Working with volunteer contributors
By Denise Cheng, The Rapidian
Truth: I’m an impassioned participant on this subject. Andrew Huff and Mary Turck presented on working with volunteer contributors, and it’s the bread and butter of The Rapidian, a civic media site that relies entirely on user-generated content. You might as well have called me Hermione. “Oh, oh!” “Yes, Ms. Granger?” I’ll keep it to a minimum, but here are the takeaways, peppered with my observations.
As user-generated content sites, Andrew and Mary’s publications have really been around the block. Since 2003, about 300 volunteer staffers have walked through Gapers Block‘s doors, and the publication now hovers around 100 volunteer staffers with eight editors at the helm.
Twin Cities Daily Planet is just two years GB’s minor. Its reporter base comprises interns, volunteers, freelancers and professionals, but ultimately, Mary doesn’t grant special privileges based on these distinctions.
Together, Mary and Andrew focused on working with volunteer reporters and untrained writers. The key takeaways from the breakout session can be charted into four broad points:
- Provide reporters with the tools they need and information on how to use them.
- This could be teaching potential reporters to use your platform and leveraging PR/your group’s reputation to gain access to information.
- It could be conducting citizen journalism workshops or providing cheap media tools like Flip Cams.
- Keep reporters engaged, cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility for the platform (Rah, rah! We’re all in this together!).
- If you’re the assigning sort of news agency, keep an open dialogue about assignments and also make room for your reporters to initiate and contribute their own ideas.
- Offer incentives for folks to come to training workshops. This could be happy hour, swag, pulling strings for admission to events in exchange for coverage, providing reporter notepads.
- Be extremely responsive. Andrew is nearly always available via instant messaging. Both Andrew and Mary are available by phone and email. It’s time intensive, and both facilitators chalked it up to nonprofit life.
- Be very understanding of time because you are one of many priorities competing for each volunteer’s attention.
- Assignments will fall through. GB and TCDP assign prize stories to tried-and-true reporters. Reporters get to that stage by proving their reliability in previous assignments.
- There will be lulls in contribution (August, holiday seasons). Instead of freaking out, continue to be encouraging. These are also great seasons to solicit new contributors.
- Expect attrition. For GB, reporters wax then wane around the three-month, nine-month and year-and-a-half marks.
Why do people contribute content?
- They are passionate, whether it is a topic that can be redirected into a beat or they are issues based.
- It’s a chance to explore the community.
- A way to create a digital journalism portfolio.
- Additionally, as a multimedia platform, The Rapidian has found that some contributors want to push the boundaries of information presentation. Text, video, audio and photo submissions are baseline, and every once in a while, contributors take it further by presenting information via comics, graphic design and leveraging free interactive tools (i.e.: Google Maps, Wordle).
The most bang for your buck: Where can you start cultivating contributors?
- Those who want to build a portfolio (students, transitioning professionals)
TCDP makes a distinction between assigned reporting and blogging section. Both have editors on staff in different paid capacities and The Rapidian emphasizes its editorial mentorship process, but however editing is approached, all of the outlets have found that contributors’ subsequent content improve with each round.
There were many differences in detail between the two publications that reflect the differences in the hyperlocal mediascape, from who is targeted in recruitment to publication scope. We spoke about the importance of actively listening to volunteers (one of the most effective ways The Rapidian does this is by inviting inactive reporters to our offices for a one-on-one, judgment-free interview of their experience) because often times, we find that even though they don’t know how to articulate concisely what they want, they have something valuable to tell us about our process and platform. Maybe it doesn’t result in content, but it’s creating space for a possible pay-off in the future.
This is a topic with no end, so let’s share instead: What are some of your most effective practices to engage volunteers?