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Chicago Metro News: Introducing "Shovel-Ready Journalism"

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A panel including three individuals came together to discuss metro news in Chicago with nonprofit communicators, volunteers and staff in and around Chicago during a major community conference held on June 8th and 9th. The individuals from Chicago news organizations provided an example of the reality that the news business has been drastically changing.

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Cate Cahan from Chicago Public Radio WBEZ, Fernando Diaz from Hoy Chicago, Patrick Curry from WGN News and moderator Valerie Denney from Denney Communications all began the panel with the intention of helping an audience of people from nonprofits better understand how to get their nonprofit organization's story into the news and raise their profile. But, the more they talked, the more the following meme emerged: "Report your own story."

I attended the panel session as a volunteer for Community Media Workshop and was very hesitant to take issue with the course of conversation during the discussion. I was not a nonprofit hoping to gain something. I was an observer with a fair amount of knowledge of shifting trends in media and an interest in the future of journalism in America.

Cahan reasonably suggested that nonprofits "find out who reporters are" so that the right person to cover a story could be found. She then suggested that nonprofits could videotape what they do and mentioned that they could record audio for a "soundbite of the day." And, she suggested people take photos as well.

This could be posted on the organization's website so that when nonprofits sent emails requesting coverage from a news organization that news organization could go to the website and mine it for content for their story on the nonprofit.

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Curry provided a valuable tip and reminded nonprofits to make sure video recorded is "visual" so it could be aired. He also went along with the idea of reporting on your nonprofit organization and then posting it or submitting it to the news organization so it could be picked up.

He mentioned that the WGN station "cut file tape from YouTube" when they could not get out into the field to develop a story or don't want to go out and develop a story and he said the "more work you do for us, the easier it is to put it on."

I had known that journalism was in trouble but never had I seen it laid out so clear right before my eyes. The people on the panel weren't exhibiting a sense of journalistic duty and integrity so much as they were demonstrating that news is now about management (and public relations). And, if community can fit into a news organization's limited budget for management of operations, then news would be happy to include the nonprofits.

The panelists urged nonprofits to have volunteers or perhaps even paid staff produce video, audio, or print content on the organization that told the organization's story. The panelists then, collectively, hoped the nonprofits would give the work they did for the news organizations to air or publish.

I call it "shovel-ready journalism." The panelists didn't want to dig deep beneath the surface and produce "news that matters" but rather showed a preference for not taking any risks on covering Chicago that might break the news organization's bank or might require individuals do extra work.

A prime example of this came from Diaz, who shared with the audience how Hoy Chicago was going to increase readership by covering the World Cup with a spin that the entertainment editor had developed. During the World Cup, they would cover the "Dream Team" but not the best soccer players. They would put up pictures on the Internet that would have players, and the pictures would have titles attached like "Best Player to Take to the Swimming Pool" and "Best Player to Take Home to Mom," etc.

How this would promote "news that matters" or community values I don't know. It certainly is shovel-ready. Anyone can get pictures of soccer players and create a "Best-Of" list with a sensationalized twist that will lure readers in. HuffingtonPost does this all the time in their entertainment section.

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The major conference was "Making Media Connections," a conference annually put on by Community Media Workshop to give nonprofit communicators, volunteers and staff responsible for telling their group's story and opportunity to network and connect with journalists looking for stories "off the beaten path."

The panel showed that nonprofits should really ask themselves, "What do we gain from these news organizations by giving them content?" If nonprofits have a way to get traffic to their content without these established Chicago news organizations, it almost seems like they should consider doing that instead. However, I am not a nonprofit communicator nor am I a staff member of a Chicago metro news organization.

Journalists working with a for-profit model may not be able to benefit the community as much as a nonprofit especially if the news organization's bottom line and the reality of a fragile economy significantly influences business decision-making. I suggest the conversation on how nonprofits and journalists produce "news that matters" together continues (as I expect it will because Community Media Workshop is such a valuable and successful organization).

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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