A lot of the interest in citizen journalism over the past few years has been related to economics. Sign up a bunch of users on your site, get them to write stuff, sell ads along side the free content, retire early.
While some content that comes in this way is impeccably written and delightfully newsworthy, most is not. So news organizations interested in publishing quality content, and hoping to do it for free, are bound to be disappointed.
Partnering with citizen journalists to produce great neighborhood coverage involves money, and sometimes a lot of it. The journalists need training, and each story requires an editor’s close attention all the way through the process, from generating ideas to dotting the final “i”.
At various points during our year-long experiment with citizen journalism, I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t be more economical to simply pay experienced journalists to cover Chicago neighborhoods for us.
But some cocktail-napkin calculations show otherwise.
Right now, we’re working on plans for Phase Two of our citizen journalism program. It’ll provide Chicago readers with at least one story a week from each of our city’s 77 neighborhoods. We’re shooting for about 5,000 stories a year.
To produce that coverage, we’ll be recruiting more than 300 citizen journalists, training them, facilitating monthly story meetings in their neighborhoods, and assigning each journalist to work closely with a pro editor.
How much does it cost? We’re still hashing out the budget. But it’s not likely to exceed half a million bucks a year, even when you factor in marketing and recruiting costs. Our cost per story will likely be between $90 and $125. Costs for the first year of our program have been similar.
By contrast, we pay our freelancers $125 or more per story. That number doesn’t include editing time or overhead related to recruiting and managing those freelancers. With those expenses, freelance stories cost us between $160 and $200. So citizen journalism is clearly an economic win.
The benefits go beyond economics, though.
Each one of the 60 or so citizen journalists working for us is an advocate for our site. They tell their friends and family about what we do, which helps drive traffic and recruit other volunteers.
On a personal level, they combat the image of reporters and news organizations as elitists stuck in the ivory tower. It’s hard not to like the press when the reporting on your neighborhood is done by your neighbors.
And in terms of civic engagement, we’re getting dozens of people involved in their communities, attending school council meetings, interviewing their aldermen, and writing about zoning issues.
So there’s a wealth of social benefits that come along with citizen journalism. And it’s hard work. And yes, it’s cheaper than paying reporters. But not as cheap as you thought.