The University of Montana's online Rural News Network sustains community ties as newspapers close

DUTTON, MT – When Courtney Lowery flew to Seattle for surgery shortly after her college graduation, her hometown newspaper published a notice so community members knew where to drop off gifts. She awoke following that January 2003 surgery to find a suitcase full of teddy bears, candy and flowers from neighbors in the small farming community at her hospital bedside. Her thank-you note to the town also ran in the Dutton Dispatch – on the front page, alongside the news of the day.

Lowery, a journalist and currently editor of the Missoula-based, made a complete recovery. However, that thank-you-note issue of the Dispatch was one of the newspaper’s last before the paper was permanently shuttered.

We hear often today about the demise of major metropolitan newspapers. But residents of rural communities – such as Dutton on the Rocky Mountain Front, population around 375 – also lose when their sole source of local news is taken from them.

“These small-town papers – their value is huge,” Lowery said, “They bring the community together [with] a sense of pride and identity. They’re a tiny mark of ‘we were here’ for prom, Arbor Day, Veteran’s Day… You lose your paper; you lose your history.”

It was partly from that sense of loss and a belief in the value of community journalism that Lowery and University of Montana photojournalism professor Keith Graham created the Rural News Network. For the RNR class at the University of Montana, journalism students travel to small towns that have lost their local paper or never had one, and involve residents in starting up local news websites with the goal of handing the sites’ operation and upkeep to those community members at the projects’ close.

The first Rural News Network publication, the Dutton Country Courier, was launched in the spring of 2007. The following fall, the journalism students, several of whom were Native American with ties to the state’s Crow Indian Reservation, launched Crow Agency’s first local news outlet, Both publications today are going strong with regular community contributors and negotiations for handoffs currently in progress.

A 2002 graduate from the University of Montana’s print journalism program, Lowery, who describes herself as an accidental “Web maven,” spent a few years working for Lee Newspapers and the Associate Press before coming back to Montana in 2005 to edit then-startup Also in 2005 she was invited to sit on her alma mater’s newly formed journalism curriculum committee.

“We started talking about introducing a project class, to give students exposure to online and really get their hands dirty building something from scratch,” Lowery said.

At this time of change and upheaval in the journalism industry, innovative J-schools across the country are looking to offer students various entrepreneurial Web journalism training and experience.

“There was a lot of buzz around rural, conversations about the West going blue,” Lowery said. “So this class was [also] about grounding tomorrow’s journalists in an understanding of what rural places look like and what that culture means.”

The Rural News Network project won a two-year $17,000 New Voices grant (through American University-based J-Lab and the Knight Foundation), which provides seed money for such online community news start-ups.

Part of the explosive trend in Web-based “hyperlocal” citizen journalism and “pro-am” news start-ups, the Rural News Network project is one of 48 New Voices grant recipients since 2005. The Crow and Dutton sites also are listed among the more than 6,000 local “mostly news” websites indexed by, the largest searchable index of local sites, said PlaceBlogger CEO and Founder Lisa Williams.

For the UM project, grant money went to equipment, and transportation between the University in Missoula and the RNR sites. “Dutton is around three hours from Missoula. Crow is six-to-seven hours,” said Peggy Kuhr, dean of the University of Montana’s journalism school. “Some students had friends or family to stay with in the communities. Sometimes they had to find a cheap motel nearby. It would have been difficult in the space of the semester to get something up and running without those local ties.”

Another consideration in the site selection process was Internet access, as parts of rural Montana do not have access to broadband.

As for training, Lowery and Graham held a few workshops for the students, but the real work of the Rural News Network class was in the communities.

“A majority of the [teaching] was just winging it. I go through a list of what I think they need to know,” Lowery said. “Why should newspapers be on Facebook? What’s good newspaper Web design? How are news organizations using the Web to reach out to their communities?

“In Dutton, Keith and I did a lot of the scheduling and setting up,” Lowery said.

In Crow Agency, the instructors left much of the initial footwork to the students with ties there. In both communities, the students found out about town meetings, piggybacked on fundraisers and social events, and contacted key community leaders and legislators. They covered beats and co-wrote stories with residents.

“They were having a hard time getting town meeting agendas out to the public; the community didn’t know when they were going to discuss water management issues… school consolidations. It’s critical,” said Tad Sooter, a graduate of UM journalism school, who worked on the Dutton startup.

