By Susan Mernit
In the hardscrabble city of Akron, staffers at the Akron Community Foundation are putting the finishing touches on of The Akronist, a citizen media web site that will give local citizens both the tools and a platform to make their voices heard.
Back in 2009, Akron Community Foundation VP Donae Eckert applied for a Knight Community Information Challenge. The ask? Matching funding for a project whose goal was to provide residents in Akron and the Northeast Ohio region with a training academy and a citizen-journalism website where residents could publish, read and comment on locally produced features on critical issues and share news and information about what was happening in their city.
Fast-forward to spring 2011, and the Akron Community Foundation’s dream is becoming a reality. The Akronist, the ACF’s new citizen journalist web site, officially launches soon.
Chris Miller, the project manager and defacto editor who is dedicated to the project has been working full time for months to get the site built, get the training programs up and running, and get a basic content plan in place. “It’s exciting to see the web site take shape,” says Miller, who worked with a team of locals to come up with the name The Akronist. “But what’s really going to be great is getting local people to start being regular contributors as we go live.”
As a broad-based site with an ambitious social agenda, The Akronist (and Chris) aim to cover Akron as broadly as possible, publishing both original reporting from local residents and partner content from local non-profits. Education, arts and culture, sports and community calendar items are some of the areas of focus to start. Users can click on a home page that offers both local news and events and an interactive map that clicks into Akron’s 20+ neighborhoods, allowing users to zero in on their community, see what stories are focused there, and answer a call to action to become neighborhood reporters and contributors.
“Some of how the site evolves will depend on the areas of interest of the users we attract,” says Miller. “We’ve built a site that can handle stories, photos, events and video across a range of neighborhoods and a wide variety of topics, and now it’s time to start to get it populated.”
One of Miller’s tactics for bulding that content pipeline is the training program, which offers hands-on learning in using multimedia, writing, and publishing online. Participants—both youth and adults—are trainined in digital technology and content creation, working on actual projects they can then publish to the site.
According to Donae Eckert, “Students will generate news, features, documentaries and production work for a broadcast network and portal that will combine social networking with community information and entertainment.”
Whether it’s a a 10-minute piece on sustainable green living or a live concerts, video, a report on a government roundtables or a community meetings, students will be able to use The Akronist as the platform to get their views heard.
The Akronist is also teaming up with another Knight Community Information Challenge project, TheNewsOutlet at Youngstown State University, to produce stories about local food deserts in the region, Eckert said. Youngstown students will produce articles about the problem while citizen journalists will contribute video from the street.
In Akron, a citiy where digital divide issues are real and traditional media is fielding its own challenges, The Akronist has the potential to provide a much-needed platform to share information and discuss issues. Not only can the site drill down on the hyper-local neighborhood events local papers no longer cover, it gives contributors a place to share views and reflect on issues.
Over time, says Eckert, there’s the potential to use the site and the training program to take advantage of the broadband wireless corridor (another Knight-supported project) that runs through Akron’s downtown and to shed some positive light on local events in the area, a rust-belt city whose revitalization efforts don’t always have a chance to shine.
“The Akronist is another way we can serve the community,” says Miller, who is already gathering a pool of contributors and partners for the soft launch. “Akron has a spirit of innovation this project is going to tap, and a need to get very local news out that our citizen journalist contributors can fill.”