Grassroots journalism: Actual content vs. shining ideal

Community sites filled with local news and humming with spirited discussion were a seductive promise from when the Web went wide in the mid-1990s. Sprinkling cybernetic stardust, prophets of a democratic Internet envisioned Americans connecting on virtual village greens. But it didn’t happen.

Americans did connect on the Web by the millions, but those relationships were based on users’ shared interests, not on where they lived. The initial local sites were essentially bland electronic versions of weekly newspapers. They appealed to and attracted passive readers, not active users. Then, with the dawn of the new century, came the phenomenon of citizen journalism. Suddenly there was a potentially huge new source of community content — and it was free. Across the country, new community sites popped up, many of them started on a shoestring, some launched by major media companies.

Many Internet prophets now see their early vision being fulfilled. And so it seems on the surface. But when you take a closer look, what you see, apart from a couple of honorable exceptions, is the Internet equivalent of Potemkin villages — an elaborate façade with little substance behind it.

To find out what was actually happening, I toured ten citizen journalism sites that have been created since 2003. The sites serve communities ranging from pre-Revolutionary towns to the shiniest new suburbs, across the country.

iBrattleboro

My first stop was iBrattleboro.com. The site launched in March 2003 in Brattleboro, Vt., a 252-year-old town of 12,000. Think kayaking, skiing, roadside farm stands and small-town intimacy. Steeped in history and populated with energetic community activists, Brattleboro should be the perfect incubator for online community journalism. And iBrattleboro often fulfills the promise of citizen journalism, if you can adjust to the site’s sometimes maddening ways.

On a recent evening, the following headline appeared on the iBrattleboro homepage scroll: “Crisis at BCTV – What You Can Do.” The posting by “SK-B” (the handle used by town resident and frequent iBrattleboro contributor Steven K-Brooks) read: “Problems at Brattleboro Community Television which have simmered for years, boiled over at the July 6, 2005 Board of Directors’ meeting at which the chairman refused to apologize to another board member whom he had called ‘an a–hole.’ This shocking display at a public meeting with the press present is the tip of the iceberg. The incident shows that it is no exaggeration to call the current dynamics at BCTV, dysfunctional.”

If you lived in Brattleboro, wouldn’t this pique your interest? At the end of his post, K-Brooks urged Brattleboro residents to come to the next meeting of the BCTV board, which was the following night. Despite his late posting — at 8:34 p.m. — K-Brooks’ notice attracted 168 hits, which, even accounting for repeat visitors, was the equivalent of “a couple hundred thousand” hits in New York City, K-Brooks stated in an e-mail.

He continued: “The item had its intended effect: There was a good turnout at the meeting. I think there were about 30 people, which in Brattleboro is major, public participation. … Had there only been, say, 3 spectators and no reporters, they might very well have marginalized my concern. … As it happened, they took the matter seriously, and the asshole incident was a front-page story in both dailies. The dysfunction at BCTV was dramatized for the general public, and there was impetus for change.”

K-Brooks’ story and its nearly 50 comments (some of them adding pertinent new details) are a powerful example of citizen journalism at the community level.

But does the average news consumer in Brattleboro have the time to click through 50-plus general postings to find out specifically what’s going on at Brattleboro Cable TV? Why not build a special page on BCTV where users can find a summary of the issues with links to each story and related comments? Purists of citizen journalism don’t like to see editors massaging content. Plus, the two people who run iBrattleboro, Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage, both have to juggle their work on the site with full-time jobs. iBrattleboro is not yet making enough income to pay them salaries.

Bluffton Today

My next stop was BlufftonToday.com, based in the coastal resort of Bluffton, S.C. Morris Communications Corp., headquartered in Augusta, Ga., launched the site last April, along with a free daily of the same name. The new daily replaced Morris’ Carolina Today, a seven-year-old daily that was delivered to Bluffton subscribers of Morris’ Savannah (Ga.) Morning News.

