ONA panelists share successful models of participatory journalism

At Saturday’s Online News Association New York conference, Moderator Kinsey Wilson, vice president and editor in chief of USATODAY.com, introduced Will Femia, blog manager at MSNBC.com; Robert Niles, editor of Online Journalism Review; and Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage, both of iBrattleboro.com, as exemplars of participatory journalism.

“I’m not necessarily a citizen journalist evangelist. … I have a pragmatic feeling about it,” Femia said.

He explained that prompting responses is helpful but gave examples of times when this has gone awry, like when they asked readers “What would you ask Condoleeza Rice? What would you ask if you were on the 9/11 Commission?”

They got back many off-topic posts like, “Why do you have the flip in your hair?” Additionally, the volume of e-mails can be uncontrollable, Femia said. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, MSNBC received about one e-mail every 10 seconds.

As examples of MSNBC’s offerings, Femia showed the audience a section called Citizen Journalists Report and another called The Red Tape Chronicles.

Participatory journalism is about “using the tools of the Internet to do a more thorough job of journalism,” Niles said. Niles invoked Dan Gillmor’s familiar reminder, “My readers know more than I do” and explained that soliciting reporting from readers is simply a way to gather more information and more sources.

“Don’t get hung up on the tools. Think about the goals,” Niles suggested. He said to keep an open mind about new ways to gather information from as many sources as possible.

Niles recently used a wiki format on Online Journalism Review for an article with content he’d like to update over time, but at a static URL. He called this “a fundamentally different concept of how to handle information.”

Participatory journalism works best on niche topic sites, Niles said, where people feel like part of a community and will “take a sense of ownership and participation in the site.”

iBrattleboro.com is an example of a site where the readers have an investment in the site’s content. The site serves an important purpose because the community of Brattleboro, Vermont was not being adequately served by larger media.

Site editor and developer Lise LePage said that the project has “been successful beyond our wildest dreams.”

LePage and partner Christopher Grotke said they started the site in February 2003 using open source code and that they advertised the launch with fliers they distributed in town.

They seeded the site with content to encourage participation and to serve as a model and then watched as their readership slowly developed. Soon, LePage and Grotke said they’ll be turning to advertising to help pay for the site.

Grotke and LePage said the natural evolution of the site has led to a soon-to-be-released policy about what can and cannot be posted.

Currently, they moderate content and take down “ad hominem, name-calling, nasty things.” They have not banned anyone yet, but said that there are some readers in danger of being excluded from the site.

Niles summed up the relatively new practice of participatory journalism by saying: “We’re still doing the same thing we’ve always done. We’re still reporting information to an audience.”

About Diana Day

By day, Diana is the Internet and Communication Technologies Coordinator at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, CA.

By night, Diana moonlights as the Digital Diva for the LATimes.com's education blog

Diana recently received her master's degree in online journalism from USC. She was managing editor of the readers' blog at Online Journalism Review.

Before attending USC, she was a schoolteacher and reading specialist for 14 years in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

While at USC, Diana launched two online news publications -- BeTwinned.com, a magazine for parents of twins and multiples, and inSierraMadre.com, a community journalism site for Sierra Madre, CA.


  1. Not like anyone else has updated the wiki yet… one has consider sometimes that the wikipedia may really be a unique realm. This being a journal associated wit some prestige, I’d prefer to be some explicit recognition for my own research rather than going about slipping it in anonymously.

    I wouldn’t advise getting “hung up” on the tools either, but the right or wrong tool (or customization thereof) will make or break an online news effort.