Experimenting with issue-oriented content

This week's post from my CCTV blog.
Background: Neighbor 2 Neighbor is one of the major projects I'll be working on this year. N2N will give Cambridge residents the opportunity to cover neighborhood issues as citizen journalists. Our goal is to create monthly cable programming and an online database of hyper-local multimedia content (with special attention to our Google-generated media map). It's funded in part by a J-Lab grant.

Now that Neighbor 2 Neighbor is beginning to take shape, we’ve been reaching out to community activists to help us continue the process of recruiting, as well as to enlighten us with their issue-area expertise. Discussion of technical skills is taking a backseat to the looming question of content.

One question that came up: Does the focus of all media produced for N2N have to be issue-oriented? In theory, that’s supposed to be a core value of the program, so it should always be a primary goal; we’re realizing, however, that there’s more than one way to approach issues-oriented citizen journalism.

In order to explore these methods, I’m going to produce two very different short pieces that both address community issues, but in opposite ways. As I go through the production process, I’ll be taking notes as a reference for our citizen-journalists-to-be. The emphasis of Neighbor 2 Neighbor reports should be on conception and distribution; production value comes second. An effective strategy for generating community engagement is the most critical component of our citizen media. Production can be quick-n-easy. (Think about the cell-phone videos that you see on the nightly news because the big-time producers just weren’t there.)

One of my experimental videos will be directly issue-driven. It involves the future of a small community, but it speaks to a much larger issue. And for the affected individuals, this issue threatens their living situation. So it’s one small place with a very serious issue that requires a lot of attention…and you can see how that would drive more content on the same topic.

The other one will be a positive story that could be considered indirectly issue-driven -- a profile of the owners of a popular venue in the same neighborhood. Singling out one super-successful business can illuminate the landscape of businesses in Cambridge that can’t keep afloat, and it begs the question of how businesses can thrive. Its power extends beyond that of traditional journalism because a survey of customers on any given night wouldn’t necessarily provide the insight that an online portal for active, interested citizens would.

Both stories are geographically-focused, and would be important additions to the media map: one because it is such a powerful story, and the other because it would attract a lot of attention – and the greater the reach, the more potential for having an impact by striking an unexpected chord.

Another question that came up this week was about objectivity. Can our citizen journalists be opinionated? This is not an easy one to answer. We want to encourage individual voices, and stimulate discussion; but at the same time, we must preserve journalistic integrity. So, if one citizen journalist deeply editorializes, then another citizen should contribute an opposing viewpoint to round out the picture. Citizen journalism is all about free speech, but it’s important that our project allows people to see both sides of each issue covered.

Comment from Kevin Palmer on August 13, 2007 - 11:03am

It's awesome you're creating media to explore the potential of citizen journalism instead of just postulating. That's as experimental as media gets. But in the most pragmatic way. Very cool.

Do you have any information, research or resources on citizen journalism? It would be great to get some of that up on the CTC VISTA wiki. Every PEG access station I've come across is dealing in some way with exactly what you're talking about.

If you've got time you should swing by Boston Neighborhood Network (BNN) and check out the summer youth program that AJ McGuire and Julie Bohnlein (both current VISTAs). Essentially it's citizen journalism for youth. Contact AJ and he'll fill you in on the details.

Keep remediating those blog posts/field reports!