When a new user registers with BlufftonToday.com, he or she gets a personal blog, which is the only place original stories can be posted. Only staff reporters, who work for both the paper and the site, can contribute news articles, although users can comment on the articles. Unable to be full-fledged citizen journalists, users tend to do more grousing than reporting – like “Charlie,” who recently complained in his blog: “ANYONE I ASK HAS NO ANSWER. WHO IS PAYING FOR THE POLICE I SEE EVERY NIGHT IN THE FRONT OF THE NEW MOVIE CONSTRUCTION SITE IN POLICE CARS?????”

Greensboro101

Greensboro101, in Greensboro, N.C., is less a community site than a portal for close to 90 local blogs. A volunteer editorial board ranks the stories and the site showcases what it considers its best blogging on its homepage.

On a recent day the site’s homepage featured two bloggers’ takes on political forums the previous night (here and here). But neither posting offered much meat from the debates. Few of Greensboro101’s postings draw comments, even though Greensboro (population 227,000) is considered a very Internet-savvy city.

Backfence

Four-month-old Backfence.com covers Washington, D.C., suburbs McLean and Reston, Va., and Bethesda, Md. Reston (where I used to live) is currently debating whether to try to become an incorporated town — a subject that should be perfect fodder for a new site like Backfence.com that wants and needs to create a buzz. The site has flogged the headline “Should Reston become a town?” on its homepage for more than three months. There have been a little over 20 postings from 10 contributors, but few from Reston’s power players and opinion makers.

Backfence might have sparked a top-to-bottom communitywide conversation by getting one of the main advocates of municipal governance and a high-profile opponent to debate the issue while taking live questions. But Backfence’s founders, Mark Potts, who co-founded washingtonpost.com, and Susan DeFife, founder of WOMENconnect.com, a now-defunct portal for women, insist that control of the site — everything, including what should get featured — belongs to users. If no contributor chooses to organize a debate about governance involving the principals, then there won’t be one — period.

Backfence shares with many other community sites a practice that I find annoying. By allowing users to create fake screen names during the registration process, the site virtually invites contributors to be anonymous in their postings. But why would anyone want to get in a serious online discussion about a local issue with someone who is known only as “woodslope” or “nomdebytes”?

YourHub

At YourHub.com, which launched six months ago in metro Denver, most of the community news that’s featured is produced by reporters who work for the 38 suburban sites and two in the city. Those reporters also contribute to YourHub weekly papers, which are circulated as inserts in the Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post. YourHub.com’s citizen journalism, such as it is, consists mostly of handouts for calendar-type announcements and relentless charity appeals. Occasionally what should be a paid ad creeps into the postings (e.g., “Ask a plumber. A low-budget makeover story”). Navigating through the many postings — which are undated — is like going into a hardware store where all the different size screws are thrown in one box.

YourHub, unlike most other citizen journalism sites, doesn’t have a “comment” button where users can start or join an online conversation about an issue or topic. But site registrants can contribute a “Sound off” piece which will become a new item on the “latest postings” scroll.

YourHub also runs “latest news” links from area news sources. But these are a series of links to outside news sources — so users can’t make comments.

The Northwest Voice

At NorthwestVoice.com, which covers a mainly residential quadrant of Bakersfield, Calif., citizen journalists produce about 80 percent of the content. Most of it is fluff — or as the site puts it, “down-home news, told from your perspective.” Very popular in August were photos of family vacations. Virtually all hard news comes from reporters who work for the site and the companion free Northwest Voice biweekly paper. Both the website and the paper are published by The Bakersfield Californian, which maintains a more conventional website. NorthwestVoice.com users can submit an article on any subject, but they can’t post comments on other articles, so there’s little opportunity for an community conversation to build around a popular topic.

WestportNow

The most news-filled community site I visited was WestportNow, in tony Westport, Conn. WestportNow’s founder and editor/publisher, Gordon Joseloff, enlists a lot of citizen journalists, but he doesn’t post their contributions untouched by editors’ hands — the practice at most of the new community sites. Joseloff, who had a long career as a newsman at CBS-TV, and at UPI before that, said in an e-mail: “I or one of my other journalist pros work with the citizen journalists on their submissions. We explain the need for full quotes, names, ages, the who, what, where, when, and how, etc. … I think it is this professional style that gives us our credibility and has built readership.”

