Virtual roundtable: Grassroots journalism leaders discuss the nitty-gritty

Editor’s note: Let’s forget the theory and talk with some people who actually are making grassroots journalism work for their publications. I’ve invited three industry leaders to join me in a virtual roundtable here on OJR.

  • Mike Noe is the editor of
  • Lauren Ward is the editor of the Northwest Voice, the Bakersfield Californian’s pioneering user-written newspaper.
  • Lex Alexander is the citizen-journalism coordinator at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.

    Robert Niles: First, can we get a consensus on what we should call community/reader-driven/grassroots/citizen/participatory journalism? With so many terms for whatever-this-is floating about, we’re confusing not just readers, but also the managers whom we ask to support and fund these initiatives.

    I’d vote for Dan Gillmor’s term, grassroots journalism. Why? Process of elimination, mostly.

    “Citizen” journalism implies that traditional journalists are somehow not citizens. Phooey. Professional journalists collectively care more about the quality and justice of their countries and communities than folks in many, if not most, other industries.

    “Participatory” journalism makes me think of George Plimpton suiting up for the Detroit Lions.

    “Reader-driven” journalism ignores the fact that journalism’s always been driven by readers. Edit a paper that readers don’t read and your publisher soon will ask you to find a new job.

    “Community” journalism brings with it the baggage of what is also called “civic journalism,” an endeavor that has its passionate supporters, but that is not the same things as what we are discussing here. So why conflate the two?

    That leaves me with “grassroots” journalism, which gets to the point of what we’re doing – allowing folks nearest the ground, if you will, to provide the news directly to other readers.

    Maybe terminology is not important. But if we want our readers to care about their words in their work, I believe we should give careful thought to our words in describing their work.

    So let’s get to a discussion about the quality of grassroots copy. The Wall Street Journal on April 11 wrote that “despite the occasional controversial article, many of the reader-written sites look more like church bulletin boards than, say, the New York Times.”

    Let’s not dismiss church bulletin boards. When I wrote editorials in Omaha, Neb., I watched a Republican candidate win his way into Congress via a campaign conducted mostly on church bulletin boards. I suspect that in the most recent U.S. presidential election, church bulletin boards delivered far more votes than the New York Times did. We should hope that our work rises to the level of influence and inspires the loyalty of a church bulletin board.

    So how do we do that? Traditional news organizations have been soliciting content from readers for nearly a decade. Many of us signed up with Zip2 and other companies that provided “community publishing” tools where soccer clubs and such could (but rarely did) use our sites to create newsletters, online calendars and e-mail lists. When I edited the Rocky Mountain News website in the late 1990s, we asked readers to post online birth and wedding announcements, recipes and reviews of movies, local restaurants and shows. In 2001, I introduced a feature called Accident Watch on my site which asked that site’s registered users to report injury accidents at theme parks around the world that they’d witnessed or read about. But I kept that input form short, as I thought the best I could expect from readers was a brief summary of facts, lest they try to write a full-blown article that might ramble into opinion.

    We ask our readers to take a significant step when we ask them for articles instead of simple data or snippets of opinion. Can we expect readers to write competently crafted articles reporting news in their communities? Or are simple birth announcements and family photos the best we can reasonably expect?

    And what about verification? Must all grassroots journalism be single-source? Or can we create systems that enable multi-source coverage of issues and incidents? I think many journalists would be open to grassroots journalism at their publications if they saw it as a way to improve the quality of diversity of information they deliver, rather than another forum for cranks to promote themselves.

    Creating such an environment requires something more than off-the-shelf software, however. I find it interesting that innovation in this field is coming from smaller publications that are not locked into expensive, corporate-controlled publishing systems that local properties cannot develop. Still, the Scripps-owned Rocky is about to launch an initiative in this area. Mike, how is that coming along? Did you build or buy the software to power

    Mike Noe: Hi Robert,

    As you noted, we’re in the final stage of preparing for the launch of Our idea is to give Coloradans a community Web site that puts content created by readers at the center of the site as opposed to traditional news coverage. Initially, we plan to serve suburban communities in metro Denver but the site has the capacity to grow with reader demand. When it’s operating, Your Hub will be an electronic town square or church bulletin board. Well, maybe a bulletin board on steroids.

