What things would you do as editor of a Citizens Journalism effort to increase public input?
I would establish ‘beats’, ‘channels’, or compartmentalized sections on the site (just as a newspaper has national, local, sports, entertainment, living sections etc).
All of these sections would have their own Forum Comment fields for reader response/submissions BUT would be moderated. Anonymous comments would be acceptable (you can get great tips when a person knows they are protected) and with moderation you can quickly weed out off-topic comments or possible libel/slander.
Police beat: One of the best read sections of the Amherst Bulletin is the Police Log (they are public documents) so I would make sure to publish that every week. But I would also try to find a cop, spouse, or somebody "into" public safety to write a weekly analysis/report/editorial about crime--even if it is the small town kind.
School/education beat: As you pointed out some towns--like Amherst--spend 75% of their tax money on the schools. A blog in the area that consistently (when schools are in session anyway) beats mine is Catherine Sanderson's "My School Committee Blog" and it gets tons of comments. Since I know she does it for the exposure and not for money (School Committee is an elected but none paid position) it would not be hard to form a strategic alliance with her already successful blog.
Arts beat: These days everybody has a digital camera so I would establish a photo section where budding photographers could upload their work (no Porn of course).
Sports section: Every parent loves to see his or her kids names in print--even if only on the web. A knowledgeable coach would be happy to write a weekly column and I would try to get a lot of them covering everything from standard seasonal sports like basketball, baseball, football as well as mixed martial arts, cycling, running, triathlons, and yes, even bowling.
Health beat: With the graying of America combined with older folks embracing the web and the spread of broadband this is a perfect place to attract that older demographic that the national beer, auto, and entertainment companies seem to ignore in their advertising (going after the 18-35 kids.)
Heath clubs, yoga centers, chiropractors, sports medicine rehab centers would be happy to submit material and I would form a strategic alliance with Umass Exercise Science department as well, for articles of a more general interest (not just trying to drum of business) on safe practical exercise targeted at senior citizens or just casual couch potatoes.
Politics—or I should say local politics: As Tip O’Neil so famously stated: “All politics is local.” This one would of course be my favorite. I would enlist citizen journalists to cover all the major meetings of town boards and committees. My theory is if the town can find 5 or 6 people to staff these committees I should be able to find one person with a computer to cover them or even enlist one of the committee members.
Entertainment Beat: This would include all the staples--local bar and music scene, movies, music downloads, links to local radio and TV stations with a section devoted to music or video uploads from readers.
And all that mundane boring stuff that folks need/like to know: bus schedules, school schedules, weather, lottery results, crossword puzzle, horoscopes, free classifieds, etc
Hmmm…now after review it looks like all I’ve done is combine the best qualities of a local daily newspaper with a weekly free publication and put it all on the web where your audience can instantly interact and even move forward a story/issue.
But since all this happens on the web, the “burn rate” for overhead (unlike bricks and mortar media) is pretty close to nothing. And as Facebook has just demonstrated, if you attract enough “eye balls” advertisers will want a targeted piece of that action.