“[In Crow] we went to churches, introduced ourselves to pastors, went where people gathered to find out what they’d want to hear,” said Adam Sings In The Timber, a recent UM J-school graduate, who is currently working on a photo book on Native Americans, a project inspired in part by the RNR experience. “In Montana when we see Natives in the newspaper, it’s often negative: drunk driving… a Native beat someone up. There’s lots of negative news about Indians. We’d cover that if it was necessary, but we also wanted to talk about the happy things that Natives do.”

The sites feature sections for library news, school news, sports and town hall news designed for the community leaders, as citizen journalists, to share the goings-on in their areas.

“It’s a great resource,” said Bill Habel of Dutton, a retired farmer and chairman of the town’s Civic Club and annual Fun Day fair and fundraiser. “Particularly for the older people who rely on a local newspaper or something online.” Habel said he contributes to the Courier when he can. “And my mother who is 89, she doesn’t mind contributing to the news. [The site] is important for small towns that can’t afford a newspaper.”

Yet as local and national newspapers shrink and fold and the Web continues to expand and redefine journalism, the increasing role of citizen journalism is a growing concern to some veteran journalists.

“There is a void being created in terms of news and information and it falls to all of us, journalists and non-journalists alike, to get important stories told,” said Bill Mitchell, who heads the Poynter Institute’s News Transformation and International Programs. But while this chaotic period in journalism calls for collaboration, such participatory journalism introduces new concerns about accuracy and transparency, with other legal and ethical concerns, he added.

J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer said such ethical concerns are more-or-less mitigated by the very nature of community publications.

“In this particular slice of the ecosystem, where we have citizens doing community sites… they are civic catalysts – on the PTA, coaching soccer, they’re civically engaged,” Schaffer said. “They care very deeply about being fair to people in the community, providing good coverage that’s not going to hurt anyone. The people who read them are those they see in church, in the grocery store.”

In Montana Melody Martinsen, editor of the Choteau Acantha based 25 miles from Dutton, finds it funny that notions of citizen journalism and hyperlocalism are being discussed in the context of recent or tech-driven trends.

The Acantha – which covers the news of Teton County (population around 6,300), like other rural newspapers with tight budgets and limited staff – relies on community contributors and so-called hyperlocal content. Online for more than 10 years, the Acantha has used the Web to expand its community coverage, Martinsen said.

“I cover government and enterprise stories… I want the community to contribute its own minutiae,” she said. “It’s what the community needs and wants to know.”

That’s how rural news outlets have functioned for years, Martinsen said.

New West balances 'conversational style' with reporting to earn awards

At first glance, New West looks like a lot of other nascent citizen media efforts, with its blog-like format and calls for reader submissions. But beneath the surface, New West is a breathtaking contrast in styles and thought. Journalistically, the site combines reporting, local media aggregation, insightful commentary and blogging. Politically, the site’s contributors often take anti-development, pro-environmental stands, putting it at odds with the broader populace that votes solidly GOP.

And though New West was launched a mere nine months ago, it has the audacity to proclaim itself as “The Voice of the Rocky Mountains,” while also bagging two 2005 Online Journalism Awards — one for enterprise reporting and another for general excellence for a small site.

New West might be a rookie website, but the people who run it are far from being rookies. Jonathan Weber, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, has years of experience as an editor at the Los Angeles Times and Industry Standard magazine; and New West managing editor Courtney Lowery was a writer and editor at Lee Newspapers and the Associated Press. (Full disclosure: Weber was my editor at the LA Times and Standard, when I freelanced for those publications.)

While the site’s masthead includes bios of 17 people, only two of them — Weber and Lowery — are full-time staff at the moment. But together, these folks have mined the untold stories of the Rocky Mountain West, focusing on the political and social ramifications of migration and commercial growth, without losing their humor. Recent posts with the most comments include a discussion on meth use among Native Americans, an explanation of how a mountain lion and house cat were electrocuted recently, and a rant against “neocon bushwads” who espouse an Ayn Rand philosophy.

Weber told me his motivation for starting the site was the “dramatic change” he found going on in the Rocky Mountain region when he moved to Missoula, Mont., in 2002. He was surprised by the lack of media coverage on the subject.

“The initial impetus [for New West] came from my own curiosity about the large story of change in the Rocky Mountain West,” Weber said. “And I thought maybe there’s room for a publication that addresses that. At the same time, I’ve been following the world of online media since its inception. And in 2003, 2004, it was becoming increasingly clear that we were coming to a tipping point in the evolution of media and that online journalism was coming into its own.”

Robert Hoskins, who has contributed citizen journalism pieces for New West, lives in Crowheart, Wyo., as “a conservationist, naturalist, wilderness guide, horse wrangler, horse packer, part-time writer, and anything else I can do to make a living.” Hoskins liked the freewheeling nature of New West, and the chance to publish more controversial pieces he couldn’t sell to other outlets.

“After spending some time wandering around [New West], it seemed both eclectic and at the same time highly inclusive of everything that’s going on in the Rocky Mountain West,” Hoskins said via e-mail. “I’m finding out things that I never see in the stodgy print press, particularly regarding the cultural turbulence and diversity in the West. Living where I live and doing what I do, I’ve often doubted that there really was such a thing as a ‘New West’; it’s often seemed to me to be a buzz word. However, New West has proven to me that there really is a ‘New West.’ ”

Compensation to site contributors varies: unedited citizen journalists are not paid; regular city and regional editors receive small payments; and more substantial payments go to writers for investigative pieces. According to Weber and Lowery, good editorial is what drives traffic. So far, the site’s traffic has gone up each month, most recently hitting 42,000 unique visitors in October and 500,000 page views that month.

The most trafficked story at New West is also the one that garnered an award in enterprise journalism, “Sex, Money and Meth Addiction: Inside the World of the Dasen Girls,” by Hal Herring. The harrowing six-part story details the ugly underbelly of the methamphetamine scene in Kalispell, Mont., focusing on local businessman Dick Dasen’s arrest on prostitution charges.

But is it a viable business?

While New West has an eye-catching design and deftly blends old-school reporting with a bloggish tone — Weber calls the site’s “conversational style” its biggest stylistic innovation — the question remains whether the publication can catch fire as a business. Weber says the site has hit its financial goals so far, but is not profitable yet.

“We’re not profitable, for sure,” Weber said. “We’re generating well into the thousands of dollars per month in advertising thus far. We’re about where we thought we’d be on the revenue side, but we have a ways to go before we’re profitable, that’s for sure. Especially in the first few months, we didn’t focus on ad sales at all — because before we had traffic, we had nothing to sell at all. You have to have upfront capital to build an audience before you have something to sell. There is a lot of demand among small and medium businesses for more efficient advertising than the local papers. People are beginning to see the power of the Internet from a marketing standpoint.”

New West will soon have a full-time sales and marketing director, says Weber, noting that links from the blogosphere have helped push up New West stories in Google search results. The current lack of an offline component for promotion may be hurting the site’s prospects, but New West plans to launch a print magazine in fall 2006.

John Temple, editor, publisher and president of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, told me he liked what he’d seen of New West, but wasn’t sure how it would survive in a competitive media landscape.

“I think New West will have a huge challenge breaking into the market because it has no name ID and no ability to market itself except on the Web,” Temple said via e-mail. “We have our own citizen journalism initiative. is getting hundreds of events and postings every week. [New West] feels more like a magazine to me, or an alternative weekly. … Looking at it from the perspective of a metro daily in the West, we face a lot of competitors. And I wouldn’t put New West at the top of the list, ahead of Craigslist and Google and Yahoo. I’ve got more than 50 weeklies in this metro area and those people are all my competitors.”

Temple said he didn’t understand the underlying vision of the site — and it’s true that New West is trying to cover a lot of territory, both geographically and editorially. And because many of its writers and editors are passionate about issues such as sustainable growth and maintaining local character in the face of chain stores, conservative critics of the site have sometimes called it New Left.

Dave Budge is a conservative blogger and stockbroker in Montana who has written for New West, but cut back on his submissions because he feels the site’s editorial mission runs contrary to his own views.

“It’s more cultural than anything,” Budge told me. “I look at this publication, and there’s a lot of environmentalism in it, and it’s a fairly left of center political dialogue about the candidates in the West. And this whole region — from Canada to Mexico — is very much right of center and libertarian in its mindset. This is not a progressive part of the world. But maybe they’ll make it. I hope not [laughs].”

Lowery told me that she didn’t screen writers for their political views, and Weber said the site has tried but failed to get conservative voices to contribute regularly. The old saw about media bias is very white and black (conservative vs. liberal) and might not apply to the many shades of gray in the issues New West is trying to address. But the more voices New West brings in, the more chance that diversity of thought will flourish.

Weber says it’s a mainstream media trap to try to show both sides of all issues. He considers his own politics as being “common sense” and not necessarily right or left.

“It’s fair to say that I believe that growth should be managed, that conservation is important, and that separation of church and state is a core value of this country that should be defended,” Weber said. “That’s my point of view, that is one that is shared by most (though not necessarily all) of the regular contributors, that is reflected in many stories on New West and we don’t make any bones about that. How people want to label it is up to them. But I don’t think that makes us political partisans per se. … The fact that mainstream media insists on denying that reporters and editors have such opinions and are somehow ‘objective’ is one of the things that’s undermining the credibility of mainstream media.”

The unfiltered factor

So far, New West has had more luck getting consistent editorial submissions from paid contributors than from unpaid citizen journalists. Weber says that there’s a huge difference between paying someone very, very little and paying them nothing at all. Plus, getting people to send in photos is much easier than getting them to write stories for free.

“One of the things we’ve found as far as getting people involved with the site is that this is not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ ” he said. “Just because you have a way to let people write stories and comments doesn’t mean people are going to spontaneously do that. The development of contributors and community involvement takes a lot of work. … We found that there are a lot of people who are interested in contributing for various reasons — they like to write, they want to get their name out there, they have a cause they want to promote, they have different motivations for wanting to contribute.”

Editorial oversight is generally minimal for both paid contributors and unpaid ones. The Unfiltered section, which only has three posts over the past three weeks, allows any registered user to post without an editorial check beforehand. However, Lowery does read everything that is posted, and libelous, illegal or scurrilous personal attacks are not allowed. So far, only one of these Unfiltered posts has been removed, Lowery said.

Even the paid contributors largely post to the site without any prior editing. New West relies on upfront training by Lowery for each contributor, who is apprised of what the editors expect on a regular basis. Then they are set loose to post a set number of items each month. Right now, the site runs an average of 12 to 15 new posts per day.

“The citizen section, what we call Unfiltered stories, those stories don’t appear on the main pages of the site unless we promote them,” Weber said. “We have a hierarchy, with things coming in at the lower level, and then filtering up from the subcategories from the city and topic pages to the front page. So a story won’t appear on the front page unless [Lowery] or I has read it and feel that it’s a worthy story for the front page.”

New West has mastered the balance of reporting and blogging more than any other citizen media startup, but it still has room to grow as an online-only publication. Its in-depth piece on the “Dasen Girls” is more akin to print journalism, and a serialized novel by Aspen editor Michael Coniff harks back to earlier efforts by But plans for “blogvertorials” (paid posts by advertisers), audio podcasts and eventually video bode well for the site coming into its own as a native of the Internet.

* * *

New West Snapshot

Headquarters: Missoula, Mont.
Launched: February 2005
Technical platform: Expression engine
Traffic: 42,000 unique visitors, 500,000 page views in October 2005 (double the traffic of September 2005)
Employees: 2 full time; about 15 freelance
Initial funding: Low-to-mid six figures
New posts or stories per day: 12 to 15

Source: New West

More Quotes on New West

“What I think of as our big stylistic innovation is the much more direct and conversational style, as opposed to the formulaic approach of traditional newspaper journalism and traditional journalism in general. The conversational style — I’m telling you what’s going on without the sort of apparatus of the inverted pyramid or whatever it might be — is liberating for a lot of writers and for people who like writing in that style. … I think the stylistic innovation of blogging is consistent with having substantial reporting and fairness. You can have a point of view about something and be fair about it, too.”

— Jonathan Weber, founder and editor-in-chief, New West

“I’ve talked to Jonathan [Weber] about balance and he largely ignores me. They have some very experienced journalists on the staff. I think their writing is very good in general, and their reporting is relatively thorough. It’s a mix of blogging and reporting. Sometimes they use someone else’s reporting to make their statements. It’s creative, and they can get a lot of content out in a big way.”

— Dave Budge, conservative blogger and stockbroker

“I have to admit I don’t read New West regularly. I admire it, but I guess I’m such an old geezer that I have trouble reading sustained journalism efforts online, and I don’t have time for much else. I read a few local bloggers, and a handful of national bloggers, but not much beyond that. It’s possible that I’m a little envious, too, and I don’t like feeding my envy. I find it very hard to imagine that a strictly online publication can make it in this area, at least right now. But I’m glad somebody is trying.”

