How to Produce Groundbreaking Journalism on the Cheap

    by Victoria Fine
    September 7, 2011

    i-659dac3221ea0916ca4bf7a5b18be2a8-tiziano project.jpg

    We at The Tiziano Project were shocked and honored last week to be named as finalists for the 2011 Online Journalism Awards in the categories of General Excellence in Online Journalism – Micro Site and Community Collaboration.

    The Tiziano Project provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment, training and affiliations necessary to report their stories and improve their lives. We’re nominated for our citizen journalism site, 360 | Kurdistan, a project that was produced on a shoestring budget, with a group of incredibly talented volunteers.


    When I say shoestring, I mean it — during our three months in Iraq, our web developer programmed more than 2,000 lines of code from a mat on the floor of our garage apartment in Erbil. By the end of our trip, we were rationing pancake mix for our meals and had just barely enough to hitch a ride out of Northern Iraq.

    i-a00d942c7f31812f216e7e6617100df3-Chris-PhotoA.jpg Kurdistan in code: The Tiziano Project’s director of technology, Chris Mendez, spent two months developing our site from a garage in Erbil, Iraq.

    Now, our tiny organization is competing with some pretty big (and historically better-funded) fish, including CNN, NPR, Yale and the University of Miami.


    I’m asked a lot how we’ve managed to produce community journalism programs that place our work among such admirable company. My answer? When it comes to training, you don’t have to be big to be great.

    We’ve realized that foundations of groundbreaking journalism projects have a lot less to do with a packed wallet and more with paying attention. Because The Tiziano Project can’t afford to make the mistakes of larger organizations — building complicated news platforms or shipping off boxes of technology into the great unknown — we’ve been able to simplify our method to success with a few basic tenets.

    key success factors

    1. Be where you’re wanted. Want to know why community news often doesn’t work? It’s because many projects launch without considering who they’re reporting on or with. Most importantly, citizen journalism shouldn’t be an answer to cheap news production. Before you start thinking about a new project, make sure the community members you’re working with want the project, are supportive of it, and are willing to help. If they’re not, don’t waste your time or money.

    Communities that really want a reporting initiative in their area are often eager to make the program work. If your organization is on a tight budget, you shouldn’t be afraid to turn to the community you’re serving for resources — whether it’s sharing a workspace, administrative duties, equipment or connections. These things don’t cost much, but can be a huge boon to the project’s ultimate success.

    2. Collaborate. We can’t stress this enough. Along with partnering with the community you’re serving, you should be looking to partner with other organizations that are doing similar or complementary things to save money, time and resources. For better or worse, citizen journalism projects are a dime a dozen, and many are teaching and distributing similar things.

    The Tiziano Project was formed several years ago, when citizen journalism was the latest buzzword that was going to “save” the journalism industry. Over time, we had to take a hard look at ourselves and figure out what set us apart.

    What we noticed was that nonprofit journalism organizations were treating each other like competing publications, rather than groups working toward a common goal. They were keeping their training materials and resources proprietary, and remained secretive about future plans.

    It seemed silly to us — after all, we’re working on donor money to improve people’s lives, not fatten our paychecks. So we decided to open-source everything — our training materials, the stories we produce, even the websites we build to house them. With our recent Knight Foundation grant, we’re working to make even more technology available for other nonprofit citizen journalism groups to use. It’s been a very successful strategy for us — because we give everything away, people keep coming back for more.

    So figure out what you have to offer, and be the first to give things away to other organizations and groups that need them. You’ll be surprised to find how much they can offer you in return.

    3. Leave your parachute behind. In whatever community your reporting project is in, remember that you’re there to help that community tell their stories, not what you think they should tell.

    Our executive director, Jon Vidar, often tells this story: The first time The Tiziano Project went to Iraq, our instructors prepared a list of reporting topics they thought their students could choose from to get the project off the ground. Not surprisingly, the students had many more, much better ideas. When we let the students run with them, everyone was delighted with what they produced.