    We’ve certainly been using the word “community” a lot in the past couple of months in describing what we’re doing. But “grassroots” journalism as you defined it does fit with where we’re going. We usually couldn’t make it through a planning meeting without someone bringing up “names and faces.” This will be the centerpiece of the site with calendar listings, news events, classifieds listings, and high school sports scores adding to the mix.

    We believe what sets this site apart from MyYahoo, MySpace, or other sites will be our ability to give our users an experience that more closely reflects their community. Our users will provide photos from the little league games and recipes from the last church potluck. We’ll supplement that with information such as sports scores from’s extremely popular high school preps section as well as links to news about their community. We will also allow users to post certain classified ads for free.

    I think our failure with previous community publishing tools was that we didn’t adequately promote them. To remedy that, Your Hub will be attached to zoned print sections. I’ve joked with my colleagues that the print version of Your Hub is the marketing edition. In reality, it’s true. We think readers will embrace Your Hub after they see their photos and stories making it into the print paper that lands on their porch every week. Also, our plan is for the staff of Your Hub to be the ambassadors of the site, regularly attending community gatherings and encouraging community leaders to use and promote the site.

    As for your point about verification and single-source journalism, this isn’t traditional journalism and I don’t think we should demand our readers/contributors write or behave like traditional journalists. They’re going to write about what they know. In this environment, the user produces the content.

    I think our role should be to intercede only when it comes to legal issues or when other members of the Hub community complain about something distasteful. Our readers are intelligent enough to recognize when a piece is written by the everyday citizen or when it’s written by a journalist. We will also clearly label those articles and content. I look at Your Hub as a partnering of two kinds of information, not a merger.

    To get launched we decided to behave more like a small publication and forego the corporate-controlled publishing system. The Denver Newspaper Agency contracted with a local development company to build to our specifications. Our developers have only been involved in building a way to deliver information between and I should also point out that we designed this system so that all content originates on the Web and is then sent to our print system for publication. We’ve been doing this for several years with certain types of content at the Rocky. This will be the first time all content originates from the Web site.

    We’ve talked several times with people from the Northwest Voice about how they’re running the operation. One thing I’d like to hear from Lauren is how journalists in the newsroom are reacting to the publication. Are they embracing it?

    To me, this grassroots journalism isn’t a threat. It’s an additional source of information. Why not bring it under our umbrella rather than pooh-poohing it?

    Lauren Ward: Hello all,

    The Voice is coming up on its one-year anniversary next month. We’ve been growing steadily in terms of community contributions and overall visibility. Although Web traffic is good, the print edition still seems to be what people connect with the most. They often refer to the “little blue bag” that our paper comes in when thrown on their lawns.

    Some people still have trouble uploading pictures and I have to walk them through contributing content, but all in all people seem much more comfortable contributing, and we get new bylines all the time. It’s not the same old names and faces over and over — something we were apprehensive about initially. We’re trying to get more blogs started and push more readers to the Web.

    We tend to call it “community” journalism but I agree with Robert in that “grassroots” fits well, too. It’s funny, though, I don’t think the majority of our readers realize that what they are doing even has a name or that it is at all unique in the industry. When I mention to people that articles on The Voice have appeared on the The Washington Post Online, etc., they usually look surprised and ask, “Why?” Which is encouraging -­ initially readers called me and wanted me to come out and “cover” stories like they were used to with our daily newspaper, The Bakersfield Californian, and I still get that a little, but now people seem comfortable with the fact that they’re to write the stories and provide the pictures. They seem to have accepted the responsibility as something natural, even though we may look at it as “groundbreaking.” To them, it’s just “our little paper.” Part of it might be that Bakersfield doesn’t really have community newspapers like they do in other areas, so people may think all community newspapers use “citizen” journalists instead of staff reporters.

    And OK, I’ll admit it, at times our site/paper does look like a church bulletin. People often comment that it’s “positive news,” and critics might use the less flattering term, “white bread.” We set up categories in the print edition and on the Web like “school news,” “having faith,” “youth sports,” “bulletin board,” “celebrations,” etc., most of which tend to encourage happy news. But we also say we’ll publish anything else that is local and legal, and we end up with a number of articles that don’t fit into any section, and may tend to deal with more weighty topics.

