On Face Time and Free Labor

How two local news sites train and retain volunteer contributors

As I’ve written in previous posts about last month’s Block by Block Community News Summit, many local news publishers were eager to learn about how to best use unpaid contributors to fill out the content on their sites. For sites with small (or no) budgets, it’s essential to motivate people to contribute content for free. And many sites see involving members of the community as part of their reason for existence in the first place: to help give voice to those who have previously been left out of the traditional media where they live. But the process can be tricky, too, as untrained writers tend to need a lot of oversight and also have a high rate of turnover.

One of Block by Block’s breakout sessions on this balancing act was led by the editors of two sites known for attracting content from dedicated volunteers: Gapers Block and Twin Cities Daily Planet. Gapers Block is a site in Chicago established 2003. Editor Andrew Huff and his colleagues started the site as an appreciation of all things Chicago; the name of the site refers to a traffic slowdown caused by rubbernecking, and its tagline is “Slow down and check out Chicago.” Huff is the only full time employee, with eight other editors working part-time on the site’s various verticals, like Arts, Music, Sports, and Events Calendar. A lot of contributors have come and gone (Huff estimates about 300 in total), but the site presently publishes the work of about 100 writers, all writing for free.

In the beginning, there were so few Chicago-based bloggers writing online that it was easy for the Gapers Block crew to find and recruit them to their project; they mostly knew each other anyway. As the blogosphere has grown, Huff and the other editors have kept looking for the writers that seem to fit the site’s style and content. He plans for high turnover, knowing that free writers are easy to get but hard to keep, as people move away, lose interest, or get jobs that take up more of their time.

To feed the need, Huff says he always finds time to visit local colleges and j-school programs to talk about the site. Students and aspiring journalists hungry for a byline are the writers most likely to work for free, obviously, and at seven years old, Gapers Block has the street cred to be appealing to them. (Their longevity is a big part of their continued success; Huff admits it would be much harder to get established now, when there is much more competition online for the kind of content Gapers Block provides.)

Gapers Block also hosts monthly meet-ups, where readers can get together with the staff to share beers and ideas, and Huff says that’s a good way to recruit help, too. “It tends to be, if you’re interested enough to come to a bar and meet us, you’re probably going to be a little more committed,” he says.

Editorially, Gapers Block operates in a way similar to The Huffington Post—writers first apply to be a contributor, offer some writing clips, and if approved, gain the right to post directly to the site without being edited first. The editors retain the right to make changes or remove content afterward. Huff says that with such a small editorial staff, this is the only way Gapers Block can hope to remain fresh and current. Long feature pieces are the only things that have to get pitched, pre-approved and edited beforehand.

“In terms of monitoring the site, I’m the only one watching it all day,” Huff says. “If we had to sort of play gatekeeper to all of those people, I wouldn’t be able to get any other work done.” But, he says, he is constantly checking the site for new content, and considers himself on call to his writers all day and night.

The Twin Cities Daily Planet is another site that depends on a healthy supply of free and cheap content, and thanks to its strong reputation in its market, gets it. When the site launched in 2005, it was mostly a homepage for a network of blogs and smaller local sites. When the current editor, Mary Turck, joined the team, she made a concerted push to get original content on the site. She says she started recruiting students from local universities into an internship program, and put out the call for paid and unpaid freelancers. A box on the Daily Planet home page invites readers to help out with stories the writers are already working on, and to go out and cover upcoming local events like rallies and public meetings.

When writers first expresses interest in contributing to Twin Cities Daily Planet, Turck sends them a packet with her editorial guidelines (which are also posted on the site) and invites them to bring their first article to a writers’ group. Turck hosts these meetings twice a week—once in St. Paul, once in Minneapolis—to give some basic journalism training and let writers get feedback from each other. “Attendance varies, participation varies, and the format varies, depending on who comes,” she says, and groups are usually anywhere from one to ten people.

Turck says she is open to different styles of writing; it’s much easier to have help from a person who gets his or her facts right, but needs to be edited for tone, than it is to fact-check and hand-hold a writer with a distinct style but poor journalistic instincts. The freelancers’ guidelines are clearly delineated on the site: how to get an assignment, how much money each kind of piece will yield, and what kind of editorial mentoring a writer can expect to get. The site also invites people to post unsolicited, more opinionated pieces in the unedited, disclaimer-marked “Free Speech Zone.”

Like Huff, Turck says that she must always plan for frequent turnover, but that she can get writers to put in the time if they see her putting in the effort, too. As she learned during many years of community organizing and political activism, she says, inspiring people to help out with a cause is all about one-to-one relationships. Mass e-mail blasts, Facebook updates, and Twitter feeds can only go so far; writers’ groups and individual mentoring yields a much more dedicated team of contributors.

“It’s just like community organizing: face to face contact is important, person to person contact is important,” Turck says. “There has to be personal involvement there, a human connection. There’s no magic formula, you’ve just got to put in the time.”

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner