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]