surprisingly they are pretty much across the board. The youngest is 17, the oldest just past retirement age. Generally, though, we are seeing older people who have retired (or lost their job) taking on the role part-time.
Q: Is this an experiment, or is this a long-term plan for the newspaper?
It’s a long term plan. Newsquest as a group wants to increase the amount of ultra-local content on its websites. Various centres have done it differently. The favoured (and easiest) model is to divert some of the local newspaper content, written by professional journalists, and repackage it as “news from your village” etc. But I take the view that the best ultra-local content always comes from people actually embedded in a community. Recruiting local people also strengthens the link between that community and the newspaper.
Q: Any economic reasons for the move?
None. Like every paper we’re facing tough times, but this is definitely not a move to replace our writers with so-called citizen journalists. I cannot see a time when a paper like The Northern Echo would resort to using news submitted by reporters who have no formal NCTJ training. Until fairly recently, the minimum criteria to work here was having three years as a senior on an evening paper. That said, we have identified three correspondents who have the talent to go all the way, and have held discussions to see if they are interested in the NCTJ pre-entry course.
Q: How is this better than sending journalists out to talk to people in  their own locality?
We do both. The Echo has around 40 journalists (not including subs and photographers) and they all have local patches to cover. But our circulation area ranges from Cumbria, through Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside, County Durham and North Yorkshire – the largest of any morning regional newspaper in the country. It would be unrealistic to expect our staff to be able to cover such a large area in minute detail. Instead, they concentrate on the bigger stories. The sort of ultra-local news on our community micro-sites isn’t guaranteed to get in the paper; although we see a need for it, which is why we have created an area on our website where space is not an issue.
Q: What will the relationship of the staffers (editorial and reporters)   to the new contributors?
We’ve had no problems. Usually a correspondent has a journalist mentor – a staffer with several years experience – who is their point of contact if they have any problems, issues or need pointing in the right direction. In fact, several correspondents have tipped our staff reporters off about big stories. One even supplied a p.1 picture!
Q: Do you think this has implications for journalism education? E.g., should we be looking at equipping students to to work with networks of people like this by, say, looking at networking skills, communication skills, maybe even training and project management skills, as well as writing/production skills?
That’s an interesting question. I think in order to be a good journalist you need excellent social skills and the confidence to communicate well. The evolution of community correspondents, with their particular needs, will put those skills to good use. I think it’s more important to make certain students have a really good understanding of the internet and multi-media. The Echo always looks for people capable of filming and editing video/podcasts etc, as well as crafting a neat turn of phrase or two!

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3 Responses to “Citizen journalism: here to stay, says Northern Echo”

  1. RickWaghorn says:

    All v interesting, but why stop with multi-media training, neat turns of phrases, etc.. surely we all need to sell for our supper these days…

    http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk/?p=319

    Best, etc

  2. Nigel Burton says:

    Hi Rick,
    You make some interesting points but I’m not sure I can see eye-to-eye with all of them.
    The argument for not using our community correspondents to sell ads is the same one for not using them to replace our full-time journalists: we employ professionals to do both.
    As I say in the Q & A our micro-sites are not about replacing our staffers with so-called citizen journalists. It’s about providing coverage the paper could never hope to because of the size of our patch. The happy side-effect is to build a closer rapport between the paper and the local community.
    It also brings us closer to our readers (and our community corrs are first, and foremost, readers).
    Of course, if they were approached by a small business wanting to place an ad I would be delighted if they passed the contact on to our ad dept.

    Similarly, there is no demarcation line in The Northern Echo newsroom between journalists and ad reps – and there hasn’t been for at least a decade.
    Advertising take part in editorial planning meetings every week, we regularly swap tip offs and our editor is an expert at spotting a commercial opportunity.
    However, I don’t think we will ever see a “Jack-of-all-trades” – the potential conflict of interest between someone who writes the news and someone who sells advertising to a company that may be in the news (for the wrong reasons) is too great.
    Then again, maybe I’m just old-fashioned!!
    Nice to see such a considered reply to my Q&A tho!

    Best wishes,

    Nigel

  3. [...] Is this a reasonable model. The Guardian seems to have something along these lines in mind; and there’s this scheme up and running at the Northern Echo. [...]

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