One of WestportNow’s best features is “Teardowns,” where visitors, using an interactive map, can go to photos of usually modest, even dilapidated homes and find out what they cost buyers who plan to replace them with grander structures. The prices — as much as $1 million or more — must create a lot of conversations in Westport. “Teardowns” is just the kind of feature that community sites should be building. There is a wealth of public databases that could be tapped free of charge — in the manner of chicagocrime.org — but most sites are not doing that. (Although iBrattleboro had a great conversation starter recently when an anonymous poster listed the 50 top assessed properties in town along with the neighborhoods that had the biggest assessment increases.)

WestportNow is big on photographs. Almost every article is illustrated with professional quality photos. When you’ve got a slew of celebrities and other notables like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward living in your town, a camera can be as important as a notepad and pencil. A recent on-the-scene photograph featured a supine Eartha Kitt being tended to by rescue workers after “the legendary singer-actress” was “shaken up but not injured” when her Range Rover was upended after being bumped from behind. The New York Post picked up the copyrighted WestportNow photo. A second photo from the site featured Kitt’s daughter taking away Kitt’s two uninjured toy poodles under the watchful eye of police.

Like other community sites depending on citizen journalism, WestportNow is formatted like a blog, with the newest postings on top, regardless of content. Joseloff worried about this at first, but explained why he restrained his editor’s instincts: “We have been through several prototypes which are more akin to traditional news sites, i.e., with headlines and summaries (and required clickthroughs) laid out according to our perceived importance. These prototypes (seen only by selected individuals) were uniformly rejected.”

GoSkokie

When GoSkokie.com was launched as a student project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in spring 2004, it got considerable attention, and a lot of plaudits, from the national journalistic community. But in Skokie itself, an incorporated village of 23,700 households north of Chicago, it was another story.

Mike Tumolillo, one of the Medill students involved in the launch, said, “We found just one person who had the interest and aptitude” to be a Skokie citizen journalist. The j-school students produced most of the reporting. Tumolillo, now a reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, said the class “tried to hand off GoSkokie to the people of Skokie, but it didn’t work out.” Tumolillo thinks any citizen journalism site needs someone in charge — he prefers to call that person a “motivator” rather than editor — who can find and train residents to be volunteer reporters and videographers and keep them inspired and working week after week.

GoSkokie received a 2004 “notable entry” in the Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism from the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Now, however, the site is a virtual hollow shell. Recently, “Today’s featured article” was actually a job-wanted ad posted in May by a Chicago woman seeking a clerical/administrative position. The posting apparently got misdirected. Beneath it was another posting headlined “Hello.” The content reads: “Hey, does this post by itself?” (signed) Anonymous.

MyMissourian

MyMissourian.com, which is produced by the Columbia Missourian, the student newspaper published by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was inspired, in part, by GoSkokie. But MyMissourian tried to avoid GoSkokie’s fate by using students not only to report and photograph stories, but also to energetically seek local contributors. Yet the results don’t seem to be any better.

MyMissourian’s homepage features about one or two contributions per week. The following item was still being prominently featured near the top of the MyMissourian homepage six days after it was posted: “Pineapple Salsa” — a recipe. At a recent picnic for Hurricane Katrina survivors who are being sheltered locally, MyMissourian gave disposable cameras to young guests, but the resulting online photo album shows mainly the backs of unidentified people lining up for food. Why didn’t MyMissourian bring a couple of laptops and let survivors tell their stories?