    One young man wrote about spending his first summer with cancer, I did a cover story about a biker who was killed when he drove into the side of a restaurant without a helmet, etc. One of our columnists, Rachel Legan, recently generated something of an uproar when she wrote about an abusive stepfather who used to make her eat weeds and wash them down the Jack Daniels (yes, seriously). One woman wrote in, saying it wasn’t appropriate for a “family publication.”

    Is that what we started out trying to be? I don’t know, but it seems to be what people want to make it. A lot of it has to do with the Northwest area of Bakersfield, which is made up primarily of white, affluent, two-income families with kids. And I think people tend to contribute what they already see in the paper ­­ so positive news leads to more positive news.

    But if there’s an issue that comes up in the community,­­ like a principal who was recently accused of shaking a parent,­­ we’re not going to ignore it. We provide a great forum for community members to discuss controversial topics. In fact, I wish they would take more advantage of it;­­ you know they’re talking about these things in the grocery store. We just have to approach things in a different way than a daily newspaper ­­ it doesn’t mean we can’t cover the “big” stories or that they don’t have relevance to us. And we have readers who don’t get the daily newspaper, so The Voice is their sole source of news.

    Photos are probably the favorite thing in terms of contributions. People LOVE seeing themselves and people they recognize. It’s probably the comment I hear most, “I saw so and so in such and such issue.” We have regular photo contests that always generate a large response. Photos obviously require less work and less risk than writing a story. They’re safe. It also seems to help to give people a category of what we want ‹ there’s no fear of them sending in something “stupid” that we don’t want. I still think that’s an issue ‹ people have been told in the past, “We’re not interested” or “That’s not news,” but it’s always news to us. If it’s important to them it’s important to us.

    So, as for Robert’s question, I think that although birth announcements and family photos are popular, it’s not too much to ask readers for competently crafted articles. It was something I was curious about when we first started: What kind of writers will they be? Will I spend hours reconstructing stories? Will I have to check all of the facts? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of contributions we receive. We have an off-roading columnist who had little experience writing who’s a wonderful storyteller (and good speller). We have a 67-year-old retired church secretary who does research, collects numerous quotes, checks her facts, and often asks the subjects of her stories to review them for approval.

    We also have many students who have proven to be great writers. It’s something readers will comment on often. A high school freshman wrote one story about his trip to Kenya for Nick News Adventures. It was great, and now he’s hooked and comes up with great story ideas and researches them and does an incredibly competent job.

    There are cases where I have to fill in the holes with stories ­­ I’ll have to ask authors when the event took place, to confirm a name spelling, etc. I wouldn’t be comfortable posting a lot of what we get submitted to our Web site before I reviewed it and edited it.

    And I have had to call and double-check or investigate things that didn’t look right to me. It’s funny, most of our columnists didn’t want blogs precisely because they like to have an editor. We also edit for AP style. But I think we’re a great outlet for people to tell their stories and share their voices. They shouldn’t be underestimated. And that fact that we publish everything on the Web before the print edition means that readers can read the stories and challenge facts or make corrections before the story ever goes to print. They’ll even e-mail me if they see a misspelling in someone’s story. And I think we do improve the diversity of information. One of our readers could cover something in an entirely different way than they did in the daily. And I think having their names on their pieces is a great motivator to get the facts right. This is a small community, so if you screw something up, you’re going to hear about it.

    As far as how journalists in the newsroom are reacting to The Voice, Mike, that’s tough to say. We all work in the same building and I’m friends with a number of the journalists. I’d say they range from being supportive of the effort to being indifferent, in that it doesn’t impact their jobs or the way they’re writing their stories. I’d say some of them read it and some of them don’t ­­ especially if they don’t live in the area where it’s delivered.

    Is this the reaction you would expect, Lex? Or does it surprise you?

