The Toronto Star’s Your City, My City project an innovative approach

The Your City, My City project announced by the Toronto Star this weekend represents some of the most progressive journalism taking place in Canada.

Publisher John Cruickshank is breaking important ground for journalism by reaching out to the community to engage it directly using new media technology. It is charging people in Toronto to step up and have a direct conversation about what is wrong in the city and what can be done to fix it.  Rather than starting it in newsprint, the project is launching mainly as an online initiative with 30 people from across the Greater Metropolitan Area (GTA) to jump start the process. These specially invited people range from a coffee shop owner to former politicians, representing a diversity of backgrounds and interests.

The project represents a number of significant trends for journalists to follow as the Your City, My City rolls out.

First, this is a project about crowdsourcing and collaboration, something Canadian media is not very good at, but an important trend in innovative forms of journalism. Crowdsourcing is a a business model where a company takes a task normally set aside for professionals and it gives it over to the public realm to seek answers. In this case, rather than solely assigning a group of journalists to go out and interview lots of people to get their input on this issue (as in the past), it will reach out to the members of the community and let them directly identify and possible provide solutions. it is a version of civic or public journalism, but it is online using new technology.

The idea of collaborating with the audience at this level is also noteworthy. It represents another main trend in journalism called open source or participatory journalism. Mainstream media is not very trusting of audiences. And, while there are countless examples of requests for input, such as comment sections on stories and online polls, most of it is moderated and very controlled. The fear is always blocking the crazy people from getting in and driving everyone else away, but not coming off as a tyrant moderator. It will be vital to watch how The Star handles the input and how wide ranging, diverse and uncensored the feedback is when it finally arrives.

Most important, will be the reaction of the politicians and community leaders. With the municipal election coming this fall, The Star will have  a fabulous opportunity to place the information collected before those seeking power. As well, there may be a tidal wave of new ideas and directions. The key will be making sure the good ideas don’t get lost or the politician and city elite don’t ignore it.

E-journalism’s guiding principles are to educated, engage and empower. This project is ideally situated to meet all three criteria. No doubt, through the upcoming journalism that will be done by the professional journalist and information coming from participants, the audience will become well versed in all the issues within the city. It will be up to editors to take advantage of the ideas and assign reporters to fill out missing information and provide context, so everyone can understand and be fully informed in a balanced, fair and comprehensive manner.

The very underpinning of the project is to engage people, so it is already using new technologies to leverage the capacity of a news organization to bring people together. The act of reaching out to 30 bloggers breaks new ground and is extremely exciting. It will be interesting to watch what other technologies and, in particular, social media the organization will use.

But, the most important aspect will be the empowerment. With all the ideas, input, suggestions, comments and information put forward, it will be absolutely essential that none of it gets lost. This is where cynicism develops and journalism fails, losing trust and credibility. It is not enough to give people a voice anymore. They can go to any news website or blog to let off steam.

The trick is to create a space where people can put ideas forward and then get some kind of reaction from those in power. Here is where journalism can shine. Using its resources, hopefully The Star will ensure the input finds the right people and get reaction, along with encouraging those running to engage and respond directly within the context of the project. This would make it a true exchange. More than anything, those participating must feel the effort put into Your City, My City, was worth it. Not an easy task, but certainly a worthy one.