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The 2010 G20 summit in Toronto marked the first time the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation collaborated with citizen journalists on a large and integrated scale.

In the lead up to the event, we noticed our online community was passionate about the topic. As a public broadcaster, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to tap into that conversation and encourage members of our wider online community to share their perspectives and reflect them back to the rest of the country.

In addition to our extensive TV, radio and online coverage, the CBC News social media team worked with a number of citizen contributors who shared their perspectives on the summit — and the protests — taking place in their city by blogging, tweeting, and filing photos to our website. They also appeared live on CBC News Network, CBC’s 24-hour news channel.

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While CBCNews.ca had produced community initiatives in the past, the G20 project was a key moment in the evolution of our approach to engagement — moving from a user-informed model, to user-driven. In the end, the G20 Street Level blog won a 2010 Canadian Online Publishing Award for Best Community Feature and was a finalist in the Community Collaboration category at the Online News Association’s 2010 Online Journalism Awards.

Eight Lessons

Here are eight lessons our team learned from working citizen contributors on a major and fast-moving news event:

  1. Know why you are working with your citizen contributors: As citizen journalism becomes part of the coverage of our news organization, it’s important to differentiate our offering and create meaningful community editorial. It’s no longer good enough to simply feature a citizen’s content in a silo. To collaborate with our community in unique ways, we must develop clear editorial goals and integrate them into our storytelling. For the G20 Street Level project, our team wrote a project statement, which informed everything from how we communicated our ideas to our internal partners in radio and television, to how we developed our call-outs for contributors and developed the editorial plan.
  2. Expect the unexpected: When you plan an editorial package produced by paid staff or freelancers, you set filing dates and times. Barring any last-minute curve balls, you have a fairly good idea of how your content will roll out. When you’re working with citizen contributors who are volunteering on a project, you can’t — and shouldn’t — make the same demands of them as paid staff. Flexibility and the ability to improvise is key. You will have influence over filing dates, times, volume of content and consistency — but very little control.
  3. Plan what you can: Not having control over certain things isn’t an excuse to not plan. Ultimately, our audience expects us to deliver a consistent, well-rounded experience. To meet this expectation, we devised an editorial plan for our CBC journalists to help make some of those “unknowns” more manageable. We ensured that our blog host and CBC contributors filed every day, and we integrated the citizen content as we received it.
  4. Recruit more volunteers than you think you will need: I’m a big believer in always planning for the worst-case scenario. When our team debated how many contributors to recruit, we realized that there was no “right” answer. My gut told me that more was better than fewer. We ended up with thirteen in total. In the end, having a bigger citizen team paid off, as some contributors filed more content than expected, and others dropped off the radar or had to pull out.
  5. Survey your potential citizen contributors: A few months ago I took part in a Poynter webinar covering credibility and social media in news organizations. They recommended surveying potential citizen contributors before working with them on projects. It’s one of the best tips I’ve received, and now our team uses a survey as part of our standard chase process for these types of collaborations. The survey shouldn’t be long but it should ask specific questions about contributors’ familiarity with the topic, their writing and social media experience, and their technical proficiency and access to tools (cameras, smartphones, laptops). It’s also helpful to ask them to write a bio and tell you the type of stories they’re interested in filing. This last point will clearly illustrate both their potential and commitment level.
  6. Educate your contributors: You may notice volunteers feel a little intimidated after you notify them they’ve been selected to participate in your project. To avoid this, create an open and supportive environment from day one: Take time to call each person and discuss what it’s like to collaborate with your newsroom; demystify terms and processes they may encounter (“graphs”, “cut lines”, and “vetting” will likely sound foreign to them); assure them that no one expects them to be the next Joan Didion or Bob Woodward, and remind them that there are no dumb questions.
  7. Contributions come in all shapes and sizes: In the kick-off call with our G20 contributors, we gave them two pieces of advice: Don’t compare your work to that of our journalists, and don’t get overwhelmed and feel like you have to write feature-length blog entries. It’s key that your contributors are encouraged to tell their stories in the way they’re most comfortable — be it text, photos, tweets or video. During the G20 project, photos capturing breaking news were often more powerful than any number of words could have been.
  8. Be prepared to feed the beast: When working with volunteers, it’s key to get their material up in a timely and consistent manner. The reward for them is their byline and recognition from family and friends; they want to send out links to their work as soon as possible. After notifying a contributor that their submission was live, we’d receive an excited email thanking us and then witness a flurry of activity from their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Be prepared to ramp up on staff and schedule for hours you may not usually work. I didn’t do this and paid the price: Many a late night leading up to the summit was spent in front of my laptop, keeping up with an enthusiastic bunch. In retrospect, it was a great problem to have.

Kim Fox is the senior producer of social media for CBC News. She leads the community team and aids in the development and execution of social media, community management and user engagement strategies. The team garnered international attention and awards for their community features during the Haiti earthquake and G20 global summit.

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