    Also, don’t be afraid of good news. Our second program of Iraqi students were eager to tell us they were sick of the doom and gloom stories that were coming out of their country. They wanted the world to know that Iraq was more than suicide bombings — it was a place full of family picnics and spontaneous dancing, elaborate weddings, and intimate friendships. These kinds of stories don’t make headlines, but they make an impression. Our student’s story on Kurdish breakdancers remains one of the most popular on our site.

    4. Forget what you know about journalism. Let the situation inform how you teach storytelling and the value of the tools you provide.

    Like many of my colleagues, I am used to teaching basic journalistic structures. But in some places, media resembles nothing like what we in the West know. It’s important to show students how to tell a great story, and then help them adapt it to the media structures popular in their region.

    go beyond traditional journalism

    Two personal anecdotes underscore that:

    In Northern Iraq, opinion pieces are just as, if not more, popular than traditional news stories. This comes partly from the strong political party ties to major news outlets there, but even self-proclaimed “independent” sources maintain the bent toward opinion writing. So it baffled our Iraqi students, many of whom had worked with regional news outlets, when we told them to stop editorializing their pieces. We worked with them to get beyond traditional journalism structures and craft opinion pieces that compelled readers based on great narration and strong facts — a simple twist on the usual master class, but one that helped them dive back into their jobs with gusto and accuracy.

    Another quick story — on a side job while in Iraq, I had the privilege of teaching a group of Southern Iraqi politicians about social media for their upcoming campaigns through a local NGO (non-governmental organization). The lesson was supposed to be a straight-out technical workshop, to give them the basics on how to set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, and how to use them to promote their messages and hear from their constituents. But about 15 minutes into the lecture, one politician raised his hand and challenged me: “Why do they need to hear our voice? The party decides everything anyway.” Actually, this guy was right — until that point, elections had always been party-based, rather than the public voting for an individual leader.

    Suddenly our lesson on new media wasn’t about how to have their voices heard in a new way, it was about the value of their voices to begin with. Needless to say, the direction of the lecture drastically changed for the remainder of the day and proved a lot more productive for the participants.

    Reading a situation and teaching accordingly doesn’t cost money. But I often speak to people who have participated in citizen journalism and storytelling classes who feel like their needs weren’t met for their situations.

    Instead, I think it’s our first responsibility as trainers to shut up and listen.

    5. Find out what the community wants from it. Who has spent 15 minutes working in journalism without someone asking: “Is it dead?” I always reply with “Yes. If it weren’t, The Tiziano Project wouldn’t be here.”

    It isn’t worth teaching journalism if you hope that every student becomes a professional journalist. You might as well train people how to repair typewriters and printing presses. But new media journalism skills can set people up solidly in careers that are rewarding and lucrative — from wedding photography to corporate communications. Find out what place the skills you’re teaching have in the community your students are in and teach to that end, not just to have a nice portfolio of work when the program is over.

    6. Work around ideas first, money later. As my colleague Chris Mendez says often, there has been no greater time in the history of journalism that has had more opportunity for reinvention than now. There have never been easier tools or greater accessibility for the “everyman” to reach a large audience. So it’s time for everyone to start thinking more wildly and creatively about how they want to consume news and stories.

    do it bigger and better

    We’ve gotten a lot of credit for making really creative projects, but it’s only because there’s no one to tell us no — and because a lot of people, especially the ones whose stories we’re helping to tell, are encouraging us to do it bigger, better and differently from everyone else.

    It doesn’t cost anything to start a serious discussion with your colleagues, your students and your audience about reinventing storytelling — how it’s presented and valued. Then, it’s just a matter of gathering together the right people who share your fundamental dedication to hard work and big goals to make something that’s worth going to the ONAs for.

    If you’d like to learn more about how we teach new media, we welcome you to join us for a pre-conference workshop at ONA on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 1:30 p.m. EDT. We’ll be teaching the basics of multimedia and would be happy to start a brand-new conversation.

    Hope to see you there!

    Tagged: 360 kurdistan Budget citizen journalism Iraq journalism best practices journalism tutorials new media journalism ona11 the tiziano project

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