— David Crisp, editor of the weekly Billings (Mont.) Outpost

“If by ‘conservative’ you mean the conspiracy-minded, anti-abortion, keep ’em barefoot and pregnant Christian Right, for example, well then yes, I would agree that you don’t see those views expressed in New West. However, it has been my experience, and I grew up in the rural South during the Civil Rights era, that that kind of ‘conservative’ is deathly afraid of diversity and steers away from it whenever it is encountered, unless no one’s watching and then it’s a kind of pornography. … So perhaps ‘conservatives’ self-censor themselves when confronted by something free-wheeling. Perhaps that’s true of other conservatives as well.”

— Robert Hoskins, Unfiltered contributor to New West

“What I’ve found is that the West is full of writers looking for work, and they’re all people who are really devoted to the subjects they cover, whether it’s energy or the environment or cultural stuff. There’s a limited number of outlets for these writers to publish their work, and I get e-mails all the time saying, ‘Thank God you guys are here, I love your format, I love the style.’ It’s freeform and more fun for them, which is a big draw.”

— Courtney Lowery, managing editor, New West

Citizens' media gets richer

Not long ago, online news sites discovered that users wanted to become part of the media conversation. Begrudgingly, many news sites added group blogs and other devices that cracked open the palace doors and allowed readers to become writers. Turns out the barbarians at the gates were adept at slinging words. Who knew?

Now we’re seeing the next stage take hold in the citizens’ media movement. People are beginning to contribute rich media — photos, video and audio — to news sites.

“If news organizations don’t embrace this, it will embrace them, and they’ll become less and less relevant,” says Michael Tippett, founder of “Citizen journalism is not the future, it’s the present.”

For some time, readers have contributed photos of news events like Sept. 11, the space shuttle breakup or the London bombings. What’s changed is that such reader galleries are becoming central parts of several news sites rather than afterthoughts. Video and audio aren’t far behind.

In the process, thousands of amateur photographers, video-makers and podcasters have begun creating a flavor of news that’s different from traditional journalism — something more informal, spirited and community-based.

Following is a look at three online news publications that are blazing new trails in user-generated content: Bluffton Today in South Carolina, and New West in Missoula, Montana.

Bluffton (S.C.) Today

When Morris Newspapers launched the Bluffton Today site on April Fools’ Day, some people weren’t quite sure what to make of this latest experiment in citizen journalism.

Steve Yelvington, analyst for Morris Digital Works, calls it “a complete inversion of the online newspaper model,” and that starts with the primary mission of the Web site: to support the daily newsprint product, which launched three days later.

To gain a foothold in the South Carolina enclave of 12 private gated communities and 20 or so open subdivisions, Morris decided to underscore the sense that the online and print publications belonged to the community. “It’s the people’s newspaper — it’s theirs, not ours,” Yelvington says.

The news site depends chiefly on user submissions for its content. Staffers and those who register receive a free Weblog and a gallery for publishing photos. People may contribute events to a community calendar and recipes to a community cookbook, and everyone may post free ads for salable items.

“We believe the real problem plaguing American newspapers and draining the lifeblood out of circulation and readership is that people are no longer primarily focused on their own communities,” Yelvington says. “You’re living in this cable TV world of the outside observer instead of acting as participants. We’re trying to make people come out of their gates and become players. We want a participative culture to evolve.”

With a hyperlocal site like Bluffton Today, it made sense editorially and business-wise to extend the reach of the newsroom into the community by enticing residents to become part of a social network. “We can get only so far with our own staff,” he says.

Forums have been one way to entice users to participate in their communities. “But everybody has had the same experience, seeing them turn into horrendous cesspools. We were determined not to have that happen,” he says.

Instead, the Bluffton Today site gave people free blogs and the ability to post their pictures to galleries. While other citizen journalism sites like the Bakersfield Californian’s Northwest Voice and the Denver Post’s YourHub try to coax citizens into producing “something that looks like journalism,” Yelvington says, Morris’s approach here has been “more conversational and less bound by assumptions about what the end result should be.” As a result, it’s less about journalism and more about empowering community members to express themselves.

“It’s been fascinating to watch it unfold,” he says. Rather than seeing the traditional formulaic approach of news stories or news releases, readers are seeing writings by people like the local high school principal quickly evolve into “that comfortable, informal, conversational style you see in blogs.”

Reader photos came naturally and organically to the site. Digital photography has become so pervasive and easy that people want to share their work online. A lot of people post pictures to the photo galleries who aren’t comfortable writing a sentence on a blog, Yelvington says.

Initially, focus groups showed that people were wary about posting photos publicly. But once members uploaded photos of a baby, and a pet dog, and a gathering at a barbecue, other photos of the same type streamed in.

“In a couple of cases, people have shot news-style photos of a fire or a car wreck,” Yelvington says. “But really it’s more about shooting a picture of a bird in someone’s back yard.”

Pets are favorite subject of local shutterbugs. “People are passionate about their animals, and it’s amazing how thoroughly newsrooms don’t get that. A lot of local issues center on pets and the other kinds of challenges you come up against in local life, and eventually you realize that the world is a small town,” Yelvington says.

So far, only one reader video has made it onto the site, partly because the site hasn’t emphasized that capability. “Editing and encoding video takes a little more skill,” he says, “but I’m convinced it’s coming in a big way because the new cameras and camcorders all have it built in, and broadband is making it easier.”

Today the site has 2,086 registered users, about 70 percent of them women. In three months, it went from zero to being the leader across all Morris sites with 36 page views per household in the target market in July.

What’s their trick? “We have not invented a single thing,” Yelvington says. But instead of taking its cues from the newspaper industry, they’ve looked to startups like Flickr and niche, user-driven sites all over the Internet that celebrate participation. “These kind of small interactions add up.”


Michael Tippett, the 35-year-old Vancouver, B.C., entrepreneur who founded NowPublic, says the idea behind the site grew out of a simple proposition: The news isn’t a private club anymore. Soon, citizen journalism will be not the exception but the rule. Most news will come directly to readers and into newsrooms from people on the scene.

Since the site’s launch on March 22, users have embraced the idea, with thousands of registered members sending in photos, video and audio. Traffic to the site is now nearing one million visitors a month.

In early 2004 Tippett noticed something interesting happening on the site’s predecessor, When people began posting their own photos of news events, traffic to those pages began to soar. Soon, those back pages became the front page.

Tippett spotted the trend of user-generated content and decided to build a technology that married text blogs with multimedia, united around a common theme of covering and commenting upon news events. The for-profit venture obtained angel funding, hired a small development team in New York and built the site in eight months.

Changes to the site’s front page and inside pages are determined by registered members’ votes. “We wanted to democratize not only the collection of news but the editorial process and the display of news,” Tippett says. Users can view media by most popular or most recent, or they can burrow into a particular topic created by members, like the Iraq war or natural disasters.

From the start, Tippett was surprised by the unpredictable makeup of the site’s participants. “Some of our most active members are grandmothers — people you wouldn’t think are early adopters of new technologies. They care passionately about their communities, whether they’re political activists or baseball fans or weather fanatics.”

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, NowPublic became one of the central places on the Web where people posted photos of Louisiana area residents displaced by the disaster. Within 48 hours, two families were reunited online through the service.

When people think of news, they often think of politics or public policy, and NowPublic has its fair share of reports by soldiers and civilians in Iraq or residents of Gaza or anti-war activists in Crawford, Texas. These subjective, eye-opening, first-person accounts are what happens when you democratize the news. “In some ways it’s a bare knuckle brawl of news in the marketplace of ideas,” Tippett says.

Certainly, it’s news of a different order, and Tippett ardently believes the news industry needs to adjust to the fast-changing dynamics of the online world, which has disrupted the traditional one-way channel between news providers and consumers.

“The big news organizations always say, we have journalism school grads and Pulitzer Prize winners and people trained in the craft. Fair enough, but you have two people on the story, and we already may have 20 or 50. What happens when we have 2,000 people covering that story? There will come a point where they can’t compete,” he says.

Another strength of citizens’ news is the removal of the journalist as an impersonal, detached observer. “This is the real reality news,” Tippett says. “People are uploading videos and publishing blog entries, saying, ‘Let me tell you about my husband who just died.’ It’s a very powerful thing to have that emotional depth and first-hand experience, rather than the formulaic, distancing approach of the mainstream media.”

While many citizen journalism sites start as a handful of individuals covering their communities, NowPublic approaches hyperlocal news from a global perspective. With a distributed network of eyewitnesses at the ready, Tippett says, NowPublic can tap into the pent-up desire of people to engage in the news. “Anything that happens now will be covered by people on the scene with camera phones and blogs. That was not the case a year ago.”

