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J-Lab’s Lessons Learned from 55 Citizen News Projects

This from a speech by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director:

J-Lab has funded 55 projects since 2005 with small grants, about $25,000. Many of these efforts sought to train citizens to generate stories for the site. Some were university projects. Others were launched by so-called “civic catalysts” – those bumblebees that pollinate a lot of community groups and carry a lot of knowledge about their communities.

Here are five of our key takeaways:

* Citizen journalism is a high-churn, high-touch enterprise: Citizen journalism math is working out this way: Fewer than one in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors. Even then, they may be “regular” for only a short period of time. Projects that counted on citizens to produce content had to develop alternative plans for stories or they struggled with little compelling content. Our recommendation is to tease out, rather than train in advance, these contributors.
* Sweat equity is key: Projects built on the grit and passion and community knowledge of a particular founder or corps of founders have created the most promising models for sustainability.
* Social media is game changing: Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools are ushering in a New Age for Community News, creating robust recruiting, marketing, distribution, collaboration, reporting and funding opportunities that can put a new startup on the map with the speed of light.
* The academic calendar is not good enough: University-led projects built with student journalists need to operate year-round to avoid losing momentum and community trust. They hold great promise but must surmount great hurdles.
* Hyperlocal sites are not a business yet: There is great demand for local news and information but the supply is very fragile. Many of the projects that we funded are volunteer efforts. But others definitely want to be able to pay salaries and health benefits and build sustaining operations.

She adds:

We emerge from this stage of our grant experiences with some recommendations ¬both for startup community news sites and those who wish to support them:

* Try everything. Keep what works and redo what doesn’t.
* Remember that the community doesn’t only want news; it also wants connections.
* Think of your task as not just covering community, but building it as well.

You can see her slides below or read the full speech here.

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