Award-winning educator brings hyperlocal news to Oshawa through college program

Durham College journalism professor Anna Rodrigues provides both her students and her community an a valuable resource with The Downtown Oshawa News blog. This hyperlocal news project gives students an excellent learning tool related to hyperlocal news and also serves the community with insight into an interesting neighbourhood. The work is so innovative, she won an award for her work.

Durham College journalism professor Anna Rodrigues provides both her students and her community an a valuable resource with The Downtown Oshawa News blog. This hyperlocal news project gives students an excellent learning tool related to hyperlocal news and also serves the community with insight into an interesting neighbourhood. The work is so innovative, she won an award for her work.

It was three or four years ago that I began thinking about developing a project-based experience involving community news at Durham College, the college where I teach a variety of courses related to journalism. Durham College is located about 50 km east of Toronto in what is known as the Durham Region.  I’ve been teaching there for five years after having worked in television news for 10 years.

I had read about experiments in the States where journalism students were working with members of a very-well defined community with the intention of filling in the information cracks not being covered by the mainstream media.  This was being done online and the idea was definitely intriguing.  This was about news dissemination not meant to capture the most eyeballs at a given time, but rather a small but dedicated group of people who are interested in reading about their neigbourhood and returning to the same place for that info week after week.   

It was also about citizens in those neighbourhoods contributing and shaping the news production cycle as well.  Because I have an interest in social justice issues, that really piqued my interest.   I had worked for a number of years for Silverman Helps, the investigative journalism unit at Citytv.  The segment, which ran for 19 years, was initially set up to help people deal with consumer complaints.  Over the years though, the Silverman Helps investigations expanded to cover many other problems including social justice issues.  Through my work there I was able to see how the participation of viewers influenced the stories that Silverman Helps produced.  

I was working on another project at the college, a global network for journalism students, at the time these ideas were swirling around in my head, so I filed it away with the intention of returning to it.  That turned out to be March 2010 and by then there were many more hyperlocal news websites around and success stories to read about.  I thought that if I could get funding it would be beneficial to see how a hyperlocal news blog might work as a project-based experience for my students.  I was also curious to see how the community we covered might accept this type of news outlet so different from the usual newspaper and broadcast sources. 

Before I applied for funding, I tried to find information on Canadian journalism schools that might have set up a hyperlocal blog within a neighbourhood, but I couldn’t find any examples.  I referred to the stories I found from the United States as I did my research and relied on my own experience in setting up a network meant for a global audience, my previous project.  I just had to think in terms of local instead of global.  I had been so preoccupied with helping students understand the importance of global citizenship that I had never thought it might be important to do that at a local level as well.

As I began writing the applications for funding I started thinking about the neighbourhood this hyperlocal news blog would cover.  It had to be in Durham Region but I wasn’t sure where.  It was my husband who suggested launching the project in downtown Oshawa.  It was perfect.  This was an area that has seen ups and downs throughout the years and many times it only gets attention by the media when something bad happens.   The area was in the middle of a gentrification with new businesses starting up, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology setting up a campus and events being promoted to bring more people into the downtown.

With an area chosen, the name for the project came next, but that was easy.  The Downtown Oshawa News blog, or DON for short.  My goals for the project were two-fold.  The first one was to provide a project-based learning experience for the Journalism students at Durham College.  The second goal was to engage the community of downtown Oshawa through the stories that are posted on the blog and provide a voice to citizens interested in what is happening in their neighbourhood.

In August, 2010, I found out that I would receive the funding I had applied for.  Some of the money was coming from the Durham College Research Fund, and as a result, I would be researching the efficacy of the DON as a project-based learning experience for my students.

The next two months were spent on getting the blog launched.  My first problem became how to incorporate this project into the fall semester at such short notice.  After putting some thought into it, I decided that the best way for me to do my research and make the project a real working experience for the students was to hire someone to manage the blog.  The funds I received were limited, but I decided to apply most of it toward the hiring of a managing editor who would run the blog from October to April and work one-on-one with students once a week.  After interviews were conducted, the blog’s first managing editor, Amanda Allison, a recent graduate of the journalism program was chosen. 

During that time I also tested and bought equipment, registered a domain, installed the blog with the help of the college’s IT Services and set up a Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel for the blog.  The blog runs on a WordPress platform, one that I familiar with and use for our news website, DC News, so once it was installed on a server it was a matter of designing it and adding content. 

Having the support and help of the Dean and Associate Dean of the Media, Art & Design department, Greg Murphy and Charlotte Hale and my colleagues in the journalism department was paramount to getting everything in place so quickly.

On October 1st , the Downtown Oshawa News blog launched officially.  Every Friday two students would work from 9 to 5 on a story they pitched to Amanda that morning.  I produced a video on a day in the life of the DON blog to give students and readers a better understanding of how the blog functions within the journalism program and it can be seen at this link. 

Toward the end of March 2011 the funding for the project had been spent and it was with sadness I began to realize this six-month project was coming to an end.  That same month I presented my findings on the project at Durham College’s Research Day.  The results of the project were much better than I anticipated.  Students who had worked for the blog felt that it had given them real world experience in reporting and that their online journalism skills had been greatly enhanced.  I had distributed an anonymous survey to the students as well and that resulted in receiving more comments on how great the experience had been.  Two of the respondents commented that they felt they landed the internship they wanted because of the work they had produced for the DON.  

As well, there was the community engagement aspect of the blog.  Although not part of my research, I saw that the hits on the posts on the blog grew every week.  Social media played a huge part in that, along with the guerilla marketing tactics employed by the managing editor, the students writing for the blog and myself.  For example, I purchased business cards for the students stating that they were Downtown Oshawa News reporters.  These cards could be left with interviewees and anyone else interested in viewing the blog.  As well, Amanda was very good at engaging followers through Twitter.  We also began receiving story ideas from the community.

I received a Faculty Research Award that day for my research project, but the most important acknowledgement came from Durham College President Don Lovisa, who promised funds to keep the blog going for another six months.  With those funds we were able to keep our managing editor who worked over the spring and summer with volunteers updating the blog once a week.

This September I was faced once again with the prospect of the Downtown Oshawa News blog shutting down as the funding received over the summer was reaching the end.  Happily I received the news that Durham College would fund the project for another six months.  A decision was made to give another graduate of the journalism program the chance to gain some experience in a managing role.  And now the hope is that if the funding continues we will hire a new managing editor every year from the previous graduating year.

My future plans for Downtown Oshawa News is to obtain a permanent office space in the downtown.  I believe having a presence for the blog would make it part of the community it covers.  As well, the larger dream is to have enough funds to have a managing editor or a professor working with students to update the blog every day.