Muncie Free Press

K. Paul Mallasch launched Muncie Free Press in Muncie, Ind., in July as a “news and information source by the people and for the people.” So far, the people consist mostly of Mallasch, who covers and photographs everything from city council meetings to truck pulls. Former online manager of The (Muncie) Star Press website, Mallasch has been searching Muncie and nearby communities to find would-be citizen journalists. After 45 days, he’s connected with one. He’s trying to get the journalism department at Ball State University to donate some computer lab space so he can give tutorials to local folks on how to use Muncie Free Press’s publishing software.

On the site homepage, Mallasch tries to avoid the monotonous, extensive scrolling that is the unfortunate hallmark of most citizen journalism sites. He’s devised an elaborate scoring system that lets users vote on whether a story goes on the homepage or elsewhere. But he needs to attract enough users to make the system credible (assuming they understand how to use his scoring system).

On Sept. 23, Mallasch posted this notice on his site: “Hi, your friendly publisher here. If you haven’t noticed, things slowed down a lot at Muncie Free Press this last week. No, I’m not giving up. I’m regrouping and preparing for phase two, which will be launched soon. Stay tuned for a lot more.”

Conclusions

The best citizen journalism sites at the community level — iBrattleboro and WestportNow — buzz with activity. That didn’t happen spontaneously. The proprietors of both sites know their communities, are passionately engaged with them and, in their own ways, are not afraid to put on editor’s (or motivator’s) hats .

At iBrattleboro, founders Grotke and LePage, through words and action, gently prod users to put the site to its highest and best uses. “We’ve … tried to set a good example on the site and demand excellence from people,” Grotke says. The site could do a better job of showcasing content, but it’s working. It has more than 900 registered users and thousands more unsigned visitors. Each week, the site gets 3,000 to 4,000 unique visitors — in a town of 12,000. Pretty good.

WestportNow editor/publisher Joseloff grew up in Westport. Using his extensive knowledge of the community and working closely with his citizen journalists, he has built a site that contains a rich variety of content, both text and photos. WestportNow attracts an impressive 125,000 visits (counting repeats) a month — in a town of 26,000.

Many citizen journalism sites will surely emerge. The powerful search engines are providing community sites with traffic and, where there are partnerships, shared ad revenue, creating a tempting business model. But will new sites be vibrant virtual village greens like iBrattleboro or WestportNow or the more common Potemkin villages? My tour doesn’t leave me hopeful.

Tom Grubisich, a screenwriter based in Santa Monica, Calif., was managing editor of news for DigitalCity/AOL until AOL’s merger with Time Warner in 2001, and, earlier, was a reporter and editor for the Washington Post, then co-founder of the free-circulation Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. He is reachable at [email protected]

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. In theory, an interesting experiment in “spreading the word,” but except for a very few sites that will control the quality of input (but at the considerable risk of being accused of censorship–unless the “rules of engagement” are well spelled out in advance), these sites will surely devolve quickly into fluff and junk akin to the infinite blogosphere which hosts everyone’s expression of their lives of “quiet desperation.” However, I can see this idea evolving into lively, competitive sites in smaller, growing communities that tend to be isolated and dominated by one or two media outlets–but again, a firm hand would have to be in charge to insure a civilized adherence to some pre-defined standards. As to the smaller sites becoming money-makers . . . that would be very problematic. All my skepticism aside, I’m going to recommend the idea to a would-be entrepreneur who is currently dreaming of competing, on a shoe string, with a virtual communications monopoly in our small town of some 40,000 souls.

  2. The best grassroots journalism sites are the ones that are actually grassroots. Take a look at h2otown.com and baristanet.com, as well as my own coastsider.com. These, as well as ibrattleboro and westportnow, are the created by individuals with a vision and not by corporations or j-schools. And it shows.

  3. Yes, we didn’t leap out of the gate, but we’re only 3 months old now and we’ve gotten where we’re at with no advertising so far, which I think is good. I wish I would’ve started back in 2003, but I didn’t.

