Akron citizen journalism program expands social media training

Communities / Article

Stories of Akron Digital Media Center, via YouTube

Chris Miller is director of the Akron Digital Media Center and a community investment officer with Akron Community Foundation. Below, he writes about an expansion of a citizen journalism training program at the Akron Digital Media Center made possible with support from Knight Foundation.

Where do you go to find breaking news? Chances are, your answer includes some sort of social media app, using some sort of mobile device. Social media has become the new town hall, where residents can interact with public officials, store owners, entertainers and one another from the comfort of their mobile devices, tablets and laptops.

Through the Akron Digital Media Center, we’ve trained more than 1,000 residents in multimedia community journalism and storytelling, from college and high school students to retirees and at-risk populations, such as the homeless and those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Our grassroots program helps inform our community from a ground-level perspective and continues to remove the technological barriers to quality storytelling in the digital age.

The next frontier in our digital efforts is mobile journalism. Thanks to a $125,000 grant from Knight Foundation, we will take our training “on the road,” expanding to neighborhood sites throughout the Greater Akron area, such as branch libraries and community centers.

The program will enable these same residents to create real-time coverage using social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. We also will employ a “train the trainer” blueprint, which will equip residents who train with us to, in turn, train their neighbors, family and friends, with the eventual goal of a neighborhood news and information network that feeds itself without our intervention.

Our focus on mobile media will enable us to rally residents to give a real-time glimpse of live events as they’re happening, using the free resources available on their handheld devices. During a recent all-day music and art festival in downtown Akron, we posted Vine, Instagram and YouTube videos as the first bands took the stage, and we were able to live tweet and post teasers to entice more residents to join the festival later in the afternoon.

With this training, we can help residents transcend their use of everyday devices to lift their community’s information needs, whether it’s organizing and covering town hall meetings, or informing one another of traffic jams, city council news or an interview with an up-and-coming local artist. We want to eventually remove the barrier of a media filter altogether, so neighborhoods can evolve from the typical Facebook posts about food or cats to content that’s crucial to defining a sense of place.

We will continue to offer our citizen journalism classes and use of our computer lab and camera equipment at downtown Akron’s Main Library, along with continuing to operate our storytelling portal at Akronist.com. We also are building a community use production studio at our library location, which will serve as a mobile studio as well, enabling the Akronist to live stream interviews and events throughout the community.

Of course, there will be some challenges to this program, like imparting how to effectively share a story using limited space, whether it’s a character limit or time limit on Vine and Instagram videos. But we welcome the challenge, and believe that this brevity will be effective in meeting the needs of time-starved local media consumers.

Akron has a sense of place like none other. And our connection to Akron Community Foundation—a major program funder that also supports this community media-training program through dedicated staff—allows us the privilege of viewing our community through the lens of philanthropy, nonprofits, social issues, economic development and up-and-coming arts groups. As we continue to collect the stories of Akron, we look forward to what the future holds.