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Citizen Journalism

What is quality in Citizen Journalism?  It’s about the same as in any writing. There are some sites that offer many tips and good practices that are worth reading, linked to here.  They are often contradictory and play to different agendas, so it’s hard to sort out.  Here is my opinion of what makes good writing, but a good reporter’s first job is to do a little research and decide what makes sense to them.

I’ll start with a scenario: Boron Chemicals wants a new truck transfer station in the Douglas neighborhood, and the process requires “community input”.

The Five Ws: Who, what, when, where, and why.  Every useful article has to answer these questions.  They are what your writing is about and the reason why it should be read.  You may find a checklist of these items useful to organize your thinking, but that may seem dry and dull.  No matter what, read your stuff over when you’re done to make sure you answer these questions.

Who?  Boron Chemicals and the residents of Douglas.  What?  A meeting billed as a “Listening Session”.  When?  Last Tuesday night.  Where?  The VFW.  Why?  It is required by the City’s permit process.  Specific details are essential.

Meat First: This is also called the “inverted pyramid” of journalism.  State what the article is about and what the reader needs to know in the first paragraph so that the reader knows why they should read it.  The details of how it all went down have the same context that the participants have when you do it right, putting the reader in the scene.  In this example, the meat is the meeting and as many of the Five Ws as you can put into place.

Do your Homework: Your job is to provide context for people who need to know something but weren’t in on the situation.  Why do they want this transfer station?  Why this location?  Details like this can make the article write itself.  The best homework is going to happen before an event, but that’s not always possible.  In the example, you might talk to the organizers group in opposition to Boron in advance, but the people from Boron might be harder to find beforehand.  Whatever you can do to understand what will go down will help you cover it.

Let the Participants Talk: You’re not going to be objective because you never see everything.   You can be a blank slate that those who are speaking, whether in power or on the outside, get to say their piece.  Some people will advise you to be objective, some will not, so this is controversial.  I say that if you give voice to everyone equally you’ll do about as well as you can.  In this example, tell the world what happened at the meeting as plainly as possible.  Try to avoid too much color, such as “He shouted in reply” or “She became noticeably angry” unless you are sure that it’s not going to be controversial.

One technique that works well is to e-mail people that are prominent in the event with questions as detailed as you can.  If they write back to you, you can simply cut and paste their words in their own voice precisely.  That will take some time, so an old-fashioned phone call may be a lot easier.  In this example, you might wait until you see who speaks the loudest at the meeting and who answers them for Boron Chemical, writing afterwards to ask them to clarify their remarks.  Most people want to clarify what they didn’t say all that eloquently, so you’ll have to be careful – but you will probably get some good stuff.

Once you’ve stated what the piece is about, stay with it.  No extra stuff, no matter how good it seems.  It’s that simple.

If you use these techniques too carefully, you may find that your work is a bit boring. You may have to accept this because brevity is often important when you have only so much space in a newspaper for your story.  What is important here is that if you are writing to inform people you have to be clear what the story is about and cover the Five Ws carefully.  The rest is largely a matter of style and space, so your mileage may vary.