    Phase 2 is out print ‘supplement’ to the website. It’s looking to be a weekly broadsheet of around 20 pages. There are some other things thrown into the mix, but I don’t want to give too much away yet. Circulation will start at 6,000 and grow to 50,000+ by this time next year (hopefully earlier…)

    Another thing to note is that we have advertisers getting ahold of us, wanting to advertise on the site. These aren’t hard sells but things that are falling into our lap. It shows, I think, the community is behind the new site but not a lot of them know about it yet. The print will help with that, I think. (Considering the local newspaper won’t do a story on us…)

    Finally, the biggest hurdle I’m having to overcome is the participation because our system isn’t a stripped down forum that most newspaper website viewers are used to using. I’m working on this problem too.

    So, yes, we’re by far not the greatest thing out there, but we’re moving forward.

    If anyone has any questions, I’ll be glad to answer them here or backchannel via email.

    Thanks,
    kpaul

  4. Typical MSM pointy-head peering down from Olympus pooh-poohing the fact that some people might want to look at family photos online (ooh, somebody alert the author to the fact that the Boston Globe now prints these photos in its print edition every day) and that community sites don’t share his interest in school-board meetings. Also way too selective in the sites you look at. Is http://www.ctatattler.com a community-journalism site? I’d say it is and they do a great job covering the Chicago subways.

    Not all sites aspire to become the next Boston Globe, nor should they. One of the things that today’s Internet means is that the user is much more (or can be much more) in control of his experience – thanks to such things as RSS. Deal with it, Mr. MSM!

    At the same time, you do raise a good point about a) community and b) the use of the vast amounts of freely available data out there. But it’s funny to read a complaint about that when the MSM types who presumably use this site haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to innovative use of such data online. Potemkin Villages indeed!

  5. If you want to talk about “ideal journalism,” how about writing an article in which you actualy interview people, both involved in the sites, as well as the communities where they are based?

    To measure the sites’ success based on traditional news values is missing the point

  6. Nuturing and maintaining a community of writers is the single hardest task in online journalism. It demands the skills of a seasoned interviewer, politician, playground monitor and game theoretician, all in one.

    Building or installing the infrastructure for an online community is the easy part. Getting people to contribute useful content to it, on a consistent basis, is the hard work for which few people have the talent and skill.

    People will contribute to a community only to the point where they feel they are no longer getting more value out of it than they put in. So a successful grassroots content site must start with an informed and persuasive voice, delivering useful information that will attract readers who will then want to reciprocate with information of their own.

    The site’s technical system for posting then must be designed is a way to discourage or eliminate low-value posts and to encourage and highlight posts with great value to other readers. And the site’s editor must maintain a highly visible role, setting the tone for the contributions and minimizing conflicts among contributors.

    Only if all these pieces are in place can a site build to the critical mass where the content community sustains itself. And even then, the editor must work constantly to keep the site’s contributions engaging without becoming combative.

    This is work for innovators and visionaries. Not for committees and task forces. Print models of reporting and writing narrative stories won’t long fly with volunteer contributors. Innovators must, and have, found ways to engage thoughtful contributions through discussions, blogging, incident reports, media posts and various other feedback forms.

    My theory? With online journalism, the less you structure your grassroots initiative like a workplace newsroom, and the more you structure it like a social community, the more successful your initiative will be.

  7. Tom:

    Thanks for including Greensboro101 in your review. I think your evaluation of
    Greensboro101 missed a crucial factor about what is happening here in
    Greensboro. You seemed to dismiss Greensboro101 as less than effective because
    few people commented on the posts about the recent candidates forum.
    Accommodating comments is a secondary function of Greensboro101. It is primarily
    intended to drive readers to the participating blogs, where a very lively conversation
    happens both in original posts on those blogs and in their comments. The most
    important thing I think you missed though, was that the forum itself was
    organized and conducted by local citizen journalists.

    For the first time in my 35-year memory of this city, a true people’s forum was
    held to quiz candidates for local office. Local bloggers and their reader
    submitted 101 questions (coincidentally). Local bloggers then voted to select
    thirty-six questions to be asked of the candidates. All eight candidates
    participated in the forum, answering questions determined by citizens to be
    important. It was a true grassroots effort that queried candidates about issues
    that ordinary people deemed to be important. Indeed, the editorial page editor
    of Greensboro

  8. Mr. Grubisich,
    You say: “The initial local sites were essentially bland electronic versions of weekly newspapers. They appealed to and attracted passive readers, not active users.”

