Earlier this year, Journal Register Company, parent company of Heritage Media, managed by Digital First Media, solicited proposals from staffers interested in starting a Community Media Lab. I jumped on it right away, with input from my staff, and put together a proposal with a modest $4,100 start-up budget and monthly operating expenses of $290. In May, Steve Buttry, our community engagement and social media director, announced our newsroom, which covers eight communities and is based in Saline, Mich., was one of 12 approved this year for funding.
While it was an honor to be one of the chosen ones, which means we will get new equipment and technology to make it easier, I had actually decided in March that opening a Community Media Lab would be my latest ideaLab project, and the lab unofficially opened in April at 215 W. Michigan Ave. at the SPARK-East building in Ypsilanti. SPARK is a business incubator that agreed to allow us to host our lab in the lobby of the building, where we’ve set up a blogging station and dedicated Mac, donated by the Eastern Michigan University student-run newspaper, The Eastern Echo, for video editing. There is also classroom space for presentations, with a projector and screen.
I have been guilty of not writing more about this endeavor on my ideaLabHeritage blog because I’ve been quite overwhelmed managing the Community Media Lab, while also managing eight weekly newspapers and the website Heritage.com. Not only did I launch a blog on WordPress to write about our work in the lab, but also a Twitter account and Facebook page. Updating those social media accounts regularly, with help from my staff, while also hosting workshops and helping people in the lab, has kept me busy.
In the last several months, we have hosted five workshops, all led by professionals in the communities we serve and promoted using events pages on Facebook, as well as briefs in print. Freelance writer/copy editor Sarah Rigg led our first workshop May 23 with “What is AP style and why should I care about it;” Char Luttrell, who works in public relations at Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan, led “Working with the news media” May 31; Leslie McGraw, a local blogger, presented “Integrating social media into your professional development” June 8; Renee Collins, a journalism professor at Adrian College, led “Column and narrative writing” June 11; and Kristin Judge, a former county commissioner who speaks on Internet safety issues, moderated “Online Safety” June 27. We used CoverItLive to solicit audience feedback on their presentations and most were shared using the Heritage Community Media Lab channel on UStream for live video and then archived. Their presentations, whether Word documents or PowerPoints, were shared with our online audience using an embed code generated through Scribd.com.
We’ve had between two and 10 people attend in person and an online audience of a couple dozen. My goal is to increase participation and engagement.
Upcoming workshops will feature Eastern Michigan University professor Michael McVey, who will teach participants how to edit audio using the free download Audacity July 18; EMU professor Toni S. Jones will present “Creating docs in Goole Docs” Aug. 3; Arborwiki editor Edward Vielmetti will lead a workshop on creating a city wiki Aug. 16; and Carol Schlagheck, a journalism professor at EMU, will present “Citizen Journalists and FOIA” Aug. 30.
The Educational Media and Technology Department at EMU, as well as Schlagheck and her colleagues and Kevin Devine, adviser to The Eastern Echo, have thrown their support behind the Community Media Lab. They’ve all offered to lead workshops and help spread the word about our efforts.
My staff has also supported the effort. We have a journalist or editor at the Community Media Lab between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with everyone on the news staff working three- to seven-hour shifts. While they are there, they either work with individuals who stop by for help in setting up a social media account, edit a video or learn how to write a press release, for example, or they explore new digital storytelling tools or work on their own content for our newspapers and website. Each is asked to post to the Community Media Lab blog after a shift. Some of our efforts have included helping students in Ypsilanti set up blogs, working with nonprofits to establish a presence on social media and helping a local business owner write a press release about an accomplishment. We’re also available to listen to story ideas from local residents or take suggestions on how we can do a better job covering the news in the community.
While I think we’ve accomplished a lot in the last few months, I feel there is so much work left to do. Beyond hosting workshops, training community contributors and offering our services to the public in general, my Community Media Lab proposal called for recruiting student contributors, community bloggers, photographers, podcasters and videographers. I’d like to establish social media teams, interactive media teams and BlogTalk Radio hosts and share the content on our website. My goal is to enrich our community content online and in print by bringing the outside in the newsroom, so to speak.
I’d love to see more community contributions. While I was a reporter and later editor of The Chelsea Standard and The Dexter Leader, from 1992 to 2006, I enjoyed a close relationship with community members who were actively involved in the newspapers. Teachers sent photographs of students with information about school activities, local service clubs and churches submitted press releases about their upcoming events and community dinners, and readers wrote letters to the editor and guest columns sharing their voices with their neighbors.
I think back to before my time as a journalist and editor, when community newspapers would publish a paragraph on who in town had spotted the first robin of spring or which neighbor was visiting family out of state, and I’d like to see our audience share more of themselves like earlier generations did. Understanding our society has changed and is much more tech savvy, I imagine instead of the first robin of spring, we could view a video of a school classroom’s visit to the Detroit Zoo. Instead of reading about someone’s trip to visit family out of town, we could read a blog about a local resident working in a Third World country as part of the Peace Corps. Someone who attended the Memorial Day or Fourth of July parade could upload all of their photos from the parade into Flickr and generate a photo slideshow, or produce a video to share with our readers by just sending us the embed code.
There are so many possibilities for our readers to get involved and contribute, and I am excited to offer the Community Media Lab as a training facility for those who want to contribute, but may not know how or need to learn new skills.
And while sharing your passions with us — whether it’s photography, video, podcasting, creating digital cartoons or writing — may not be your thing, we’re still interested in helping you in the Community Media Lab. It’s a learning environment and we are there to teach and assist you. Heck, maybe you can teach us something or we can explore a new digital tool together. We can all learn something in the Community Media Lab. Stop by and see us or check out one of our workshops online. If you have any ideas of how we can help the community further, whether it’s bringing in specific speakers or sponsoring a photography club, we want to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.