    Lex Alexander: Greetings all. To Robert’s questions: I don’t know exactly what we ought to call this, primarily because I haven’t given it a lot of thought and neither has my boss. In fact, until Editor & Publisher hounded me into making one up, I didn’t even have a title for my current gig. What I came up with — citizen-journalism coordinator (see related OJR article) — is lower-case, more a generic description than a permanent position. (One title I AM enthusiastic about is “Contributing Reader,” the agate line one of our Web supervisors, Charlie Stafford, created for reader bylines. Feel free to steal it.) But I’m perfectly comfortable with “grassroots journalism” to describe what we’re trying to foster here, and I’m going to hang onto it unless/until someone comes up with something better.

    Of the 30-plus submissions we’ve published so far, none really constitutes a news story as we’re used to thinking about them. We’ve gotten things we’d recognize as feature stories (including one involving an e-mail interview of an area author by a writer in Taiwan), op-ed pieces, personal columns and short event advances, along with some advice columns that double as PR for the writers’ businesses. But you know what? That’s about what I expected, at least at first. We’ve done almost nothing to promote YourNews (a fact that will change shortly), and until we do more, I don’t expect a whole lot different. If, after six months of serious promotion, we’re still not getting news, then I’ll start to worry. In the meantime, we’re encouraging contributors at all points on our sites to link to source material whenever possible for factual assertions.

    This feature might evolve into nothing better than a tip service, but even that is better than nothing. And if we get more — which we’re trying to encourage — so much the better. I’m perfectly willing to work with readers on their submissions — not editing them so much as pointing them toward useful resources for people who want to report. And if someone files a story that really does break news, we can put a link to it on the home page, just as if it had been written by one of our staffers, to drive traffic its way. That hasn’t happened yet, but it could any day. And as I’ve said in my N&R blog, my dream (as a once and future investigative-projects reporter and editor) is to lead a band of Contributing Readers in reporting on a local investigative story or project of some significance. And if we keep at this, I think that’ll happen.

    Moreover, we’ll soon begin some community outreach efforts a la what Dan Suwyn did in Savannah, and encouraging/recruiting contributors to YourNews will be a significant part of those efforts.

    In terms of software, we’re going to be using Publicus, which we’re installing now, to run our Web site. Currently we’re using something called E-Z Publish to handle reader submissions. Because Publicus was selected by the company well before our Public Square initiative began, I question whether it will be able to handle all we want it to do, particularly in the area of forums. We already know that it won’t handle blogs as well as Movable Type, which we’re already using for that purpose.

    How is the newsroom handling this? By ignoring it, for the most part, although a few staffers check the postings just to see what’s new (among the benefits of Publicus will be greatly enhanced RSS-feed-generating capability) and seem to understand that this is the direction we’re heading in.

    I hope this answers everyone’s questions, but if not, give me a shout.

    Robert Niles: Thanks, everyone. OJR readers, feel free to use the comment section below to keep the discussion going.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. This is an interesting conversation. I wonder if you could have used skype, record the exchange and post the audiorecording on line. Can podcasting become part of OJR routine?

    2. Bet on it.

      I’m committed to doing it, the question is how and what? I think that putting up recitations of current articles is a bit lame — that we ought to strive for something that fits better with the audio format. So I’ve decided to charge my grad students at USC Annenberg in the fall with the challenge of devising a way to make online audio delivery — of something — work for OJR. But, of course, I’m always open to ideas from readers.

      (And by the way, we’ve an article on “how to podcast” skedded for within the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to reading it!)

    3. Thank you Robert for this quick answer!
      I have been doing the blog for EcoTalk, the once a week environmental program Betsy Rosenberg produces for Air America: Since it is aired at terrible hours (early sunday morning) podcasting is an interesting complement. I have not been able to convince Betsy to try using skype. I think all it would take is installing it for her and holding her hand in the process. That is why step by step, podcasting for dummies info is crucial.
      The truth is the sound quality of the skypecasts I listen to is far superior to the sound of the phone interviews Betty pays to have recorded in a traditional way with a studio.
      Another personal frustration with developing local new media is the reluctance of our local Scripps affiliate, the Kitsap Sun to support blogging, rss, etc. I hope the RockyMountainNews experience with will have a rippling effect on other newspapers.
      Take care