    You haven’t looked back far enough. The first e-versions weren’t Web sites, they were bulletin boards. The first electronic newspaper in the country was at The Albuquerque Tribune and was a BBS run by Dave Carlson (now a new media professor). The eTrib was anything but passive. Not only that, it was in the black when the editor there shut it down because he decided the electronic newspaper thing wasn’t going anywhere. Go figure. People paid an annual fee to join in. Also, eTrib was not a reflection of the daily paper. Content there was contributed by participants, or it was wire news that didn’t make it into the newspaper.

    But my point is that eTrib was filled with lively, daily conversations about everything under the sun. The overall site was also actively monitored AND participated in by the site manager. Yes. There were some wild moments and people who had to be blocked. But in its time, it worked very well.

    Perhaps to find success in participatory journalism, we mainstream media types need to look behind the registration walls in niche places like nascar.com: http://www.nascar.com/comm/. Mary Gay, or ‘nascar mary’ as the netizens there call her, has built a truly robust interactive environment for NASCAR fans. There are professionals out there who, like Mary, know how to build community and are getting paid to do it. Heck. They’ve been practicing since the BBS days. But newspapers would have to hire them, and pay them, for their expertise. These things don’t work without care and feeding.

    Other than that, you’re right on Robert Niles.

  9. Indeed, I think you’ve sold Greensboro101 short as it’s effect of the local blogosphere has been huge. For example: how many of the so-called portals that you point out actually work out a way to share not only ad revenue but sales commissions with those who feed their aggregator? (That’s right, every blogger in the 101 can earn their ad share plus sales commissions should they refer advertisers.) My guess would be that Greensboro101 is the first and probably only such site to do so. Tell Roch Smith I really appreciate that check EVERY month as well as the traffic his 101 aggregator sends me. (By the way, Roch is looking to bring the 101 network to other cities as soon as others step up to the plate.)

    And no, Roch doesn’t get all the credit for what goes on in Blogsboro.com as events like Converge South put together by those of us on the 101 Network and our local MeetUp Group of 80 plus members continue to push us to the top of the Blogosphere.

    And when it comes to comments… check out some of the sites listed at 101. Two examples: David Hoggard and Ed Cone who both write extensivly on local topics.

  10. Grubisich is trying to measure the wrong characteristics. Maybe “Citizen Journalism” as a title is part of the problem. Mainstream journalists — the ones who are measurably driving away the audience — are naturally going to have a different definition of what the output should look like than the citizens themselves.

    I do have the greatest respect for projects like OhMyNews that hope to produce a product that is structurally similar to traditional professional journalism. But I think it is a mistake to assume that all citizen participation should take that shape. (And of course OhMyNews itself doesn’t do so — which is why it embraces conversations attached to every one of its stories.)

    Looking at Bluffton Today, Gribisich writes: “Unable to be full-fledged citizen journalists, users tend to do more grousing than reporting.”

    I challenge the assumption that a blog entry can’t be “full-fledged;” that’s entirely up to the user, and any “full-fledged” report can be promoted to “full-fledged” status in print.

    But more importantly, “grousing” is an important part of the social conversation that we’re trying to facilitate.

    Citizens have a right to complain, organize, and take action on local issues that professional journalists might overlook, whether those issues be tall weeds, police working as security guards, or traffic jams.

    When we “cover” the “news” we help that civic process happen. When we provide an open community blogging platform, we also help that civic process happen. It may not look, feel, read like newspaper journalism, but it doesn’t need to.

    It was never our goal to get citizens to write newspaper stories, although blog items are reproduced in print.

    It was always our primary goal to get citizens engaged in community life. The whole point is to raise social capital — the connections, trust, mutual understanding and shared values that collectively constitute a key measure of community.

