Key Take-Aways

  • Build relationships with participants through one-on-one attention. Recognize and help develop each participant’s strengths and interests in the project.
  • Plan an introductory activity that will help you gauge individual skill levels.
  • Build flexibility into your curricula so you can tailor instruction to participants’ interests, experience and abilities.


With community journalism, it is difficult to predict what level of experience and interest your participants will bring to the project. Relationship-building is therefore crucial to the project’s success. Take the time to understand the strengths and interests of participants through one-on-one interactions as frequently as possible.  Not only will this time allow groups to better understand the populations they are working with, but it will also help to establish credibility among participants and facilitators.

If the community journalism project is a true reflection of the whole community, then it is likely you will be working with people of all ages. Understand what the strengths, interests, and abilities are for people in each age group, and work with them to achieve the project’s shared goals.

Suggestions for future work

  • Build rapport with participants before to the project. Relationships are important. The longer you work building the relationship, the better the project’s results will be.
  • Create a feedback loop for participants to explain what they like about the workshop, what they’re getting out of it, and what they would want to change in the future.
  • Leave time for reflection, conversation, surveys and discussion–both by project facilitators (that means you!) and project participants.

Case studies

Overview: It worked to our advantage in East St. Louis to have as much one-on-one time with each student as resources would allow.  On top of that it was important to meet every participant at their personal skill level.  Participants had different reasons for being in workshops and teaching to those reasons is what made for engaged, passionate, and successful sessions.  Working to build trust and credibility among participants was an underlying focus throughout the week in lessons, practice, and collaboration.

In Champaign, participation was impossible to predict. At Dorsey Homes, we worked with community members of all ages and experience levels. Large group workshop discussions worked to some degree, but it was much more effective to train individual users one-on-one to use the cameras, explain interviewing tips, and find out what their storytelling interests were.

Expanded Case Study

East St. Louis

Thirteen to fifteen students participated in our workshop at MBC.  Some participants left early; others joined late. The Participants ranged in age from eleven to nineteen, the majority of whom were counselors at MBC. At Jones Park, we worked with close to twenty students.  Daily action at the park was more chaotic than at MBC, so students would drift in and out of our workshop.  We worked with eight students and one counselor regularly, developing stories, shooting photos and video, and posting to the MetroEast Youth News blog.

For the East St. Louis group, recruitment happened two ways.  This first involved contacting people in charge of programs and requesting that they choose participants who would benefit from a community journalism workshop.  Having site leaders or support staff form beforehand an interested subset of the community establishes a good approach to working within already created structures that support collaboration with participants who would most benefit from workshops, new skills acquisition, etc.  The other way we approached this involved having students self-select themselves.  If the participants showed interest and were receptive to our discussions, questions, and outreach, we would focused our efforts on them.  We did not turn away other students, but we focused our energies on those initial self-selected students.  We recommend using the approach that works best with the particular organization institution for which programming is offered, but a smaller, selected set of participants (based on interest, primarily, though other factors could relevant) fostered a better and more constructive learning environment in both cases.

Champaign / Urbana

Recruitment methods will vary widely depending on the programming location and type.  Due to lack of interest and other factors, community participation will never be one-hundred per cent, and so sustainable, long-term plans require effectively recruiting participants who are not only interested in the programming offered but in coming back for future events.  Motivation, or rather reasons and incentives that will engage the target community’s interest, is an important consideration for recruitment.  Facilitators, naturally, understand the value and importance of their own event; however, understanding the mindset of the people in the target community is crucial.  Why should they want to spend a significant part of their day s a participant when there are many other things that they could be doing instead, which they, at this point at least, probably see as more important? How should the main message respond to that? What will attract the most people?

Informed and wide distribution of that crafted message is another important factor in recruitment.  Understanding how the message can be spread to as many people in your community as possible is key, and involves knowing how and where community members gather, communicate, and share information and knowledge.  These loci of community knowledge can include physical locations, such as local churches and church bulletins, or digital media, such as Facebook.

While the message itself should be crafted to attract the target audience, its visibility is another key factor in its success.  Flyers, for example, should display its main message so that it can be read from a distance.  For example, at Salem Baptist Church, we used flyers to advertise for a newsletter class.  We post our first draft of the flyer, which we had posted on their bulletin, displayed all relevant information for the class but was not formatted in large enough text to attract attention from a distance.  Only those viewers already close to the board would notice it.  As such, we had minimal attendance during the class.  We reworked the flyer to say “LEARN TO WRITE A NEWSLETTER” at the top in a large font size.  During the following week’s class we nearly filled up the computer lab.  No doubt, other factors were at play, but the advertisement’s visibility in its reworked format assuredly made a significant difference.

We were able to build a solid core of participants at both Champaign locations. At Salem Baptist Church, our newsletter class drew four participants who agreed to return for two follow-up courses that built on the material in our first course.

At Dorsey Homes, our ice cream social was a huge success, drawing over 50 youth ranging from around 6 years old to the early teens.  Several adults also participated. A group of around eight youth returned for follow-up workshops on digital storytelling. Events that draw a large crowd, like the ice cream social, can be a productive way to identify interested participants for specific workshops/classes. Our core of participants branched out to include adults who were not necessarily interested in contributing to the digital storytelling workshops, but still wanted their stories told. Reporter for, Pam Dempsey, introduced us to many community members and also accompanied us on most of our visits to the site. During these visits, she was able to interview adult residents about their frustrations and challenges in finding apartments that would take their Section 8 vouchers. The final version of the story is here:

At Salem Baptist Church, the computer lab is a semi-independent entity, and the congregation is large and diverse, with multiple methods for accessing information about church events. Recruitment efforts here followed three avenues: the weekly church bulletin, flyers on the bulletin board outside the computer lab, and word of mouth. Initially, the classes were proposed as part of a CU-CitizenAccess initiative, and advertised mainly by word-of-mouth. After 490ST students became involved, an item advertising the classes in the church bulletin and newly-designed flyers with an eye-catching and informative format led to an increase in class attendance. As such, we believe the paper-based advertisements were more effective methods over word-of-mouth.

In contrast to Salem Baptist Church, the Dorsey Homes community is a smaller, more tightly-knit community that is more specifically tied to its geographic boundaries. Ms. Neil functions as an important community leader and information gatekeeper. Team members initially made contact with Ms. Neil through CU-CitizenAccess and expressed interest in offering digital storytelling classes to complement her youth-focused programs.

At Dorsey Homes, the recruitment strategy involved two methods: word of mouth and print flyers. Ms. Neil acted as the primary advertiser and recruiter for our efforts. Project team members planned an ice cream social to introduce the digital storytelling workshops they planned to offer and create a word-of-mouth buzz about the opportunity. Ms. Neil distributed flyers designed by the team to advertise the ice cream social and invited community members by word of mouth (presumably in person and over the phone). The team distributed additional flyers during the ice cream social, but community members seemed generally to disregard these in the chaos of more than fifty children eating ice cream and playing.

The team relied on Ms. Neil to distribute flyers and spread notice via word of mouth for ensuing workshops leading to the fact that participants mainly comprised community members selected by Ms. Neil. One impromptu recruiting method that the team stumbled upon during the ice cream social was to give several children cameras with a brief introduction on how to use them, and then to give them 15 or 20 minutes to take photos freely. The team told the children that they would provide them copies of their photos at the first workshop as an incentive to return.

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