Chi-Town Daily News ditches “just journalists” model

By Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva
TC Daily Planet
June 02, 2008

“Community Organizer” is a staff title you won’t see at the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. A community organizer is just one of the things, though, that make Chi-Town Daily News different than other newspapers. The online newspaper also focuses solely on Chicago’s neighborhoods, and uses both professional and “citizen” journalists.

Chi-Town citizen journalists—Chicago residents who volunteer their time to write for the Chi-Town Daily News—are generally not trained in journalism. According to Geoff Dougherty, editor of Chi-Town Daily News, the goal of citizen journalism is to promote civic engagement through writing. Dougherty, who previously worked for the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and St. Petersburg Times, says the newspaper has its hands full finding enough volunteers to cover each of Chicago’s seventy-seven neighborhoods. While the Chi-Town Daily News relies on citizen journalists, they also use trained journalists in their reporting and depend on both to cover Chicago neighborhoods.

Then there’s a matter of training the volunteers. Chi-Town Daily News requires citizen journalists go through an intensive training process. While this process doesn’t amount to professional training, Chi-Town Daily News tries to give citizen journalists a springboard for reporting. “We have found that this gives people the basic skills and you can give people enough grounding so that all the building blocks of the story are there,” Dougherty said.

This brings up a major question about citizen journalism: can citizen journalists write stories that are properly written and vetted? Dougherty thinks about this frequently and links the answer to training and preparation. Making sure that citizen journalists are credible weighs heavily on Dougherty, and he sees some sort of fall out as inevitable. But Dougherty points out that this can happen even in the mainstream media. ‘If the New York Times can hire Jayson Blair, it means something, sometime can go awry anywhere.”

Dougherty has faith in the editing process Chi-Town Daily News has put in place. He brought up the example of Kimberly Michaelson, a citizen journalist who had written for the Chi-Town Daily News. Michaelson called Dougherty one day to alert him about an incident of police brutality she had heard about in her neighborhood. Michaelson expected Dougherty to send a professional reporter to the scene, but she ended up reporting the story herself because Chi-Town was light on reporters that day. Dougherty and other Chi-Town Daily News staff prepped Michaelson to cover the story before she went out in the field.

“What we got back was one of the most thorough reporting jobs I’ve seen in my career,” Dougherty said. “[Michaelson] had developed a spreadsheet with lists of various witnesses, their full names, whether they were on or off the record, and whether each witness’s statement corroborated each other.” The story provoked heated reader comments on a touchy subject, one that Dougherty and Michaelson saw as important.

[Read Kimberly Michaelson’s story here. http://www.chitowndailynews.org/Chicago_news/Exclusive_Cops_pounded_boys_head_into_pole

Citizen journalism isn’t always as thorough as it was in Michaelson’s case and Dougherty thinks constantly about the future of the Chi-Town Daily News, which is funded largely through grants. For the moment, though, the Chi-Town staff is fine-tuning a new model of journalism.

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