  11. Tom Grubisich says:

    To Roch Smith: Greensboro 101.com says in its mission statement on its homepage:

  12. Okay, Tom. You obviously know more about the effects Greensboro101 has had on citizen journalism in Greensboro than I. Best of luck to you.

  13. A few random thoughts:

    “Village green” has a nice ring to it, but we think of it more like we’ve invited everyone over to our house to share news and information. In a true village green, there are no problems with people saying or doing just about anything. When one is a guest, certain rules will apply.

    People often ask what makes iBrattleboro successful, as if there were a set of materials one could purchase or actions one could take to get similar results elsewhere. I’m not sure if we know yet, but a few things seem to be true:

    – Manageable Size: Brattleboro is a small community with a single local newspaper

    – Town Inclination: The people here like to discuss and debate local issues on Main Street, in letters to the editor, etc. There is an active citizenry.

    – Money Second: We focus on content rather than ad revenue, assuming ad revenue will come later when it is real and deserved. Thinking of the site as a community resource rather than a business opportunity is a big factor.

    – Truly Local: Lise and I live in town, shop in town, and interact in town. People can reach us. We’re real.

    We do think this can happen in other communities, and that each approach must be developed for the community it serves.

    We couldn’t run a site for a neighboring town… we’d miss the subtle interaction that comes from living in the community. It’s one of the reasons, I think, that readers of chain papers are left cold. Community isn’t just a buzzword, and people are smart enough to know if it is genuine or manufactured.

    What works for us in Brattleboro is different than what would work in Greensboro, or at least I would hope so. If not, we’ve lost all uniqueness in the country. It’s fun to see what others are trying.

    We certainly haven’t reached the limits of this, and find ourselves still spending a fair amount of time reminding people that they can write their own news when they complain that the local paper got it wrong, or didn’t cover their event.

    We learn new things as the site evolves. One is that the concern about “anonymous” stories has not been a problem for us. We read each story before it goes up, but this type of news and information site uses time as a factor in reporting. Over time, a fuller picture emerges. The initial story might be sketchy, but as details emerge, the truth comes out.

    People using pen names has also not been a problem. Being a small town, most people know each other and often share their identities. We also have regulars whom nobody really knows. In both cases, comments are signed and judged based on their content, and over time, reputation.

    We have a pretty good relationship with regional media. Many reporters use the site to get story ideas, for a news story done in proper journalistic fashion. We’ll share tips if we run into one another at meetings

    And yes, the average Brattleboro news consumer has the time to read all 50 comments… especially when they wrote some of them themselves.

  14. (Cross Posted)

    I held back a bit to see where this discussion was going. But I think it is time to clear up a few misconceptions that may be leading to false impressions of MyMissourian and citizen journalism.

    One of my continuing disappointments with our discussions (as I

  15. Tom Grubisich says:

    One of the most annoying things about postings on community news sites is that too many participants cloak themselves in anonymity. The sites

  16. Hello all,

    Thanks for putting this great list of efforts together Tom. If no one would mind, I feel Philly Future (http://www.phillyfuture.org), a site I founded December of 1999 and re-launched early 2004 should be among those mentioned here.

    Philly Future takes a hybrid approach – combining the the contributions of those posting original works, like Bluffton Today, with a regional blog aggregator, like Greensboro101, that features 260 bloggers from across our tri-state area. It could handle far more if we had the resources to do it.

    Speaking of that – Philly Future is ran by a dedicated group of volunteers – who are doing this as a labor of love – with no financial recooperation for their efforts (as of yet – who knows what the future holds?). They are focused on trying to widen the conversation in our regional web. Gathering news from various sources, pulling it togther, providing clarity whenever possible. Highlighting those that need to be heard. Encourging discussion and reaching out.