Eventually, people in hundreds and thousands of communities will be reporting about themselves. By nature, hyperlocal news about little league games and seniors’ meetings will be incredibly boring to most people but interesting to a few. More and more people will want to come in through those side doors — news pages about towns like Fargo and Dubuque — and perhaps bypass the site’s front page altogether.

Like Yelvington, Tippett believes that citizens don’t need to learn traditional journalistic practices as they pick up the mantle of multimedia reporting. “Often, it’s just about being an accidental bystander, being in the right place at the right time. The truth reveals itself as you record it as an eyewitness.”

NowPublic members are beginning to publish video taken at political events, rallies and sports events. “The biggest beneficiary of citizen journalism may eventually be the local newspaper — small publishers who don’t have someone on staff to cover the county fair but find a volunteer to shoot footage or photos of an event for a small amount of money and local acclaim.”

NowPublic aims to serve as a conduit that lets news organizations tap into the personal media revolution by licensing software that provides a content feed. The company just signed a deal to roll out the newswire-like service to one newspaper company’s 1,000 media partners starting next month.

Once a user publishes, say, a video of a tornado or hurricane — “We get a lot of crazy, daredevil storm chasers,” Tippett says — the user can assign usage rights and embed it into the media. Media organizations that like a video clip or photo can contact the creator to negotiate reuse rights.

By enlisting thousands of citizen journalists, he says, “we are, in some sense, already the largest news organization in the world.” Not the AP or New York Times? “They’re kind of Mickey Mouse compared to NowPublic,” he adds, half joking.

New West

Visitors to New West, a 7-month-old news publication in Missoula, Montana, would be forgiven if they thought the rich array of landscape photographs gracing the site’s front page were taken by staff or free-lance photographers.

In most cases, those captivating photos were snapped by citizen journalists and chosen by one of New West’s editors.

Founding editor Jonathan Weber began work on the site a year ago and launched it in February, focusing on the social changes taking place in the fast-growing Rocky Mountain West. From the outset, he wanted to partner with the readers that the publication is trying to reach. Witness the site’s plainspoken entreaty to citizen journalists: “The idea is that you as the reader have access to much of the information that we as journalists do and there is no reason you can’t be a writer, a reporter, a pontificator or a blogger yourself.”

Weber expects multimedia to become a big part of the site’s appeal in the years ahead. Already, people have contributed hundreds of photos to New West via its account on the Flickr photo-sharing site.

“We’re seeing that part of the attraction of digital photography is the ability of people to share photos,” he says. The photos taken by amateurs are predominately landscapes and urban photography — some of them stunning — with fewer shots of people or news events so far.

“It hasn’t been a big fire season, so we haven’t had a lot of breaking news photographs. Fire is the biggest natural disaster out here,” he says.

Those who write, take photos, or create video or audio for the Web site retain their copyright to the material while giving New West broad license to use it or resell it.

Weber is no big fan of sites that position front-page stories through reader voting or by random order. “That seems to me to be the job of an editor. That’s one of the big challenges, to create context around reader contributions.”

In a month or two, the site plans to add one-minute podcasts from a local radio station. Weber expects user contributions to record speeches, public events and interesting sounds in the wild.

“The barriers to producing a good podcast are probably a little higher than just writing a blog post,” he says. “It’s not simply a matter of talking into a mike, there is a certain level of production values for it to sound professional. We’re at the beginning of the podcast wave, and over time there’ll be a big differentiation between professional-style podcasts and those that aren’t.”

Like Bluffton Today, New West plans to spin a print publication out of its online presence. Weber plans to launch a monthly print magazine next year, “a Texas Monthly for the Rocky Mountain West.”

Weber says the site is ahead of its revenue targets and is on its way to becoming a self-sustaining business by next year. He calls the editorial product “even better than I thought it would be at this stage,” thanks largely to user contributions. The site had about 15,000 unique visitors in August and several hundred thousand page views.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Weber says. “We set out to do a new kind of hybrid publication that marries some of the best of citizens media with some of the best of traditional journalism, and I think we’ve done that.”

J.D. Lasica’s new book about the personal media revolution is Darknet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted consultant Susan Mernit saying that NowPublic wanted to become the AP of grassroots media and that Mernit consults for NowPublic. In fact, NowPublic is not a client of Mernit’s firm. OJR and the writer regret the error.