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Citizen journalism school turns coffee shops to classrooms

Central District News editor Tom Fucoloro.

In the upper mezzanine of the Central District's Cortona Cafe, Tom Fucoloro passes out notebooks and explains interviewing techniques. His students — members of the community — are learning the tools of citizen journalism.

Fucoloro, 27, is the editor of the Central District News, a hyper-local news blog that allows any reader to post under the label “Community Post.” Most who take advantage of this feature write about something happening on their street or an event they’re involved with, but so far not as many readers are making use of the "Community Post" option as he'd like.

Fucoloro decided that most people didn’t feel comfortable posting to the blog without a background in journalism. So, in an effort to create more community engagement, he came up with the idea for the Central District Journalism School. The free six-week course features a different aspect of journalism each week and is capped at seven students. Fucoloro gave himself more than a month to fill it, but he didn’t need that much time: It filled in two days with a waiting list that almost fills another class.

He's keeping the class small so that he has time to go over drafts and edits paragraph-by-paragraph with his students. “I wanted people to be engaged and get feedback,” he says.

Five students attend his first class, which is focused on the basics of interviewing. Most are in their early 20s.

Ila Hartford, 26, went to Central Washington University and studied journalism. She heard about the class via Twitter. Hartford is a resident manager for Calhoun Properties and aPodment, where she does social media. “I don’t have that much actual reporting experience,” she says. “I want to hear what it’s like in the real world.”

Even though Fucoloro isn’t requiring students to write for the CD News after they finish the class, it is something he’s interested in. There are a lot of stories, like profiles and human interest articles, that he has to pass up because he doesn’t have the time.

“I don’t get to write that sort of stuff on CD News,” he tells the class. Fucoloro mimics his CD News work day, holding his fingers to his ear like a phone. “I’m like ‘Where is it? When? Cool. Thanks, bye.’”

These are exactly the types of stories that interest student Jenn DeVore. DeVore, 43, spends her days working with animals. A CD News reader, she lives in the neighborhood. Even though journalism has never appealed to her as a profession, she’d like to write stories about interesting people she sees in the community.

“I always meet people, but don’t want to be nosy or pushy,” she says. This class gives her a reason to get to know them better.

Fucoloro's no stranger to the realities of online news. After studying journalism at Illinois' Knox College, he did a brief internship at the Kansas City Star during a time of intense newsroom layoffs, before eventually moving to Seattle. He now splits his time between the CD News and The Seattle Bike Blog, a website he created in 2011. His income, Fucoloro says, comes from the advertising on both sites. Readers can also subscribe to the bike blog for $5 to $20 per month. Between the two blogs, he works about 60 hours per week.

Despite his hectic work life, Fucoloro ignores those who think he's crazy for not charging for the journalism class. He sees it as a service to the community and a journalistic experiment. “Being free felt right to me, since we don't have a freelance budget,” he said. “If we are going to encourage community journalism on CD News, there is going to be some unpaid work.”

The line between citizen and journalist is becoming more blurry, Fucoloro adds. This can be beneficial for small outlets like the CD News, where community members contribute information and reporting that otherwise wouldn’t make it to audiences. A story about cars being vandalized in the CD, for example, wouldn’t be a story for the Seattle Times.

“We’re not going to get a Pulitzer probably, but that’s OK. I’m not aiming for that,” Fucoloro said. “The class is more of a middle ground between citizen journalists [and] journalists.”

Jim Simon, assistant managing editor of the Seattle Times, said he’s never heard of a class like Fucoloro’s locally. Simon said they infrequently use non-journalists to gather news. “We don’t typically use citizen journalists to go down and report on City Hall,” Simon said. “Our reporting brings us a certain expertise on that.”

But the Seattle Times does use citizen journalists on a “project by project” basis, Simon said, noting that “things are changing so fast [in journalism] I wouldn’t want to predict far down the road.”

As the hour-long class came to a close, Fucoloro gives students their homework for the next week: Interview a stranger for 10 minutes. During the next class, they’ll discuss how to turn those interviews into stories.

The students gather their empty coffee cups and say their goodbyes to classmates and their new teacher. “Thank you for doing this,” one says to Fucoloro.

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