    Recent highlights include:

    1. A community interview with the City of Philadelphia’s CIO Dianah Neff that focused on the Philadelphia Wi-Fi initative: link

    2. Coverage of Live 8 that featured a press credentialed volunteer on site, and news driven via RSS from Technorati, Flickr, and the best bloggers in our region: link

    3. The Save Ardmore Coalition – an organization working against the practice of eminent domain, which posts to Philly Future, was recently featured in the Economist.

    4. Philly Future was part of a major effort to bring notice to the media to the plight of Latoyia Figueroa and confront the media on it’s biased extensive coverage of Natalie Holloway.

    5. Starting and organizing an advertising network of local blogs: link.

    This is truely a grassroots effort: there are no marketers, no larger media concern behind it, or group of folks earning a living from it (yet – again you never know). But it’s precisely because it is grassroots that I feel we should be included and considered. We’ve done far more than most – with passion and a belief in our mission. The community is very special and what we are empowering folks to do I believe has merit.

  17. Great discussion and thanks to Tom for highlighting WestportNow.com. Indeed, after more than two and a half years of allowing anonymous comments, we did go to requiring users to register and to use real names. It was not as easy decision, but as I said in my explanation to readers, quoted by Tom, I could no longer allow WestportNow to be used for anonymous sniping and personal attacks

  18. David Greene says:

    I must be living on a different planet. Or my search function is not working. Ever hear of a guy named Dan Gillmor who wrote the book on this stuff? He has a site named Bayosphere.

  19. I, admittidly was being a bit self-serving in my post. Good point about Bayosphere.

    In addition, Urban Vancouver, UniversalHub, OhMyNews, and the granddaddy, IndyMedia.

  20. David Greene says:
  21. To: Tom Grubisich

    If you’re looking for a grassroots journalism site with a high degree of activity you should check http://www.paulding.com. More specifically check the links to the recent topics page … they are next to the banners on every page and this is the most viewed single page on the site. (My quasi-journalistic front page is viewed some 5000 times a day but the forum – where folks do ‘not the news’ but the conversation that includes the news) The link:
    http://www.paulding.com/forum/index.php?act=search&CODE=getnew&active=1 )

    This page is the conversation of this community. The lead topic changes with every new post and the list I last viewed involved offers of jobs and goods as well as an obit, a discussion of an upcoming Mayoral race and an odd bent and vent by a ‘wiccan’ who claimed his dog was killed and ‘freak’ scratched into his car because the closemindedness of the community. (Fascinating read with 284 posts and 5600+ views).

    Then there is the ‘watch out for brown recluse spiders – they charge when wounded – topic that another member pulled a link from an entomology professor’s site that is doing research on their location in Georgia. That topic, posted by nobabymamadrama has had 32 replies and 485 views in the 14 hours it has existed.

    There is also pre-notice of our Monday Night ‘call-in’ Front Porch Show – streaming radio – where next week the candidates for Mayor of Hiram will be interviewed and questioned both with online questions and questions posed by telephone.

    All in all, about 175 topics were commented on the past 24 hours. The site itsself is coming up on a half-million topics with about half the 5868 registered members having posted. You’ll find free goods, homes for sale and lost dogs there every so often as well.

    Do even a reasonable portion of the topics follow the ‘inverted pyramid’ form of journalist writing style? No … but they are the height of conversation.

    But what this format does do is provide the serendipity one normally finds breezing through the newspaper. Some will catch your interest, some won’t but, because 95% of the posters and topics are hyperlocal, geographic proximity is the enduring news hook.

    It is working. Paulding.com ranks second only to the Alanta Journal Constitution (ajc.com) in the alexa reach rating among media in Georgia (Pcom is tops in counties and #14 in the state behind national sites like UPS.com, Coca Cola, Equifax, etc.).

    Pardon me for being a bit self-serving in this but there is something special going on in the burbs northwest of Atlanta.

    G Patton Hughes
    [email protected]

    PS: The commission chairman, the highest elected official in the county, has a blog on the site where he answers questions and has since Nov. 2003. (It was also a pretty interesting summer 2004 primary season — you should have seen the video.)